His story has all the makings of a Hollywood thriller: a devoted husband and father of two, living a humble and quiet existence, suddenly finds his life threatened by a false accusation of murder. He flees the authorities and seeks refuge on a ship bound for foreign shores; but upon arrival, he finds not hospitality but vicious persecution.
Thus begins the story of Lorenzo Ruiz, the first canonized Philippine saint, whose feast we celebrate today. He was of mixed Malay-Chinese ancestry, a mestizong intsik, born to a devout Catholic family in Manila. Educated by the Dominicans since youth, he became a clerk at the Dominican church at Binondo. While evading the murder charge, Lorenzo found asylum on a ship with missionaries bound for Japan. All these Friars Preacher had been on the faculty at Santo Tomas College, the precursor of the modern Pontifical University of the same name: Antonio Gonzalez, Guillermo Courtet, Miguel de Aozaraza, Giovanni Yago. Also present were Japanese priest Vicente Shiwozuka de la Cruz and layman Lazaro of Kyoto. Leaving his family to assist in the evangelization of Japan, Lorenzo and his companions departed Manila on 10 June 1636.
Lorenzo and his companions consciously walked into the storm. The twenty-six martyrs of Japan had been crucified 40 years earlier in Nagasaki, in 1597, and so the cruelties of the Tokugawa shogunate, whose affinity with Diocletian can hardly be disputed, were known to those who in the 17th century endeavored to preach Christ where Paolo Miki and company shed their blood.
In September 1637, Lorenzo and the friars were discovered and arrested. The missionaries were brought to the Nagasaki court and ordered to confess or suffer the gruesome death by tsurushi, in which a person was bound and hung upside down on a scaffold over a pit, to die by slow, painful suffocation; only one arm remained free so that one could signal a readiness to recant. Despite knowing that this fate awaited him, Lorenzo refused to relinquish the precious gift of the faith.
Prior to the tsushuri, the missionaries were subjected to a particularly severe form of water torture. Forced to lie down, they were force-fed huge quantities of water; then the torturers would place wooden boards on their body, and by jumping violently onto the boards, forced the expulsion of water through their victims’ ears, noses, and mouths. Bamboo needles were then thrust under the fingernails of each. In the midst of such brutality, Antonio Gonzales gloriously expired, while Fr. Shiwozuka de la Cruz and Lazaro of Kyoto briefly submitted to Japanese demands. But it was through the testimony of the others, especially Lorenzo, that the two recanters rediscovered the fortitude of the Holy Spirit and assumed once more their trials.
Yet even Lorenzo considered breaking. He seriously considered recanting, but in the end proved even more resolute than de la Cruz and Larazo.
There are many variants on the last known words of Lorenzo as he and Lazaro were readied for the tsurushi. In Tagalog, we commonly find:
Kahit maging sanlibo man
Ang buhay n’yaring katawan
Pawa kong ipapapatay,
Kung inyong pagpipilitang
Si Kristo’y aking talikdan
Even if this body were to have thousands of lives, I would let them all be killed, if you all insist that I should turn my back on Christ.
This is, of course, a stylized retrospective rendering of the original eyewitness report sent from Nagasaki to Manila (written in Latin, in the standard practice of those times), though due to the established presence of Spanish commerce in Nagasaki, Spanish was likely understood by certain locals in the area. While the educated friars may have known some Japanese, the layman Ruiz more than likely spoke Spanish to the Japanese magistrates through a court interpreter. According to that earliest missionary report, Lorenzo Ruiz’s last words were:
Ego Catholicus sum, et animo prompto paratoque pro Deo mortem obibo. Si mille vitas haberem, cunctas ei offerem.
I am Catholic, and with a prompt and ready heart, I will go to death for God. Had I a thousand lives, I would offer them all to him.
Whatever his exact words and whatever language he used, his message was nevertheless clear, and consequently, he and Lazaro were bound and hung upside down. The two slowly choked and bled to death from the scaffold, until on the third day, they joined Antonio Gonzales in the sanctuary of heaven. The remaining priests, Courtet, de Aozaraza, and Yago, were spared the tsushuri and quickly beheaded, earning the same palm of victory won by St. Paul.
When news of their deaths reached Manila the following December, there was no outbreak of mourning; rather, the bells of the Dominican churches in Manila at Binondo and Intramuros (Santo Domingo) were rung; at Santo Domingo, a solemn Te Deum was sung. When John Paul II beatified Lorenzo Ruiz at Luneta Park in 1981, the Te Deum was once more sung in thanksgiving for the beatification. In a beautiful commentary on this hymn, the now-sainted Pope remarked in his homily:
And because of the nearness of Luneta Park to old Manila intramuros, the hymn of glory to God which has just been sung by numberless voices is an echo of the Te Deum sung in the Church of Santo Domingo on the evening of December 27, 1637, when the news arrived of the martyrdom at Nagasaki of a group of six Christians… The song of these designated martyrs… was followed in Manila, then as now, by the song of thanksgiving for the martyrs nοw “consummated” and “glorified”. Te martyrum candidatus laudat exercitus: they belonged indeed to a white-robed throng, whose members included those of the white legion of the Order of Preachers.
Ego Catholicus sum… “I am Catholic”. By his martyrdom, Lorenzo Ruiz demonstrated the authentic meaning of being Catholic– a radical conformity to Christ, a willingness to carry one’s cross for him, even to the point of death. Martyrs like Lorenzo and his companions are the continual criticism of those who do not live an authentically Christian life, who make up all sorts of excuses for their lukewarm faith, and who give the world a primacy that belongs to Christ. For us who venerate these saints, every Te Deum in thanksgiving for the martyrs is at the same time a thanksgiving for the ability to openly worship and live as Catholics. We should therefore appreciate the liberty which the martyrs were denied and happily bear our little crosses.