On January 12, movie theaters in Italy and other countries will begin showing the latest film by Martin Scorsese, “Silence,” already screened in Rome a month ago for a select audience largely made up of Jesuits, after the audience that the pope held with the famous director on November 30 (see photo).
The plot of the film is taken from the novel of the same name by the Japanese Catholic writer Shusaku Endo (1923-1996). Set in the 17th century, at the height of the anti-Christian persecutions, its protagonists are two Jesuits who go to Japan in search of one of their confreres, Christovao Ferreira, a former provincial of the Society of Jesus, who is rumored to have apostatized. In effect, this is what had happened. And in the end one of the two, Sebastian Rodrigues, would even go so far as to abjure, with the intention of saving other Christians from an atrocious death.
The “silence” of the title is that of God, in the face of the martyrdom of those first Japanese Christians. And in effect the book, even more so than the film, is a tangle of essential questions on the reasons to hold firm to the faith or not in an era of extreme martyrdom. The Jesuits who abjure do so out of mercy toward those ordinary Christians who for their part are ready to sacrifice their lives out of fidelity to Christ. And as apostates, they are repaid with a role of prestige in the Japanese society of the time, to which they submit. The questions raised are of great density and profundity. And they are brought to light very well in the review of Endo’s novel written by the Jesuit Ferdinando Castelli in 1973, republished in its entirety in the latest issue of “La Civiltà Cattolica.”
It is striking, however, that such questions should remain closed off within the confines of literary criticism, as admirable as this may be. Because little of them appears in the other facets of the big publicity campaign that “La Civiltà Cattolica” orchestrated for the release of the film.
In the second-to-latest issue of the magazine of the Rome Jesuits – which by statute is printed after inspection by the Holy See and has become the mirror of Pope Francis’s thought – editor Fr. Antonio Spadaro published a conversation he had with Martin Scorsese that takes up a good 22 pages, in which however little more than a page is dedicated to “Silence” and the character the director says is the most “fascinating” for him is Kichjjiro, the companion of the two Jesuit protagonists, “constantly weak” and led to betray them, although at the end he is thanked as “teacher” by none other than the Jesuit who abjures:
This neglect of the essential questions underlying “Silence” is the subject of this critical commentary from auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles Robert Barron, in a post on the blog “Word on Fire“:
“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.”
But getting back to “La Civiltà Cattolica”,” what is most striking is the modern-day application that it makes of the historical events of “Silence.”
In the latest issue of the magazine there is an article on what “the mission in secularized Japan” should like be today, in which the author, the Japanese Jesuit Shun’ichi Takayanagi, presents as obligatory “a paradigm shift regarding the concept of mission and the ways of exercising it.”
In the judgment of Fr. Takayanagi, in fact, the type of mission also in use in Japan until a few decades ago, which “aimed at visible and concrete results, meaning a great number of baptized,” today not only “is no longer possible,” but is outdated and to be replaced altogether.
“Even if ‘mission’ obtained a great result in Japan in the 16th century, it is no longer possible to attain similar success in contemporary times, characterized by rapid progress of material culture and a high standard of living. Precisely for this reason the antiquated conception of mission, which comes from the Western colonial era of the 19th century and survives in the subconscious of many missionaries, foreign and native, must be replaced with a new conception of the people with whom and for whom one works. The new strategy of the proclamation of the Gospel must become an expression of the need for religion among the men of today. Dialogue must deepen our conception of the other religions and of the common human need for religious values.”
According to “La Civiltà Cattolica,” therefore, the “antiquated” concept of mission, or “making proselytes and procuring converts to the Church,” must be replaced with “dialogue.” All the more so in a country like Japan in which it is normal “to go to a Shinto shrine and take part in Buddhist celebrations, and also participate, on Christmas, in a Christian liturgy,” no longer with the “strange obligation to follow a certain religious creed” and “in a vaguely non-monotheistic cultural atmosphere.”
At the end of his article, Fr. Takayanagi emphasizes that the Japanese, although they are very much open to religious pluralism, “remain shaken by a few brutal episodes that can be traced back to religious roots,” Islamic but not solely.
And he comments:
“Of course, religion can help men to grow and mature, but in extreme cases belonging to a religion can also pervert human nature. Is Christianity capable of preventing fanaticism and this sort of perversion? This is an insistent question for us, which we must pose to ourselves in the exercise of our missionary activity. The history of Christianity, in this regard, is certainly not irreproachable. [. . .] In particular, some Japanese intellectuals, although in a vague and almost unconscious manner, and taking inspiration from the polytheistic Japanese culture, are beginning to wonder if the monotheistic religions, in the final analysis, can show themselves to be truly tolerant toward the members of other religions. [. . .] These intellectuals maintain that the polytheistic cultural terrain of Japanese Shintoism can ensure an accommodating haven for the other religions.”
On January 4, extensive portions of this article from “La Civiltà Cattolica” were also published in “L’Osservatore Romano.”
Which should come as no surprise. Because on other occasions as well “L’Osservatore Romano” has issued an apologia for a paradigm of mission aimed at the “common human demand for religious values” like the one now advocated by the magazine directed by Fr. Spadaro.
In particular, on April 26 of last year the pope’s newspaper published under the byline of Marco Vannini the review of a book by Jan Assmann, “Il disagio dei monoteismi,” which moved precisely in that direction.
Vannini is not a Catholic. And “La Civiltà Cattolica” itself had written of him in 2004 that “he rules out transcendence, suppresses the essential truths of Christianity, and by a Neoplatonic way inexorably arrives at a modern Gnosis.”
As for Assmann, a famous Egyptologist and theorist on the religions, his main thesis is that the forms of monotheism, all of them, with the Judeo-Christian foremost, are essentially exclusive and violent toward every other creed, the contrary of the ancient forms of polytheism, which are essentially peaceful.
So then, in “L’Osservatore Romano” Vannini did not distance himself in the slightest from Assmann, on the contrary:
“In our globalized world, religion can find a place only as ‘religio duplex,’ or religion on two levels, which has learned to conceive of itself as one among many and to look at itself through the eyes of the others, nevertheless without ever losing sight of the hidden God, the ‘transcendent point’ common to all the religions.”
In summary, it is time for “Silence” even for the Catholic missions. With all due respect to the decree “Ad Gentes” of Vatican Council II, the apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Nuntiandi” of Paul VI, and the encyclical “Redemptoris Missio” of John Paul II.
(English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.)