by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
The Martin Scorsese film “Silence,” based on the novel written by Shusaku Endo — a Japanese Catholic — poses challenging questions for Christians. Spoiler alert! If you have not seen the film but intend to do so, you may wish to delay reading this article.
St. Francis Xavier brought Christianity to Japan in 1549. At the time, the Japanese ruling dynasty welcomed Westerners, including Christian missionaries. The efforts of Catholic missionaries were remarkably fruitful. By 1590, in less than 50 years, there were 300,000 Japanese Catholics.
Japanese rulers reevaluated their relationship with European nations and perceived Christianity as a threat to Japanese culture. By the mid-1590s, Japanese authorities had embarked on a fierce persecution of Christians. “Silence” is a work of historical fiction set during the time of intense persecution.
The movie chronicles the experiences of two young Jesuit priests who enter Japan during the height of the persecution to minister to the underground Catholic Church and to search for another Jesuit who was their mentor and has disappeared. “Silence” gives an inspiring portrayal of many faithful lay Catholics who suffered and died rather than renounce their belief in Jesus.
The climax of the movie is the dilemma faced by one of the young missionaries — either to deny his faith or witness the torture and execution of more members of his flock. His former mentor has already committed apostasy and now urges his former student to do the same. Eventually, he succumbs, renouncing his faith by stepping on an image of Jesus.
Apostasy is not something unique to the Japanese persecution. Nor was 16th-century Japan the first time that Christians were pressured to renounce their faith by threatening to torture and kill loved ones.
We find the exact same occurrences during the persecution of the early Christians. In fact, one of the great controversies within the early church was whether those who had denied their faith could be readmitted to the church. The church resolved this debate on the side of mercy. After all, the apostles themselves abandoned Jesus during his passion.
What was most disturbing in “Silence” was the depiction of a mystical apparition in which Jesus himself encouraged the beleaguered missionary to give the appearance that he has renounced his faith in order to save lives.
This stands in stark contrast to Our Lord’s own instruction to his disciples in the beatitudes where he declared: “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.”
“Silence” is not a feel-good movie that inspires the audience with the heroism of its central characters. However, it does provide some provocative material for prayer and reflection. At the beginning of the film, the young Jesuit missionaries appear supremely confident of their ability to remain firm in the faith. Relying on our own strength and will power is always a recipe for disaster.
This Monday (Feb. 6), the church celebrates the feast of St. Paul Miki and his companions. Paul Miki was a native Japanese Christian catechist who was preparing for priestly ordination when he and 25 other Japanese Catholic leaders were arrested in 1596. They were brutally tortured, physically mutilated and, in the dead of winter, paraded across Japan to serve as an example of what would happen to anyone who dared to remain a Christian. Eventually, they were crucified in a wheat field near Nagasaki.
The following is an account given by an eyewitness of their martyrdom: “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 blessing and he ended his sermon with these words: ‘As I come to this supreme moment of my life, I am sure none of you would suppose I want to deceive you. And so 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 sought my death. I beg them to seek baptism and be Christians themselves.’ Then he looked at his comrades and began to encourage them in their final struggle. Joy glowed in all their faces.”
Japanese Christians took soil from beneath the crosses of the martyrs and venerated the dirt soaked with their blood as relics of their heroism. The persecution in Japan continued for more than 200 years. In the late 1800s, Japan again opened up to Christian missionaries.
A few priests from France came to Nagasaki and established a mission chapel. Some local Japanese men approached them and asked three questions: 1) Did they venerate Mary as the mother of God?; 2) Did they choose not to marry?; 3) Did they follow the pope in Rome? When the French priests responded affirmatively to all three questions, the Japanese told them that they had been waiting for them. Their ancestors had assured them that the Christian missionaries would return.
How strong are we in standing up for our faith even in a culture where we are not persecuted but often ridiculed or socially penalized for adhering to our Catholic faith? Do we give the appearance of going along with the secular culture rather than endure criticism for our beliefs and moral convictions?
It is at times of adversity that we have the opportunity to offer a clear witness of the power of Christ alive within us. How do we handle suffering in our own lives? Do we give into discouragement and despair? Do we believe in the power of redemptive suffering — namely, that offering our suffering as a prayer for others is the most potent form of intercessory prayer?
What do our daily choices reveal about the allegiance of our hearts? Are we motivated by the rewards of material comfort and worldly acclaim? Or is following Jesus, no matter the cost, our first priority?
Let us seek the intercession of St. Paul Miki and his companion martyrs to give us the courage to follow Jesus amid the challenges and adversity of our lives. St. Paul Miki, pray for us!