Few movies have made as much of an impression on me as did Martin Scorsese’s film, Silence. Based on the novel by Japanese author, Shūsako Endō, Silence tells the story of two Portuguese priests who travel to Japan as missionaries in 1637, during the time of the Tokugawa shogunate (also called the Edo period).
History of Christianity in Japan
Christianity was first introduced to Japan by St. Francis Xavier, who arrived at the port of Kagoshima in 1549. By the end of the 16th century, it is estimated that some 300,000 people had converted to the faith. But by 1590, the Japanese ruler, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, began to feel that the growing Christian movement and trade with Europe was becoming a threat to Japanese unity and power. In response, he enacted new laws that “severely restricted ordinary citizens’ contact with Westerners and the government began to purge the country of Christian converts. In 1597, Hideyoshi ordered the execution of twenty-six Christians. All of them were mutilated and paraded for public display before being publicly crucified in Nagasaki. As Japan entered the 250 years of isolation called the Edo period (1603 to 1868), the persecution grew still harsher.”1 Thousands of men, women, and children were executed, and between 1597 and 1873, some 250,000 Japanese people were martyred for their religious beliefs. Although the faith miraculously survived in the hearts of some believers, today there are only about 509,000 Catholics in Japan – just under 0.5% of the population.
Silence is a work of historical fiction inspired by the story of Fr. Christóvão Ferreira, a Portuguese Catholic priest and Jesuit missionary who committed apostasy after being tortured during the Japanese anti-Christian purges. In Endō’s story, two young priests travel to Japan in the hopes of giving support and encouragement to the underground Christian community; they also want to find out what happened to their onetime mentor and former head of the Japanese mission, Fr. Ferreira. Although unconfirmed reports suggested that Ferreira had apostatized, the idealistic, young men refuse to believe that he could have denied his faith after resisting persecution for so many years.
Several themes emerge during the course of Endō’s novel: what happens to people who are forced to remain hidden and have interiorized their faith; the relationship between religion and culture; the theme of Judas – betrayal and shame; and the mystery of God’s seeming silence in the face of so much suffering and persecution. These issues transcend the passage of time and continue to be relevant in our lives today. For, as the Japanese-American artist Makoto Fujimura observes, “This novel about persecution of seventeenth-century Portuguese missionaries is really about facing the Ground Zero realities of any age and in any culture.”2 Silence “offers a timeless exploration of man’s struggle to maintain faith in a world committed to destroying it.”3
“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” – Tertullian
Many Christians around the world today do not dare to live their faith openly; there is no shortage of countries where participating in public Christian worship can expose believers to serious dangers. For example, on December 11, 2016, ISIS claimed responsibility for the bombing of a Coptic Church that killed 25 people;4 a few weeks ago – in January 2017 – 4 more Egyptian Christians were murdered in the space of just 10 days.5 Whether it is in Egypt, Syria, China, Nigeria or Libya, the largest numbers of people martyred today are of the Christian faith.
In his May 27, 2013 statement at the Session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Archbishop Silvano M. Tomasi said, “The serious violations of the right to freedom of religion in general and the recent continuing discrimination and systematic attacks inflicted on some Christian communities in particular, deeply concern the Holy See and many democratic Governments whose population[s] embrace various religious and cultural traditions. Credible research has reached the shocking conclusion that an estimate of more than 100,000 Christians are violently killed because of some relation to their faith every year. Other Christians and other believers are subjected to forced displacement, to the destruction of their places of worship, to rape and to the abduction of their leaders – as it recently happened in the case of Bishops Yohanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yaziji, in Aleppo (Syria).
