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Scorsese's Silence and the example of St Paul Miki and Companions

Monday, February 06, 2017

Today we celebrate the martyrdom of St Paul Miki and Companions, twenty-six among the thousands of Japanese martyrs. Their courage, fidelity, and unrelenting love of Christ even to the point of death are an example to us all. On the Feast of these martyrs, my usual feelings, of concern for what I would do in the same position and admiration for what these martyrs did in fact do, have been made particularly acute by Martin Scorsese's film Silence, and all the conversation it has generated.

Many years ago I remember reading Shusako Endo's masterpiece, Silence - the book on which the film is based - and being pretty shocked at the time. Endo was touted as the Japanese Graham Greene and so I had been expecting a tale of a deeply-flawed priest and his many falls, but ultimately heroic self-sacrifice, redemption, and the glory of martyrdom. I was hugely disappointed. At first I thought it was a bad book . . . further reflection and seeing Scorsese's film have helped me to draw the distinction between the quality of the writing/film and my discomfort at what actually happens in the story. I now think both the film and novel are masterpieces and it is part of their genius that I'm so drawn in as to be made desperately sad by the path Fr Ferreira and Fr Rodríguez ultimately take.

However, there is no such sadness about the decisions today's martyrs ultimately took. In today’s second reading from Matins, we learn from the crucifixion account of a contemporary of theirs that:

Joy glowed in all their faces, and in Louis’ most of all. When a Christian in the crowd cried out to him that he would soon be in heaven, his hands, his whole body strained upward with such joy that every eye was fixed on him.

Anthony, hanging at Louis’ side, looked toward heaven and called upon the holy names – “Jesus, Mary!” He began to sing a psalm: “Praise the Lord, you children!” (He learned it in catechism class in Nagasaki. They take care there to teach the children some psalms to help them learn their catechism).

Others kept repeating “Jesus, Mary!” Their faces were serene. Some of them even took to urging the people standing by to live worthy Christian lives. In these and other ways they showed their readiness to die.

We might contrast this with the continued state of anguish that Fr Ferreira and Fr Rodríguez seem to experience in their ‘comfortable’, post-apostasy lives. The paradox is that they were much more alive when they were being persecuted and threatened with death. Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, a lay Dominican, writes of the joy of Christian living even at great cost:

I understand better what a Grace it is to be Catholic. Poor and unlucky the ones who don’t have a Faith: to live without Faith, without a patrimony to defend, without holding onto the Truth in a continual struggle, is not living but only existing. We must never just exist but live, because even through every disappointment we should remember that we are the only ones who possess the Truth.

Br Paul Miki, a Japanese Jesuit, and the mixture of other religious and laity who were martyred with him understood this. In Scorsese’s film, the Japanese villagers who are crucified on the sea shore witness to this Truth also: better to die like Christ than to deny Him; for to deny Him is deny the very source and meaning of our existence. It’s the Japanese villagers who are the true heroes in Silence. Their quiet and simple faith is a beautiful witness. As I have found in my few years as a Dominican, so often it is the people who you minister to who end up forming you. Thus it’s a mistake to see Silence as only a film about apostasy and failure; it’s also a film about heroic perseverance.

The apostasy of Rodríguez and Ferreira is not just a betrayal of Christ; it’s a betrayal of those they preached to, but also an example of how the recipient can sometimes understand the message better than the messenger. That should keep any preacher humble, but also grateful; we should thank God that the truth we preach does not depend upon us.

Some writers have sought to justify the apostasy of Rodríguez and argued that in fact it is an act of humility, which, although bringing dishonour on the face of it, does, in fact, bring Rodríguez closer to Christ (see here). The obvious support for this argument is that Fr Rodríguez hears the 'voice of Christ' telling him to trample on His image. However, I’m struck that nowhere do those writers, who rely on the voice of Christ to justify Rodríguez’s apostasy, raise the issue of discernment of spirits. Is it not possible that the voice he hears is the message he wants to hear but the voice of something more sinister?

This is the danger when we start thinking outside the clear teaching of the Church or think that we can live a life of mental reservation. We start to justify ourselves in our sin. The Japanese Inquisitor knew what it meant to step on the fumie (the image of Christ). It was the first step on a journey that would lead to a place far from where Rodríguez would have wished when he first set off from Portugal. A journey that would see him helping to root out Christians and their objects of devotion. He becomes an accomplice in the persecution of those he sought to convert and minister to, an instrument of torture.

This is why in the life of virtue the little things matter so much. We can go a long way wrong with a series of small steps. It’s why it also matters that in times of relative of peace we are formed well in objective truths and immersed in the Scriptures. Look how today’s martyrs were strengthened in their sufferings by the Psalms they had faithfully learned as children in Nagasaki. Their faith was molded by the Scriptures. No doubt brought on by immense psychological and physical torture, Rodríguez starts to believe that the loving thing might be to trample on the face of He who is Love. 

