Feast Day: September 28th
Last week we went with Pope St. John Paul II to Seoul, South Korea for the first canonization outside of Rome of St. Andrew Kim Taegŏn, Paul Chŏng Hasang, and their companions. This week, we have the happy occasion to tag along with him on a different trip, this time the year is 1981, and the great Pope is heading to Manila, Philippines, for the first beatification outside of Rome. Despite the attempts of the royal family of the Philippines, who had only recently stepped back from the martial law they had been holding over the country (and continued human rights violations that the Pope forthrightly confronted), JPII was there primarily to renew the Church on that archipelago.
He placed before each and every Christian there the story of Lorenzo Ruiz. To the largest gathering of Catholics in Asian history – 1 million men, women, and children (it would be surpassed in 1995 when he returned to Manila for World Youth Day, with 5 million in attendance!) – John Paul spoke to the fathers and mothers and sons and daughters attending that Mass and called them to give their life entirely to Christ. Lorenzo did this as he grew up with a Chinese father and Tagala mother, who taught him his Catholic faith. He did it as a server and secretary at his parish, and as he learned from and assisted the Dominican friars there. He did it in marrying Rosario and together raising their three children.
And Lorenzo did it when in 1636 he was falsely charged with murder and had to flee his family and country. We have few details of that hurried, and certainly horrible, departure – he left no recorded words to his friends or loved-ones – but Lorenzo chose Christ in the midst of it. He made his way onto a ship and immediately sought out the solace of his faith, joining a group of Dominican Friars who were on their way to Japan. Japan at the time was engulfed in places in persecution of the faith, but this group was set to land in the territory of a peaceful shogun.
This would not be the future offered to Lorenzo. The ship inadvertently docked at Okinawa in the middle of a hellish anticatholic persecution. The poor, exiled, now imprisoned father endured a year of torture without renouncing his faith, and ended up dying an excruciating death near Nagasaki, preceded by, and flanked by ordained, consecrated, and lay Catholics, but he – a layman and father – would head the list of their names because of his courageous fidelity. “Had I many thousands of lives I would offer them all for him. Never shall I apostatize. You may kill me if that is what you want. To die for God—such is my will.”
Jesus’ words as He approached His own passion are clear: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35) The fact is that most of us will not be given the grace of martyrdom. Most of us will not be falsely accused of murder or inadvertently dropped into a horrific persecution. But Lorenzo never thought he would see those trials either! We, like him, must choose that no matter the future – and the death – that awaits us, we will lose our life for the sake of the Gospel. There is no way to heaven except the way of Christ: union with His death, and resurrection. Will we be known as those who died for Him?
– Fr. Rankin has not yet had the occasion to write about one of his favorite saints, St. Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish Franciscan friar who gave his life in the place of the layman and father, Franciszek Gajowniczek, in the death block at Auschwitz. Fr. Kolbe, a decade before the concentration camp, but exactly 300 years after Lorenzo was martyred, was not in Poland, but Japan. Standing on a hillside outside of Nagasaki, where Lorenzo’s blood had watered the first seeds of the faith, and where Kolbe would build a monastery and printing-press to bring the Gospel back to Japan. That monastery still stands as a testament to both saints, astonishingly surviving the atomic blast that struck the Catholic city.