In Naples in 1633 there lived Fr. Marcello Mastrilli, S.J. He had taken the vow to ask to be assigned to the Japan Mission, then the most difficult; for at that time the Buddhist persecution was most cruel against the Catholic religion and the new form of martyrdom introduced was most excruciating. It was known as the “Pit” for the martyrs were kept hung, head downwards over a volcanic pit from which sulphurous gases and waters welled up. At times the martyrdom was protracted for several days before the victim expired.
The torture was so horrible that in 1633 the Provincial of the Japan Mission Fr. Ferrara after five days of agony over the “Pit” apostatized. But hundreds of others, priests and laymen, Europeans and Japanese in holy emulation reached the martyr’s crown through the terrible “Pit.”
When the news of the unfortunate Ferrara’s apostasy reached Europe, many Jesuits vowed themselves to the Japan Mission to replace their martyred brethren and to atone for the apostate. Marcello Mastrilli was one of them.
Fr. Ferrara was subsequently reconverted and atoned for his fall by dying a martyr’s death over the “Pit” in 1652.
While waiting for the passage to Japan, Mastrilli organized on a grand scale the feast of the Immaculate Conception in the College of Naples, putting up for the occasion an elaborate structure that drew the admiration of the whole town. The feast was a stupendous success that helped so much to bring home to the faithful the great privilege of Our Lady, which then was not yet defined as a dogma of the faith.
The feast over, Fr. Mastrilli was supervising the removal of the temporary structure when a heavy hammer slipped from the hands of a worker and fell with deadly precision on Fr. Mastrilli’s head. The injury caused thereby was severe, and Fr. Mastrilli was on the verge of death.
Just when the crisis was on, St. Francis Xavier appeared to Fr. Mastrilli and bidding him renew the vow to go to Japan, said to him:
“All those who implore my help daily for nine consecutive days, from the fourth to the twelfth of March inclusive and worthily receive the Sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion on one of the nine days will experience my protection and may hope with entire assurance to obtain from God any Grace they ask that is for the good of their souls and the glory of God.”
The vision vanished and Fr. Mastrilli arose entirely cured. Faithful to his vow, he led a band of thirty-three Jesuits to Japan. He had hardly landed there when he was seized and condemned to the “Pit” where he suffered from 5 to 17 October and died a glorious martyr.
But before leaving for Japan, Fr. Mastrilli widely published the news of his cure and the promises of Saint Francis Xavier. The Saint himself kept his words and very many experienced his protection after making this “Novena of Grace”. Thus the devotion spread far and wide and it has been instrumental in obtaining many favours, spiritual and temporal.
Though St. Francis Xavier mentioned the time when the Novena should be made, yet its efficacy is not restricted to those days, but it may be made any time, and forms a fitting preparation for the feast of the saint, 24 November to 2 December, with his feast being on 3 December.