“The crosses were set in place….Our brother, Paul Miki, saw himself standing now in the noblest pulpit he had ever filled. To his ‘congregation’ he began by proclaiming himself a Japanese and a Jesuit. He was dying for the Gospel he preached. He gave thanks to God for this wonderful blessings, and he ended his ‘sermon’ with these words…’I tell you plainly: there is no way to be saved except the Christian way. My religion teaches me to pardon my enemies and all who have offended me. I do gladly pardon the Emperor and all who have sought my death. I beg them to seek baptism and be Christians themselves.’
“Then, according to Japanese custom, the four executioners began to unsheathe their spears….[They] killed them one by one. One thrust of the spear, then a second blow. It was over in a very short time.”
–from the Acta Sanctorum, read at the Office of Vigils on the feast of St. Paul Miki and companions, February 6
It is of no small significance that the universal Church celebrates today the Japanese martyrs. We hear little of the brave European missionaries who brought the faith to Japan. Attention gradually focuses in on Saint Paul Miki, who begins his final apologia by proclaiming himself Japanese. For him, Christianity is not a betrayal of his culture, but its goal, its fulfillment. True, it comes with the trappings of faraway Rome, and yet what impresses me is that in the person of Paul Miki, it becomes Japanese. It is easily forgotten just how deep an impact the Catholic faith made upon Japan in their first encounter.
I’ve been asked to comment on Martin Scorsese’s most recent movie, Silence. I haven’t seen the movie, nor am I likely to soon (I wouldn’t mind seeing it at some point), but I am an enthusiast of the book. Two questions jump out as being pastorally weighty. Should Catholics see this movie/read this book? Are the movie and book anti-Catholic?
[SPOILER ALERT: plot developments will appear in what follows]
I separate these two questions, even though it would seem that they are intimately connected. As I attempt to answer them, my reason for considering them separately will hopefully be clear. Now, there are many excellent reviews of the movie and of the book, and the two I’ve found most helpful are those of Bishop Robert Barron and Amy Welborn. It’s also worth noting the effect of playing a Jesuit missionary had on actor Andrew Garfield. I encourage you to read them. In what follows, I will primarily focus on the questions that have been posed to me, with a few final words about the crucial issues of the novel.
In beginning to answer the first question, I should note that I hold the somewhat unpopular point of view that not all literature and not all art is for everyone. We all know this, in fact. This is why we withhold certain types of stories and images from children. Once we reach some arbitrary age, however, it is assumed that we can read or view more or less anything and derive profit from it. A more ancient wisdom respects that different persons are in different places, and not all of us are prepared to grapple with particularly vexing or troubling ideas. When I first read Endo’s Silence, I’m not sure that I was fully ready for it, even though I was thirty-three and a monk in solemn vows. I found the book quite disturbing because of the dilemma faced by the Portuguese missionaries, and the solution of external apostasy (perhaps at the command of Christ Himself?) was gravely disappointing to me. I wanted some clever escape from this version of the Kobayashi Maru test.
But the novel stayed with me. I felt that I was missing something in it, that my own personal maturity and faith needed developing before I could fruitfully engage with Endo. As I understand it, the movie is largely faithful to the book, and so to the first question, I would say that Catholics should feel no particular need to see the movie or read the book. If you do decide to see the film, it’s important to be aware that aspects of it may try your faith, and depending on where you’re at, you might change your mind and go to see something else. On the other hand, it’s also possible to remember that stalwarts like Bishop Barron have watched the film and/or read the book, and do not find it an insoluble challenge to the faith.
Which brings me to question two. Endo’s book is a great work of art, and as such, it “resists a univocal or one-sided interpretation,” in Bishop Barron’s words. Reading the book to determine whether it is pro- or anti-Catholic is a disservice to the book, and probably to the movie as well.
