Silence, Faith and Courage

“Like my Master, I shall die upon the cross. Like him, a lance will pierce my heart so that my blood and my love can flow out upon the land and sanctify it to his name.”

Saint Paul Miki, statement before his martyrdom in 1597 in Japan


Bishop Barron has a good hard look at  Martin Scorsese’s movie Silence, based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Shūsaku Endo about two Jesuit missionaries who apostatized in Seventeenth century Japan:

The next day, in the presence of Christians being horrifically tortured, hung upside down inside a pit filled with excrement, he is given the opportunity, once more, to step on a depiction of the face of Christ. At the height of his anguish, resisting from the depth of his heart, Rodrigues hears what he takes to be the voice of Jesus himself, finally breaking the divine silence, telling him to trample on the image. When he does so, a cock crows in the distance. In the wake of his apostasy, he follows in the footsteps of Ferreira, becoming a ward of the state, a well-fed, well-provided for philosopher, regularly called upon to step on a Christian image and formally renounce his Christian faith. He takes a Japanese name and a Japanese wife and lives out many long years in Japan before his death at the age of 64 and his burial in a Buddhist ceremony.

What in the world do we make of this strange and disturbing story? Like any great film or novel, Silence obviously resists a univocal or one-sided interpretation. In fact, almost all of the commentaries that I have read, especially from religious people, emphasize how Silence beautifully brings forward the complex, layered, ambiguous nature of faith. Fully acknowledging the profound psychological and spiritual truth of that claim, I wonder whether I might add a somewhat dissenting voice to the conversation? I would like to propose a comparison, altogether warranted by the instincts of a one-time soldier named Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Jesuit order to which all the Silence missionaries belonged. Suppose a small team of highly-trained American special ops was smuggled behind enemy lines for a dangerous mission. Suppose furthermore that they were aided by loyal civilians on the ground, who were eventually captured and proved willing to die rather than betray the mission. Suppose finally that the troops themselves were eventually detained and, under torture, renounced their loyalty to the United States, joined their opponents and lived comfortable lives under the aegis of their former enemies. Would anyone be eager to celebrate the layered complexity and rich ambiguity of their patriotism? Wouldn’t we see them rather straightforwardly as cowards and traitors? 

My worry is that all of the stress on complexity and multivalence and ambiguity is in service of the cultural elite today, which is not that different from the Japanese cultural elite depicted in the film. What I mean is that the secular establishment always prefers Christians who are vacillating, unsure, divided, and altogether eager to privatize their religion. And it is all too willing to dismiss passionately religious people as dangerous, violent, and let’s face it, not that bright. Revisit Ferreira’s speech to Rodrigues about the supposedly simplistic Christianity of the Japanese laity if you doubt me on this score. I wonder whether Shusaku Endo (and perhaps Scorsese) was actually inviting us to look away from the priests and toward that wonderful group of courageous, pious, dedicated, long-suffering lay people who kept the Christian faith alive under the most inhospitable conditions imaginable and who, at the decisive moment, witnessed to Christ with their lives. Whereas the specially trained Ferreira and Rodrigues became paid lackeys of a tyrannical government, those simple folk remained a thorn in the side of the tyranny. 

I know, I know, Scorsese shows the corpse of Rodrigues inside his coffin clutching a small crucifix, which proves, I suppose, that the priest remained in some sense Christian. But again, that’s just the kind of Christianity the regnant culture likes: utterly privatized, hidden away, harmless.  So okay, perhaps a half-cheer for Rodrigues, but a full-throated three cheers for the martyrs, crucified by the seaside.

Go here to read the rest.  Bravo Bishop!  My heart goes out to Christians who have turned their back on Christ in the face of gruesome persecution.  Weakness in the face of pain and death is part of the human condition, and it takes considerable courage to overcome it.  However, Christians have the words of our Savior to remind us that it is absolutely necessary:

But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.

Matthew 10:33

As our first Pope indicates, even this terrible sin may be washed away with faith and courage.  Faith and courage were the hallmarks of Japanese Christians who kept their faith in secret and in silence, in the face of hideous persecution, for more than two centuries until their co-religionists from the West opened Japan to the rest of the globe.  It is they who should not be remembered, and not two Jesuits who gave way to human weakness and betrayed the God who died for them.