Several of these acts have been perpetrated in parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia, the fruit of bigotry, intolerance, terrorism and some exclusionary laws. In addition, in some Western countries where historically the Christian presence has been an integral part of society, a trend emerges that tends to marginalize Christianity in public life, ignore historic and social contributions and even restrict the ability of faith communities to carry out social charitable services.”6
Even in countries where freedom of religion is protected under law (such as Canada and the United States), the Christian faith is under attack. Wherever faith and morals conflict with the prevailing secular view, it has become increasingly difficult to engage in any kind of meaningful debate. Those who disagree with mainstream cultural views – e.g. in regard to gay marriage or the LGBTQ agenda – are often dismissed out of hand as intolerant and bigoted (sometimes even by those who share the same faith). Medical practitioners who do not wish to perform abortions or administer euthanasia have been forced to fight for their rights to refuse to participate in such procedures as a matter of conscience; aspiring doctors face challenges at medical school entrance interviews where they are often questioned about their beliefs on abortion and euthanasia. It has even become difficult to practice the faith within Christian settings without one’s professional competency being called into question. When faith-based Trinity Western Law School upheld a requirement that all staff and students abstain from “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman,”7 their status as a law school was legally challenged. Clayton Ruby, a prominent civil-rights and criminal lawyer, charged that, “Approving a law school that is subject to Trinity Western’s covenant is ‘degrading and unacceptable for a Canadian government – and illegal’.”8
Simply identifying yourself as a Christian today can have an impact on the success of your career. As artist Makoto Fujimura observed, “I have noticed, as an artist with a Christian faith, that if we are explicit about your [sic] faith in the public sphere – if we even mention our commitment to live a Christian life – we are dismissed right away in the art world. I have been told by influential critics that if I was not so explicit about my Christian identity, I would have had a far more mainstream career. The worst thing you can do in promoting his or her art career is to be public about how faith motivates their art. To invoke the transgressive, the cynical, the elusive may be the only way to become a respected artist; needy, shock-filled, ironical work gets attention as ‘serious’.”9
What does this mean for Catholics today? There is no question that Jesus’ call to share the faith with others is clear and unequivocal (Mt 28:19-20). We are to be the ‘salt of the earth’ (Mt 5:13), “to effectively preserve as well as enhance what is best in the society around us … [and to] effectively undermine what is dysfunctional in the surrounding culture.”10 We are also called to be the ‘light of the world’ (Mt 5:14), a “light by which people around us come to see what is worth seeing. By the very quality and integrity of our lives, we shed light, illumining what is beautiful and revealing what is ugly. The clear implication is that, without vibrant Christians, the world is a much worse place.”11 But as Silence dramatically illustrates, Jesus never said it would be easy to follow Him. “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. … If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (Jn 15:18, 20).
“For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Lk 19:10)
2. Religion and Culture
One of the most beautiful attributes of the Church is its universality. The Gospel transcends all cultures; it’s message is for all peoples of all nations. United as one in Jesus Christ, the expression of our Church’s faith finds its roots in diverse cultures around the world. In his apostolic letter Evangelii Nuntiandi (Evangelization in the Modern World), Pope Paul VI wrote, “The Church is universal by vocation and mission, but when she puts down her roots in a variety of cultural, social, and human terrains, she takes on different external expressions and appearances in each part of the world.”12
Inoue, the Japanese interrogator in Silence, tries to convince Fr. Rodrigues that the Catholic faith is only relevant in western culture. “Father,” he says, “we are not disputing about the right and wrong of your doctrine. In Spain and Portugal and such countries it may be true. The reason we have outlawed Christianity in Japan is that, after deep and earnest consideration, we find its teaching of no value for the Japan of today.”13 The apostate missionary, Fr. Ferreira, came to share his point of view: “For twenty years I labored in the mission,” he argues. “The one thing I know is that our religion does not take root in this country. … This country is a swamp. In time you [Fr. Rodrigues] will come to see that for yourself. This country is a more terrible swamp than you can imagine. Whenever you plant a sapling in this swamp the roots begin to rot; the leaves grow yellow and wither. And we have planted the sapling of Christianity in this swamp.”14 “The Japanese till this day have never had the concept of God,” he continues, “and they never will. … The Japanese are not able to think of God completely divorced from man; the Japanese cannot think of an existence that transcends the human.”15
But everything that the Japanese martyrs died for on the slopes of Nagasaki’s Mount Unzen belie these assertions. While it is true that the people had no priests to teach them and no one to bring them the grace of the sacraments, the ‘hidden Christians’ in Japan were miraculously able to pass the faith on from generation to generation despite hundreds of years of persecution. After the expulsion (and martyrdom) of the priests, they organized themselves into groups to keep the faith alive. An older man, known as ‘Jiisama’, was chosen to play the role of the priest; he had the task of baptizing the children entrusted to him. Beneath the Jiisama was a group of men called ‘Tossama’; their job was to teach the Christians and lead them in prayer. Finally, there were helpers known as ‘Mideshi’.16 For 250 years, Christianity was passed along among the people in this way; it was not until the Meiji Restoration in the mid-19th century that they were again allowed to practice their faith openly.