In fact, I do not believe that the book is anti-Catholic at all, and in the end, I doubt such a thing can be said of the film. While it is true that Endo’s own Catholic faith was strained at different times in his life, he did come to love the Church more and more as life went on. We should, as Bishop Barron warns us, be careful not to overlook the heroism of the Japanese martyrs in the novel and in the movie. It is easy to do. Why? I believe that a major difficulty in understanding the book is roughly equivalent to the major difficulty faced by the missionary Fr. Rodrigues: we read as Westerners expecting a European/American novel written for us, and what we are confronted with is a Japanese novel written for a Japanese audience. Fr. Rodrigues struggles with a somewhat patronizing attitude to the simple, vulnerable folk who embraced the faith with tremendous vigor. He struggles to establish any kind of genuine rapport with the natives (significantly, the one native with whom he regularly interacts is the conflicted Kichijiro). His training has not really equipped him for the culture shock he’s navigating. This makes it difficult for him to see Christ alive and glorified in the suffering of his fellow Christians. He is oddly modern in this way. It is a stretch for him to communicate (or even comprehend) the joy of martyrdom for Christ, in the way that Saint Paul Miki did with apparent ease. “When a Christian in the crowd cried out to him that he would soon be in heaven, his hands, [Saint Paul Miki’s] whole body strained upward with such joy…” Saint Paul has entered into and embodied an understanding of the Gospel that ennobles what it means to be Japanese. This nobility extends from the Emperor down to the poorest peasant. The Portuguese missionary in Silence never quite comes around to seeing their fellow Christians as genuine brothers and sisters, members of the Body of Christ. This doesn’t mean that there were not such missionaries. But it does mean that the trials faced by Fr. Rodrigues and his fallen-away fellow Jesuit Fr. Ferreira are met by men who discover themselves unprepared and out of their depth, a situation that neither anticipated or could have properly imagined.
One of Amy Welborn’s most important points is that Endo wanted to name his novel The Scent of a Sunny Place. This title would have placed more emphasis on Fr. Ferreira’s apostasy and its enfeebling consequences. He is a defeated man who puts a good face on his personal failure by…blaming the incurable strangeness of Japanese culture. Endo apparently feared that the title Silence would suggest something about the silence of God in general, which is how many do interpret it.
Here I must say something about the weakness of modern Catholic spirituality. And by modern, I mean roughly post 1350 A.D. Various factors moved the locus of communication between God and man further from the liturgy and world toward the private “cloister of the heart.” There were a few dissenting voices along the way, St. John of the Cross being the most insistent and consistent among them. God’s Logos, His Word, is that through which all things were made. Fr. Rodrigues would know this from the Final Gospel read at the end of every Mass in those days. This means that God speaks through all things, once we learn how to listen. By the early 17th century, the time of the novel’s story, prayer had become routinely interiorized to the point that well-educated priests could plausibly focus on the strained, inward search for the voice of God, especially when tossed into a profoundly alien and dangerously unfriendly culture. Yet, this notion of prayer is profoundly in tension with the attitude of the Church Fathers, including the great monastic founders of the Early Church. St. Ignatius of Loyola, who addressed a genuine need when he urged his followers to find God in all things, also warned about the real possibilities of self-delusion when we depend entirely on inner locutions and extraordinary signs (in his biography, the Devil deludes him into thinking that he is speaking with and adoring God in a beautiful display of lights, and is nearly led to commit suicide as a result). It is realistic of Endo to posit that not all Jesuits had been fully formed by their founder’s insight when so many cultural drifts were going the opposite direction.
It is for these reasons that I am personally not inclined to believe in the authenticity of the alleged voice of Christ coming from the fumie (the iconic representation of Christ, used by the Japanese persecutors to confirm apostasy). That’s not to say it’s definitely demonic, either. The monastic fathers and mothers taught that these sorts of phenomena have three sources, God, the Devil, and us. The voice of the fumie is what Fr. Rodrigues wants to hear. Perhaps a demon gave him a shove, but he was wandering in that direction already. And in my opinion, one main reason for his failure is his inability to see Christ in the Japanese whom he was sent to serve.
Did he go to serve them? Or did he go to prove a point about Fr. Ferreira? This is another important question that Endo implies.
I might sound a bit hard on these two Jesuits. I don’t see them as weak as much as caught up in a situation for which they are unprepared. The missionaries of the New World enjoyed the consolations (and, to be sure, the complications) of an accompanying imperial power. The Japanese missionaries are utterly isolated, and it is not surprising that they struggle to read the signs of God’s Word in such unfamiliar surroundings.
There is one detail from the movie which has come to my attention. Bishop Barron points it out: that when Fr. Rodrigues’s body is shown in his coffin, he is clasping a crucifix. The implication is that he remained inwardly, privately a Christian. As the bishop goes on to point out, “that’s just the kind of Christianity the regnant culture likes: utterly privatized, hidden away, harmless.” I suggested above that in the crucible of a no-win situation, Fr. Rodrigues gave in to what he wanted to hear. One hopes that Martin Scorsese hasn’t done the same in his own reading of Silence.