Greater Love hath no man than this: That a man lay down his life for his friends. – John 15:13

I see Jesus in every human being. – Saint Teresa of Calcutta

The debate over Martin Scorsese’s Silence is heated among Catholics. Admirers of the film argue that it’s a complex spiritual masterpiece and I agree. I love it for its portrayal of the Catholic sacraments as indispensable rites, desperately needed by a faithful people to whom they have been denied. The priests risk their lives to reach these Kirishitans and to administer to them the instruments of grace. It’s similar to Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, a more straightforward story about an unworthy minister – lazy, depressed, drinks too much, and has a bastard child – who is the only priest in an unnamed Mexican state where the Church has been outlawed, and who reluctantly fulfills his duty, hiding from the police, hearing confessions, and saying mass in secret where he can.

How many Catholics put off going to confession because they know they can do it at any time? What if the option were no longer available? What if there were no priests? These are useful reminders, and it’s no surprise that they come from two Catholic converts in Greene and Shusaku Endo, the author of the Japanese novel on which Silence is based (Endo was baptized at the age of 11 or 12). The thing about converts – I am one myself – is that they know what life without Catholic sacraments is like. They can view the Church from the outside because they were once on the outside and they can more easily perform the useful exercise of imagining the Church being taken away from them. This exercise is perhaps even easier for a Catholic in Japan, where the culture is not easily reconciled to Catholicism – this is one of Endo’s main themes in Silence.

But this isn’t what causes such divided opinion on the film. The offending scene is the climactic one in which the protagonist, Father Rodrigues, apostatizes in order to stop the torture and execution of other Christians, and, we are led to believe, does so with the approval of Christ himself, who speaks to Rodrigues at the crucial moment. It’s no wonder that Catholic reviewers have criticized the film for this apparent endorsement of apostasy.

One reviewer casts doubt on the integrity of Shusaku Endo’s conversion, before concluding that the film is not a Christian film, but rather “a justification of faithlessness: apostasy becomes an act of Christian charity when it saves lives, just as martyrdom becomes almost satanic when it increases persecution. ‘Christ would have apostatized for the sake of love,’ Ferreira tells Rodrigues, and, obviously, Scorsese agrees.”

Another calls the story “shallow”, “a denial of God’s grace” and “contrary to all Church teaching”, exhorting Catholics to speak out against it because “any silence about ‘Silence’ might be misconstrued as consent.” and arguing that the film’s message is “that life is to be worshipped to such extent that even God must be made complicit in inspiring the apostasy that saves the lives of the faithful.”

If that isn’t enough, yet another review entitled The Sinister Theology of Endo’s Silence asks, “Is this really the voice of Christ as he passes by the scene? I cannot think so. I believe it is the voice of Satan tempting Rodrigues to imagine that by betraying his Lord he will be serving him.”

But perhaps such views are too simple. As I said at the beginning, it’s a complex spiritual masterpiece. The accusation that the film is shallow is one I refute without hesitation.

First of all, in great literature or film the actions of the characters do not necessarily indicate the views of the author or filmmaker. To say that the critical decision of apostasy is the one that Endo or Scorsese approve of and want the audience to admire is to belittle them as artists. And artists they both are. Their goal is rather to explore the subject fully, using a carefully considered and meticulously-crafted crisis to push this exploration to its limits.

Every relevant posture is portrayed here, from the steadfast martyrs, who die for their faith on the water, to the despicable, cowardly but ever-repentant repeat offender in Kichijiro, to the persecutors of Christianity in the Inquisitor and his men. When the situation was straightforward the Christian role was clear. The priests at the opening die for their faith, even desiring their torture to demonstrate how strong their faith is. Christ is glorified. The executed Japanese demonstrate even more than this. They display not only a strong faith, but also the love greater than which no man hath: they lay down their lives for their friends. Father Garrpe, likewise, doesn’t simply die for his faith, he also swims to his death to save his friends – martyrdom for the faith plus the great love of dying for others. Christ is glorified twice.

But the Japanese learn quickly. The strong faith doesn’t impress them. They aren’t primarily trying to hurt the men who bring Christianity to Japan, but to destroy Christianity itself. They discover a weakness – first with Father Ferreira – and when Father Rodrigues comes to his moment of truth everything has been turned on its head. (Can it be a coincidence that his friends have literally been turned on their heads?) At the beginning it was the martyr’s life under threat, then it was the martyr’s life and his friends’ lives. Now it’s just his friends’ lives. His life isn’t under threat.

It’s worth remembering that the chief evil here is not the apostasy but the hostility to Christianity perpetrated by the Japanese authorities. It’s not so much that Father Rodrigues is being asked to lay down the lives of his friends for his faith – the Inquisitor is the culprit for their torture and execution, not he. But the key point is that he’s not being asked to lay down his life for his friends – he is prepared for this; he’s being asked to lay down Christ for his friends.