The opinions expressed by Inoue and Fr. Ferreira have been rejected by Japanese Christians; they themselves give witness to the truth that the message of God transcends time and all nations. He who created each one of us, who thought of us even before we were knit together in our mothers’ wombs (Jer 1:5; Ps 139) is the God of all nations. Professor Yanaibara of the Protestant Doshisha University writes, “Obviously the belief of Ferreira and Inoue that Japan is a swamp which cannot absorb Christianity is not a reason for apostasy. It was because he lost his faith that Ferreira began to think in this way. … In that Christian era there were many Japanese who sincerely believed in Christ, and there are many who do so today. No Christian will believe that Christianity cannot take root in Japan.”17
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (Jn 21:17)
3. Mercy and Apostasy
The Japanese community strongly objected to the publication of Endō’s novel, Silence. They felt it glorified apostasy and dishonoured the memory of the many Japanese martyrs who endured to the point of death for the sake of their faith. Yet Silence is not just a story about those who apostatized; the heroic example of the martyrs and the suffering they endured as followers of Christ is never far from our eyes. But in those whose courage failed, we see the all too human fear, the confusion that comes when we listen to the voice of evil, and the inevitable fall when we fail to rely on supernatural grace. The suffering peasants seem better equipped to face death because of their unwavering faith in the joy of heaven; yet Fr. Rodrigues is tempted to think he can save them – if he would just renounce his faith. As we contemplate the struggles of the characters, we are given a glimpse into the deepest recesses of our own souls. In the failures of the apostates, we see a reflection of ourselves – of our own weaknesses and our many failures. Have we not all, at some time, denied our Lord just as Peter did? Have we not betrayed Him at times, like Judas? Are we not all, perhaps, in some way – like Kichijirō? Who among you would throw the first stone?
Youthful zeal can lead us to think that we will always have the strength to endure, no matter what may happen – that we will never disappoint our Lord. Like Peter, we may boldly proclaim, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away. Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you” (Mt 26:33,35). But when we are confronted with grim reality – and with our own (sometimes unexpected) reactions – the real battle begins. For Fr. Rodrigues, martyrdom bore no resemblance to what he had previously envisioned. The glorious Passion of Our Lord “was the image of martyrdom he had long entertained; but the martyrdom of these peasants, enacted before his very eyes – how wretched it was, miserable like the huts they lived in, like the rags in which they were clothed.”18
“I slept, but my heart was awake.” (Song of Solomon 5:2)
4. The Silence of God
Perhaps the most poignant theme raised in Endō’s novel is the agony of feeling separated from God – of feeling that God is not there, that He is silent, that perhaps He doesn’t even care. Jesus, too, experienced the searing agony of feeling abandoned by His Father as He hung dying on the Cross (Mt 27:46). Where is God in those times when our prayers seem to go unanswered, when we are unable to sense His Presence?
Just because God seems to be silent does not mean that He is absent. God can appear to withdraw from us for many different reasons: sometimes desolation comes through our own fault (because we have been lazy or slack in our spiritual life); sometimes it is because God wants to purify us so we will learn to love Him for Himself, not just for the good gifts and consolations He showers on us so abundantly. Sometimes God wants to allow us to experience our own need for Him, and at other times we experience such intense suffering that we are blinded to His Presence. But no matter the cause of the desolation, God’s silence is always meant to help us draw closer to Him. Spiritual trials, along with the grace of suffering, “bring the grace of humility, a new, deep humility that hollows out in the soul a void so immense that God fits into it. … Incredible as it may seem, it is necessary that Jesus sleep in order to refine love and purify the soul.”19
In times of desolation, we should remain peaceful, patient in our hope and conviction that Our Lord will soon offer us consolation again. St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus “was not grieved by her aridity in prayer and her naps during her thanksgivings. She observed that doctors put their patients to sleep in order to perform operations. It is likewise necessary for Jesus to place souls under a holy sedative, into complete darkness, into absolute unconsciousness, to accomplish in them divine operations. When this occurs, the soul thinks Jesus is sleeping.”20
But though Jesus may appear to sleep, His love is always awake. “His mystical sleep is not from weariness, but from love. He sleeps because He loves. He sleeps because, while He sleeps, His Heart watches, transforming souls profoundly, although this transformation is imperceptible.”21
Archbishop Martinez taught that, “When Jesus is awake, He gives more than He receives. The soul can scarcely do anything else than receive the divine infusions. When night comes, when Jesus surrenders to sleep, He moves the soul to correspond to the love it has received, to give generously, to offer its bitter tears and its secret martyrdom with heroic fortitude.”22
Silence is a story about human weakness, of God’s tireless mercy, and the moral ambiguities that cloud our world at times. Recognizing our own weak humanity, in closing let us reflect on the words of the Apostle Paul: “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.” (2 Cor 4:7-12)
