saint magdalene of nagasaki

The most striking element in the biography of Saint Magdalene, a Japanese tertiary of the Order of Saint Augustine, is certainly her martyrdom.

Magdalene was born and grew up during a period of open and undisguised hostility toward religion. Persecution was manifest to all. The types of “imaginative and original” torture used by the opponents of the faith show very clearly the hatred in the hearts of those who ruled.Saint Magdalene of Nagasaki by Adriano Ambrosioni.

Her parents, who are described by historians as “most virtuous and noble Christians,” were martyred about the year 1620, when their daughter was in her early adolescence. The first Augustinians who arrived in Japan in 1623 were members of the Augustinian Order’s observant movement: Fathers Francis of Jesus and Vincent of Saint Anthony. As an active and enthusiastic Christian, Magdalene made contact with them, and though communication was difficult, she worked with them as an interpreter and later as a catechist. From the start she found herself well disposed to Augustinian spirituality, characterized as it is by the search for God, interiority, and the living of faith in communion with others.

In their work of evangelization the missionaries emphasized the promotion of religious associations and gave special attention to the Augustinian Third Order. However, it was quite difficult for Christians to live their faith publicly. To approach the missionaries for doctrinal and religious nourishment was risky for themselves as well as for the friars. Following the example of many other Christians in similar difficulties, Magdalene took refuge in the hills and dedicated herself to baptizing converts and sustaining those who had grown weak in their faith.

The persecution made necessary all sorts of subterfuge, but Magdalene did not lose heart. She knew what she wanted and did not hold back in spite of the dangers: she asked to be accepted formally into the Augustinian Order. Her mind and heart were already Augustinian; in 1625, Father Francis admitted her into the Third Order of Saint Augustine.

In 1632 the Augustinian friars, who had been her spiritual counselors, were burned alive. This holocaust was recognized and solemnly proclaimed by Pope Pius IX in 1876. Magdalene kept alive the memory of these friars, and with it grew her own desire for martyrdom. Now her counselors in the struggle were two other Augustinians, Fathers Melchior of Saint Augustine and Martin of Saint Nicholas, who continued to nourish her spirit on the ideals and practices of Augustinian spirituality. When these two friars were also put to death, she turned to Father Jordan of Saint Stephen, a Dominican, whose own profession was based on the Rule of Saint Augustine.

Magdalene’s concern for her vocation and her wish to live more completely the life of the evangelical counsels led to her decision to enter a novitiate with a community of Dominican sisters. But before she could make her profession, religious persecution broke out once again. It was no time for the fainthearted. A strong faith burned in her soul and the gospel allowed for no half measures.

The brave spirit and conviction of this Augustinian tertiary moved her to go voluntarily to the jailers and declare herself a follower of Jesus Christ. There were threats, tortures, promises of exposure to public scorn, taunts, ridicule—all the usual procedures in such cases. But Magdalene had a clear knowledge of her faith and of the obligations which she had freely taken on. Attired in her Augustinian habit, she reached the end of her martyrdom on 16 October 1634, after thirteen days of torture, suspended upside down in a pit of offal. After death her body was burned and her ashes scattered in the bay of Nagasaki.

Three hundred and forty-seven years later, on 18 February 1981, in the city of Manila, Pope John Paul II honored Magdalene with the title of Blessed. Then, on 18 October 1987, World Mission Day, she was solemnly canonized in Rome by the same Holy Father. Proclaimed with Saint Magdalene was a large group of martyrs from the Land of the Rising Sun, of various nationalities and states of life and of different religious orders.

The life of Magdalene, martyr of Japan, honored for the firmness and courage of her faith, is a song in praise of heroism. To live the gospel as she did with fervent resolve, in a clear, complete, and radical way, without failing or yielding—this is the heritage of great souls.

The memory of Saint Magdalene of Nagasaki is celebrated by the Augustinian Family on 20 October.