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  1. This movie feeds right into the narrative of the liberal progressive left: we must give up any public expression of our Faith in order to save lives. Jesus however said in Luke chapter 14:
    25 Now great multitudes accompanied him; and he turned and said to them, 26 “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, 30 saying, ‘This man began to build, and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends an embassy and asks terms of peace. 33 So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.
    I hate it that liberals do this – twist mercy into a caricature that demands renunciation of the Lord. I see evil tyrants torturing Christians and am told that I can stop it if I renounce the Faith, and if I don’t, then I am responsible for the death of those being tortured. What a lie. That never stops the torture in the long run. And I am not the one doing the killing. The evil tyrants are.
    What did Saints like Ignatius of Antioch do? His Epistle to the Romans tells us. We all know the story. But it is heroism like his that liberalism wants to trample on and make seem unmerciful. I hate liberalism. It’s the ISM – I, Self and Me. “I won’t feel bad or guilty if I just renounce Christ to save those being tortured. I have to stop feeling badly. I have to stop my pain at seeing them tortured. I – I – I.”
    Com’on, folks. See the liberal lie in that film! It ain’t mercy. It’s selfishness.

  2. The good news!

    A platform for apologetic discussion.

    I would use Saint Maximilian Kolbe’s venture into Japan and subsequent Garden of the Immaculate aka Mugenzai no Sono.
    The providential site of this convent located on the back side of Mt. Hikosan in Nagasaki became a make shift hospital in 1945 since it was protected from the blast of the bomb.

    More importantly, the discernment of listening and hearing our Lord comes to mind. Kolbe faced horrific scenarios yet his conversation within himself and Christ lead to self sacrifice, not self preservation. Rodrigues listened. Who was speaking is not clear.

  3. Stories of the saints inspire, uplift, challenge. I’ve already got too much in common with apostates, and zero time for dwelling on their failures. Upstate NY happens to be soaked in the blood of martyrs—just going for a walk outdoors is a humbling reminder of Catholic sacrifice.

    As an aside, I beg your prayers tonight for my mother, currently being driven 45 miles to the ER on a bad snowy night. Thank you and bless you all.

  4. Divorced and remarried 5 times and he makes a movie that suggests maybe faithless action can be the right thing to do.
    My Long Island aunt used to call him “Marty”. Sometimes New Yorkers seems to lean to an almost small town affinity for each other. Maybe that’s why the Cardinal of New York will speak at New Yorker Trumps inauguration.

  5. Excellent review by Bishop Barron. ‘Silence’ is a movie the devil and those who follow him would appreciate.

    And let us say a prayer for Suz’s mother and those who care for her.

  6. Thank you so much for your prayers; God provided immediate relief by clearing both the weather and the emergency room, and my mother is home again, safe and well. God bless you all. Some pure souls around this blog for certain 🙂

  7. One day, a famous knot maker was presented before Alexander the Great, with a knot that no one could untie. It was fiendishly complex . And none of the strongmen in the Court could untie it. Alexander walked up to it, and slashed it open with one stroke of his sword !
    Faith is like the sword. It cuts through all of the politically correct and corrupt regulations that the Fiend and his cohorts can devise. And best of all, Faith is free ! It is freely given by God.
    Ask and you shall receive.
    Timothy R.

  8. Wonderful news, Suz.

    I pray that our faith will never be tested like the Japanese martyrs or the recent martyrs in Africa, and the Near and Middle Easts. I wonder how I would hold up.

    Regarding the movie, Isn’t the story of the Jesuits missionaries who travelled so far from Europe and their converts who kept the faith alive underground for several centuries more interesting than the story of an apostate? Every time I visit my son in San Francisco I pass by pagoda shaped St. Francis Xavier Church on the edge of Japan town. Inside the Holy Family is depicted in bronze looking like statues in an Asian shrine.

  9. This silence is called mental reserve and it was rejected by Saint Thomas More. The silence would have been real if those involved refused to accept the honorarium and feasting bestowed upon them. Stepping on a picture of the face of Christ is blasphemy while stepping on a picture of any sovereign person is a mark of the devil.

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