There are three major flaws here. First, he forgets Christ’s own teaching on the cost of discipleship: ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life’ (Mark 8:34-36). St Peter’s greatest sin was his denial of Christ to save his earthly life, and his greatest triumph, having experience the loving mercy of God, was his death in which he refused to deny Christ and won eternal life.

The second mistake is that he neglects that he is not causing their suffering. He’s become engaged in a consequentialist ethics, trying to assess whether some greater good might come out of a wrong action. He neglects that it is the Japanese captors who are torturing the Japanese villagers, not him, and the power to stop the torture lies with them, not him. As we will see, the persecution carries on in spite of Rodríguez’s apostasy, and he loses his integrity in the process.

Thirdly, Rodríguez commits the error of thinking that a true Christian can ever be a private Christian. The film suggests to us that he thinks that he somehow serve two masters, Christ in private and the Emperor in public, and it’s just not possible. Ours is a religion of the Incarnation, at Communion we receive body, blood, soul and divinity, and in our worship we cannot reserve any part of ourselves. As Christ freely gives of His whole self; so must we. Our bodies communicate who we are. We can’t be a good person, who does bad things.

Some reviewers have sought to argue that the Faith remained in Rodríguez until the end. Fr James Martin writes of: ‘The magnificent final scene, which shows Rodríguez’s funeral rites, during which his Japanese wife inserts into the dead man’s hands his old crucifix, given to him by one of his Japanese Christian friends’ and adds, ‘When I first read the scene in the script I was deeply moved by this image of “holding on” to one’s faith.’ My reaction was rather different: in the placing of the crucifix inside his clenched fist, I saw the covering up of his faith, I saw his wife in his death symbolising the act which many years before had been the death of who and what he was called to be.

However, we should not forget what had gone before the apostasy. Think of Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, ultimately he fails, but what he has done to that point is not rendered useless. Had he failed earlier the result would have been different. The good work that Ferreira and Rodríguez had done is not necessarily undermined by their tragic apostasy, even though this is the hope of their captors. The Faith is bigger than any one man and Truth endures beyond any individual human frailty.

Yet I'm sure Frodo on his return to the Shire still regrets that ultimately he did not quite fulfill his task. He can celebrate what occurred because of him and in spite of him. He can experience joy and pangs of sorrow. So too in our own lives, we can rejoice in those moments where we have cooperated with God’s grace, and simultaneously lament the graces we resisted. But we always need to resist taking pride in our success and should always endeavour to give all glory to God for the good works he has done in us.

Lack of pride is one of the great qualities of Kichijiro in the film. Pride does not spare him from the shame of apostasy in the moment of trial whilst his fellow villagers persevere, but, crucially, nor does pride allow him to convince himself that he does not need God's forgiveness. Pride makes us persevere in sin and this is the great difference between Rodríguez and Ferreira, and Kichijiro. Having chosen against Christ, admittedly in the face of deplorable mental and physical torture, pride prevents them from truly acknowledging that they fallen short and throwing themselves into the mercy of the God who loves us. However, Kichijiro knows he is weak, he knows that he needs God and that he needs His mercy.

In this way one of the most powerful examples in the film is the way he keeps coming back to confess his sins, even whilst jeered and shamed by others. He knows the mercy of God is worth more than pride. His trust in the mercy of God also gives him a greater understanding of the priesthood than Rodríguez ultimately has. He sees Rodríguez' indelible priestly character even after Rodríguez has abandoned it in his new life as part of the establishment. Kichijiro sees who Rodríguez still is and still could be. He knows that God's mercy works in spite of our brokenness. He is no Donatist!

It is easy to sit in judgment on Rodríguez, but ultimately the fortitude required for martyrdom is not a human virtue, it's a gift of the Spirit and we cannot presume that we would not do the same, we must pray that we might be granted the grace of final perseverance and we must lead lives that make us more receptive to such grace, i.e. lives of prayer, humility, and mortification. It is easy for us to sit in comfort and 'endure' the pain of a fictional character, but the preparation for martyrdom, or apostasy, has already begun in our lives, whether we have consciously reflected on it or not, and we must ask ourselves what little pains for the sake of Christ are we already dodging?

Nor can we let whatever suffering we experience to become a badge of pride; this is what one of his torturers saw in Rodríguez and knew that he would eventually break. St Paul tells us that in our life as part of God's new creation that 'it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me' (Gal.2:20). This is where our suffering becomes transformative, this is where it takes on worth, becoming redemptive; and, in fact, only when united to Christ's does our suffering to the end become possible. Perhaps it is pride, as well as the cruel torture of the Japanese, that makes Rodríguez think that his apostasy can save the Japanese villagers? The truth, of course, is that only God's love can save, and His salvation is much greater than the simple elongation of earthly life. Rodríguez chooses simply existing and the cessation of pain as higher goods than living in Christ for the Japanese.

