I’ll be honest. Most of the time I want to be a saint, and other times I think it’s too hard and want to forget the hardships of sanctity. But the dilemma faced by the missionaries in Silence is a temptation I pray literally to be delivered from.
How many times in our noisy modern world do I fail to hear God and fall into distraction, despair, and even envy for those who don’t know the Gospel of life and love? Silence strips the world of these excuses by bringing us to author Endo Shusaku’s 17th century Japan, where the same dilemmas face the Japanese Christians and missionaries in the form of official religious persecution.
“The Silence is so heavy it is horrible” writes the protagonist, Fr Rodrigues, is a series of missives to his Superior back in Portugal. The gentle insisting from Japanese officials that stepping on an image of Christ, as a simple formality would set the persecuted free from excruciating suffering. The saintly and courageous resistance of those who are destined to suffer as a result is reminiscent of Thomas More who could not make a simple oath to king henry and too martyred for that omission.
Yet what do we make of those who cave into formal apostasy, against the backdrop of great duress? Condemnation? Pity? Celebration? Debates over this question are almost egged on by this story as we wrestle with the complex layers of formal apostasy. So far from a Catholic perspective, my thinking is this:
If a sacrament is an outward sign of God’s grace, and if outward signs have important meaning, what do we make of outward signs of betrayal? At the end of the day it is sin, the acts or omissions of our fallen nature and we cannot be surprised about it but appropriately disappointed (like my reaction to the numerous impatient audience member who walked out early). And what are we to make of suffering here on Earth and its value in enduring it? Do we not honour the heroic sufferings of the tortured martyrs? What responsibility do we hold to liberate others that are being held hostage and tortured pending our own decision to scandal?
Kichijiro, a serial regretful apostate, is the everyman parallel to the Common Man of A Man for All Seasons. Yet he persisted in his quest for Mercy, never hesitating to ask for Absolution after receiving his first hit of Mercy. Is there no saintly value in the man who falls and has the courage to keep getting up yet stumbling again?
The officials set their targets for the priest because they know the discouragement that a faith leader can bring to a whole community of followers, and what a prize it is to “twist his soul” from the Truth. Nonetheless we must remind ourselves to look up beyond the all-too-common stories of failures and look at the heroic sacrifices of the saints who transcended their natural limitations to more perfectly image Christ.
I’m thankful for the stream of thoughtful Catholic movies coming from Hollywood. Last year I said the most important movie to watch was Spotlight. This year in the same vein, I say Silence is the most important movie for a thinking Catholic to watch but also to debate and discuss it vigorously. I would also advise one to think broadly about what is happening at the climax and the ending. Should similar persecutions befall the Christian communities in my lifetime, I hope and pray that we act heroically and justly in a manner befitting of God’s glory.
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