- Sharon van der Sloot
1 Julie Shiroishi, “An Expanded Discussion Guide for Silence by Shūsaku Endō,” Publisher’s Note to Endō, Silence, 6.
2 Makoto Fujimura, Silence and Beauty (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2016), 23.
3 Shiroishi, “An Expanded Discussion Guide for Silence by Shūsaku Endō,” 10.
4 Declan Walsh and Nour Youssef, “ISIS Claims Responsibility for Egypt Church Bombing and Warns of More to Come,” New York Times, Dec. 13, 2016; available from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/13/world/middleeast/egypt-isis-bombing-coptic-christians.html?_r=0; Internet; accessed 6 February 2017.
5 Raymond Ibrahim, “Egypt: Four Christians Slaughtered in 10 Days,” Raymond Ibrahim [news website]; available from http://raymondibrahim.com/2017/01/18/egypt-four-christians-slaughtered-10-days/; Internet; accessed 6 February 2017.
6 “Vatican to UN: 100 thousand Christians killed for the faith each year,” Vatican Radio, May 28, 2013; available from http://en.radiovaticana.va/storico/2013/05/28/vatican_to_un_100_thousand_christians_killed_for_the_faith_each_year/en1-696232; Internet; accessed 5 February 2016. Archbishop Tomasi was the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations in Geneva until Feb. 13, 2016.
7 James Bradshaw, “B.C. government sued over approval of Trinity Western law school,” Globe and Mail (April 14, 2014); available from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/industry-news/the-law-page/lawyers-challenge-bc-approval-of-trinity-western-law-school/article17957304/; Internet; accessed 6 February 2017.
9 Fujimura, Silence and Beauty, 11.
10 Bishop Robert Barron, “5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A (February 5, 2017),” Daily Gospel Reflections.
12 Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi , 62; available from http://w2.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_p-vi_exh_19751208_evangelii-nuntiandi.html; Internet; accessed 6 February 2017.
13 Shūsaku Endō, Silence (New York: Picador Modern Classics, 2016; original edition, 1969), 116.
14 Ibid., 157-8.
15 Ibid., 160-1. Fr. John Bartunek notes that as we reflect on some of the ideas put forth in the story, it is important to remember that while the novel is historical in nature, it is only “an artistic interpretation of events that occurred long ago, many details of which are unknown to us.” In a similar way, “A movie is always a work of art. As such, it reflects and embodies much of the artist’s own experience and worldview. … Endo’s novel is itself a work of literary art, not of pure history. So in Scorsese’s film we have a work of art in film adapted from a work of art in literature. You can see that this leaves a lot of room for inserting messages and points of view that reflect the artists’ own struggles, concerns, or interpretations of moral and religious realities.” (Fr. John Bartunek, “Guidance for Assessing the Arts: The ‘Silence” Movie,’” Catholic Exchange (Jan. 2, 2017); available from http://catholicexchange.com/guidance-assessing-arts-silence-movie; Internet; accessed 7 February 2017.
16 Cf. Ibid., 28.
17 William Johnston, Translator’s Preface, Endō, Silence, xxi.
18 Archbishop Luis M. Martinez, When Jesus Sleeps: Finding Spiritual Peace Amid the Storms of Life (Manchester, New Hampshire: Sophia Institute Press, 2000), 18-19.
19 Ibid., 18-19.
20 Ibid., 16.
22 Ibid., 20-21.
*Photo Credit: Japanese Mosaic of Madonna and Child by adriatikus en:commons:talk – self-made using a Canon PowerShot A530 camera; modified in GIMP, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3551312.