It is in his friends that he sees Christ. And yet, he’s being asked to publicly deny Christ. So in his mind he’s being asked to lay down Christ for Christ. He’s reached an impasse and only Christ can show him the way out of it.

“Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.” So says the voice of Christ in Endo’s novel, as Rodrigues stands above the fumie. He steps on it and Christ is crucified again for mankind. Then the cock crows.

Man is not capable of perfect love, except in dying for the sake of others. As Christ showed us, it is only through willful suffering and martyrdom that perfect love can be manifested in this broken world. Once the Japanese realized that this was the goal, they took the possibility away. Rodrigues wasn’t given the option of martyrdom.

So did Father Rodrigues make the right decision?

No. There was no right decision. Dying for Christ – the right decision – was not an option. Denying Christ to save his own life – the wrong decision – was not an option. Denying Christ publicly to save his friends-in-Christ or abandoning his friends-in-Christ to affirm Christ publicly was his choice. An impossible one.

He hears the voice of Christ, or imagines he does, who takes the decision away from him. Christ takes the difficult decision, the sins, the pain all onto himself. Once the step is made there is no going back. One public act of denial discredits the priest forever and to recant would place him back in the same impossible situation. He is defeated.

Like Greene’s whiskey priest, the father is now left with no sacraments. He’s starving for grace. In the absence of any priest to hear his own confession, all that remains for him is his own imperfect attempt to maintain an alignment somewhere between repentance and mercy by continual contrition. But Rodrigues can only do this in secret. He’s been broken, and can no longer serve God as a priest in the “swamp” of Japan. It’s ambiguous as to whether his personal, secret faith is still present at all. After reaching the breaking point and breaking, the Catholic Church has lost the battle and the sacraments are absent from Japan. But the film’s final image of Rodrigues holding the small crucifix given to him by the faithful Japanese signifies that the war is not lost.

The broken, contrite, humble acceptance of whatever grace there is is what Catholicism is built upon. In the Western world the sacraments are readily available to us. But in parts of the world where the sacraments are not available, this lowly posture is all there is. Sometimes it takes the mind of a convert to see it properly. But all Catholics need to be mindful of this and should attempt the mental exercise of becoming converts to the Catholic Church daily.

If you leave Silence confused, haunted and unsure what to make of it, then you have the key to unlocking it. The impression that I’m left with is that the Catholic Church is necessary and that every one of us is a wretched sinner. No. The Catholic church is necessary because every one of us is a wretched sinner.

You can only give up your own life in love, and Christianity demands it. It is the example Christ gave. Christianity is unbendable when it asks believers to maintain their faith at the point of death. But it doesn’t say to maintain your faith at the point of other people’s deaths. Can it even be called faith at this point? Faith is not merely something that is said, but something that is lived. To speak faith and not to live it is to lie. To live faith and not speak it is to misunderstand. St Paul’s writes, “If I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” Faith without love is dead. For apostasy to be a true sin, it would require an unloving, selfish motivation. Apostasy is to save yourself by denying Christ. The denial of Father Rodrigues does not have this motivation. He was to be kept alive while other Christians were tortured in front of him one after another. The demand for steadfast faith in the face of death wasn’t present.

The Japanese authorities were too smart in their attempts to rout Christianity by this point to permit that. This is the genius of Endo – he brings us to a moment of contradiction and crisis that forces us to ask difficult, challenging and perhaps unanswerable questions. What are we to make up Ferreira’s claim that Christ would have apostatized for the sake of love? Just because Endo has Ferreira say it doesn’t mean it’s true or that either Endo or Scorsese believe it to be true. But it’s a paradoxical statement, because Christ is love. To apostatize for love is a contradiction in terms. Endo certainly intends this. To truly apostatize would make true love impossible. To truly love would make true apostasy impossible. What if Jesus had been forced to watch his disciples and his blessed mother be crucified instead of being allowed to give up his own life? Who can possibly say? Perhaps God would have intervened. This is Endo’s solution in Silence, but it’s no mere deus ex machina, because the situation builds directly towards it and calls for it. There is no other solution. God must break his silence.

“Silence is the prerequisite for love, and it leads to love. Love is expressed fully only by renouncing speech, noise, excitement, and exaltation. Its highest expression occurs in a death that is silent and totally offered up, for there is no greater proof of love than to give your life for those whom you love (Jn 15:13). The silence of love is the outcome and point of arrival of someone who has given priority to silence in life. It comes like a beautiful reward when man has managed to silence the dislikes, passions, and furors of his heart.” – Cardinal Sarah, The Power of Silence

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Written by
Andrew Mahon