Whilst we must avoid sanctimonious and harsh judgment, we must also avoid committing the error of seeking to argue the bar lower: seeking to divorce mercy from truth is no mercy, and worse can be an act of self-aggrandising at the expense of Christ’s teaching. However tough, ultimately we believe that God will give us the grace, in whatever situation we find ourselves in, to do his will. We should not 'reason' our way to a 'more human' standard. Early in the film we see evidence of clericalism in Rodríguez. He urges the villagers to trample, whilst he himself refuses to do the same. What he perhaps thinks is mercy is a disservice to the Japanese, suggesting they are less strong than he, forgetting that our strength is found in Christ and is present in the laity just as much as it is in priests. As we know, our standard is Christ, and his standard was the Cross on to which he which hoisted and signaled throughout all time a love that was stronger than death and that would break its chains; so that death no longer bars us from Eternal Life, only sin.

St Paul Miki knew the love of Christ and His power, and it was these which made his life such a powerful preaching. His greatest homily was his death on the cross which we celebrate this day, and as well as his beautiful example of love to the end, we are fortunate to have his beautiful words from the cross. These words show us that in St Paul Miki, there was no disjunction between thought and action, body and soul:

The sentence of judgment says these men came to Japan from the Philippines, but I did not come from any other country. I am a true Japanese. The only reason for my being killed is that I have taught the doctrine of Christ. I certainly did teach the doctrine of Christ. I thank God it is for this reason I die. I believe that I am telling only the truth before I die. I know you believe me and I want to say to you all once again: Ask Christ to help you to become happy. I obey Christ. After Christ’s example I forgive my persecutors. I do not hate them. I ask God to have pity on all, and I hope my blood will fall on my fellow men as a fruitful rain.

Having arrived at this moment of my existence, I believe that no one of you thinks I want to hide the truth. That is why I declare to you that there is no other way of salvation than the one followed by Christians. Since this way teaches me to forgive my enemies and all who have offended me, I willingly forgive the king and all those who have desired my death. And I pray that they will obtain the desire of Christian baptism.

Even at the point of his death, when it came to his faith, St Paul Miki, refused to remain silent.

St Paul Miki and Companions . . . pray for us!

Toby Lees O.P.

Br Toby Lees O.P. Fr Toby Lees is assistant priest at Our Lady of the Rosary and St Dominic's, London.  |  toby.lees@english.op.org


Nancy de Flon commented on 07-Feb-2017 10:12 PM
I haven't seen the film yet but I have read the book, from the viewpoint of someone who has learned much about Japanese culture. This is the most intelligent, insightful review I've read yet. I'm going to print it out, save it, and reread it after I do see the film. Thank you, Brother Toby, God bless you and all the Friars of England and Scotland. And thank you so much for writing your review in the context of the memorial of St. Paul Miki and companions!
Carolina commented on 14-Feb-2017 06:35 PM
Brother Toby,

I think you wrote a really great article, and I think it defends its points very well. However, I'm not sure you have truly considered somethings. The problem wasn't that Fr. Rodriguez was putting his life on the line, but that he was putting the life of the villagers on the line. You argued that he didn't have the power to end the persecution, and you are right about that, but it was on him to safe that life of the villagers, and even if it had been one villager, wouldn't that have been worth it? He would have readily died for Christ, but he didn't want anyone to die because of him. The Japanese inquisitor saw that Fr. Rodriguez's life was of less value than his profession of faith, and that's why he chose to torture him this way. We often say that Jesus would have died again just for one of us, so wouldn't it make sense that Fr. Rodriguez was asked to do the most difficult thing, not dying, but denying his faith, for the sake of his brethren? It's true that the voice he heard could have easily been the enemy, so I argue that it would also have to been followed by great peace and consolation. I don't know if God would give a priest permission to step on his image to save the life of 5 people, but if He ever has, who am I to argue God's wisdom? Based on the movie God told Fr. Rodriguez to do it, while knowing truly what was in his heart. It is only God that can see into our heart. As for the rest of his life, that gets a little more complicated, but we must note that he was consistently watched until the end and would have been placed under threat of more people dying because of him. It's easy to say we would die for our faith, but how many of us would be willing to give other people over to their deaths? Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac because GOD told him to, and even then God relented, but this was not God, but a Japanese inquisitor, and there was no sign of mercy. That's what makes this such a difficult situation to judge. All your arguments could be right if Fr. Rodriguez was truly prideful, but if he truly loved God and by extension his fellow men, then it's a little bit more complicated. So the question could be, how many people was Fr. Rodriguez willing to see murdered in front of him, because of him, for the sake of him wearing his faith on his sleeve? Would we deny him outwardly to save the lives of many? Thank God we don't ever have to make this choice, but if Fr. Rodriguez heard a voice, even if it wasn't God, I can't blame him for his choice to save the people he loved, nor can I blame him for feeling shame all of his life.
Jason Ghosh commented on 06-Feb-2020 04:29 PM
Brother Toby,

I just came across this article on this glorious feast day of St. Paul Miki and companions. I just wanted to say that this was a fantastic article. May God protect you and guide you as you continue to do the Lords work!!!

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