I recently saw Martin Scorsese’s latest film, Silence. Its a movie that is broadly about the persecution of Christians in 17th century Japan. Specifically, though it is about the search of two priests for their spiritual mentor who was a priest in Japan and rumored to have apostatized. With that as a foundation, the whole movie becomes an exploration of the spiritual struggle that people make when faced with the choice to undergo punishment or renounce the faith. What follows are some thoughts on the central issues of the movie. I must provide the caveat here that I would undoubtedly fail miserably, so my analysis is more from a academic perspective than a judgmental one.
In the film, we are faced with two circumstances. In one, individuals are physically tortured for failing to apostatize. For most of us raised in Churches where the stories of martyrs are told, we are familiar with this circumstance, and we all hope to be strong enough to remain faithful to the end, although we often suspect that we are not that strong. If we don’t suspect that, we probably should. To underscore this point, we are faced, throughout the film, with a character who repeatedly apostatizes or betrays the priests and then comes to confess his sins. The reality is that this represents many of us, who sin in some fashion, go to confession, and yet return to the same sin. Every time we sin, we are, to at least a small degree, renouncing the faith.
The other circumstance, which becomes the predominant theme of the movie, is when an individual is presented with the opportunity to relieve the suffering of others by apostatizing. In many cases, those being tortured have already apostatized and yet they are being tortured because someone else has not. Time and again in the movie, the priests do not apostatize, regardless of how strongly they are tempted. One of the two priests is killed while trying to save Christians being martyred, so he is ultimately relieved of the need to make this most difficult moral choice. The other priest is not so lucky. He remains relatively strong, even though he hears a voice telling him that it is okay, until he discovers that his spiritual mentor has, himself, apostatized and is now writing against Christianity. That seems to be the proverbial straw that breaks his back, leading him to finally apostatize.
The question arises, of course, of whether or not it is the right thing to do. The priests and others are constantly told that it is only a mere formality and that it doesn’t necessarily reflect a real renunciation, but it will be sufficient. The question becomes, then, why is it so important to the Inquisitor that this action be taken. I think the answer to that is the key. Even though it may only be a formality, the act of renunciation, at the very least, becomes a means of leading others to do the same. We see that with the apostasy of Fr. Ferraira. His renunciation of the faith becomes the basis for Fr. Rodriques’ renunciation. It is interesting to note that throughout the movie we are reminded, frequently by Fr. Rodrigues himself, that the Christians in Japan have a stronger faith than him. However, they all look to him as spiritual father. When he falls, how many ultimately fall with him, I wonder? The movie never reveals that.
The thing that struck me in the movie, and I’m led to understand was a bit of a theme in the book, was the reaction of the priest to the martyrdom of fellow Christians. One of the points of the book, at least, and so it carried over to the movie, was that the process of martyrdom was not as glorious as Fr. Rodrigues supposed. As the Christians in the movie are brutally tortured and killed, they frequently (although there are exceptions) scream in anguish, which stands in contrast to many of the stories we read of the great martyrs in Christian history. One of the exceptions was during the slow drowning of the Christians on the crosses at the beach. Granted its very much a different scenario than burning, but these were particularly fervent members of the local Christian community, and we see, at some level, the peace that comes from a deep faith.
If we reflect on the fact that martyrdom is a glorious event from a spiritual perspective (after all, it is the martyrs that live under the altar in the book of Revelation), then apostatizing to keep others from experiencing martyrdom is depriving them of something great, in spite of the temporal suffering they must undergo. Of course, when Fr. Rodrigues actually sees their suffering, which is far more real than the descriptions from the martyrologies, he appears to only see the suffering, and perhaps his own spiritual blindness prevents him from seeing the greater glory they will experience. Again, I would probably fall faster than he, so this is not so much judgment as analysis. Of note in all of this, as well, is that the voice of Christ he thinks he is hearing, is fundamentally telling him the same things as his captors. Whether or not this was intentional I do not know. If intentional, its an interesting indictment of Roman Catholic spirituality, which at times is very much focused on visions and the like.
As an interesting final note, the reading for the Monday after we saw the movie is either for St. Clement in some jurisdictions, and in others would be the reading for the Monday of the 32nd week, which is from St. James Universal Letter discussing faith without works. At the end of the movie, Fr. Rodrigues is shown as his body is taken away to be cremated, holding a crucifix, apparently indicating that he retained his faith. However, given St. James’ admonition that “as the body apart from the spirit is dead, s faith apart from works is dead,” one is left wondering, given that he had spent decades by that point working against the faith, exactly what faith he really had.