Joaquim Magalhães de Castro
Cristóvão Ferreira was born around 1580 in Zibreira, Torres Vedras, and entered the Society of Jesus at the end of 1596. After novitiate, he took his first vows in December 1598, in Coimbra, where he studied in the next two years. In April 4, 1600, he embarked towards India aboard the ship São Valentim, reaching Goa some months later.
Goa was only the first step on the hard drive to the Far East and, after recovering from the rigors of the journey, Ferreira and several other companions who were destined for China and Japan set off again, this time bound for Macau. Once he arrived, he resumed his studies at the College of the Mother of God. In 1608 he is ordained a priest and, finally, on May 16, 1609, newly ordained Father Ferreira leaves Macau towards Japan.
The life of Cristóvão Ferreira in Japan dramatically illustrates the extreme harshness of the environment in the final decades of the Portuguese presence in that archipelago. Until 1612 Ferreira lived in a seminary, in the city of Arima, where he became acquainted with the language and Japanese culture, and there he possibly also gave Latin classes. That same year, fleeing a huge persecution that rippled from day to day, the seminary had to be evacuated and Ferreira was sent to Kyoto, apparently to replace Carlo Spinola, who meanwhile had been appointed treasurer of the mission. Following the proclamation of the Edict of 1614, ordering the expulsion of all missionaries from Japanese soil, Ferreira decided to stay illegally there, and, in 1617 (the year he pronounces his four solemn vows), he was appointed secretary of the provincial Mateus de Couros. During these years, the experienced Mateus de Couros was indeed very physically debilitated, forcing Cristóvão Ferreira to further efforts in the performance of its duties. Everything is further complicated with the capture of the treasurer, Spinola, who was martyred some years later. Until 1621, Ferreira performs all his functions with zeal and in almost unimaginable conditions. That same year, with the nomination of a new Provincial (Francisco Pacheco), Ferreira was freed from his responsibilities. But he wouldn’t last longer.
In 1625, Pacheco was captured – and months later martyred – and the increasingly exhausted Mateus de Couros became again in charge of the Province. Once again he summons Ferreira as his secretary. From this point the events precipitate rapidly. Exhausted, Mateus de Couros dies in 1632, leaving the responsability of the mission to Sebastião Vieira, the oldest of the professed priests. However, that same year Vieira is caught, leaving Ferreira as Vice-Provincial. The survival of the missionaries was almost impossible and the very next year is Cristóvão Ferreira’s turn to be captured by the Japanese authorities.
On 18 October 1633, at 53 years of age and 37 years as a Jesuit – over twenty of which were spent in Japan – Cristóvão Ferreira finally faced the terrible “ordeal of the well.” After being tortured for six hours, he couldn’t handle it anymore. News of his apostasy – renunciation of the Christian faith – caused a huge commotion in Europe and particularly within the Society of Jesus. The shock of that news was further increased by the fact that the first reports that reached the West have given him as yet another of the many martyrs who by then were already exalted throughout Europe. Those who had known him personaly found it hard to accept the idea that the prestigious Ferreira could have, despite the extreme trials that had been submitted, denied the Christian faith. Greater disturbance was also generated when it began to become clear that the apostate began collaborating with the Japanese authorities.
Cristóvão Ferreira, who would adopt the Buddhist name Sawano Chuan – after becoming a true connoisseur of Japanese reality that has come to the world through his writings – died in 1652 in Nagasaki, where there is not a single reference to his person.
The Jesuit Diego Yukki considers that Ferreira made a retraction since “he had been twenty years at the service of his persecutors.”
The film “Asian Eyes” (1996), by the Portuguese director José Mário Grilo, addresses precisely the life of Cristóvão Ferreira. Also, the well known American director Martin Scorcese ran a film based on the novel “Silence,” from the Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo, which depicted the journey of two Jesuits in Japan, precisely in search of the whereabouts of Cristóvão Ferreira. This motion picture will have its world premiere later this year.