For centuries missionary priests have risked their lives to spread the Gospel and expand the reach of the Catholic Church. Many have been martyred for their efforts. In Japan, as beautifully dramatised in Martin Scorcese’s Silence, the Shogunate of the early 17th century expressed its hostility to Christianity with public crucifixions and other cruel forms of torture and punishment. But the Christian communities that had been set up as early as 1549 by Portuguese and Spanish priests including St Francis Xavier, continued to believe and pray in secret over the ensuing years, yearning for the sacraments in the absence of priests. In Silence, the two Jesuits embark on a perilous journey through the Japanese countryside, putting the lives of all the secret Christians, as well as their own, in serious danger, in order to reach them and administer the sacraments. They considered it worth the risk.
What is it that attracted the poor Japanese to Christianity? To hear some foreign men tell of another foreign man who died and rose again a long time ago in a faraway place doesn’t seem all that convincing on its own. But it only appears ‘on its own’, so to speak, to people like us who live within Christendom. To those outside Christendom, the foundation upon which the Gospel is presented, which we almost entirely take for granted, is absent. To a poor, primitive and oppressed people the idea that they are each individually made in the image of God, that they are each a divine instantiation of the logos, a sovereign, rational, moral individual with freewill, and of infinite value, must have been an earth-shattering revelation. It is this notion, a concept more foreign than Portugal or Palestine, that broke a spell and woke them from a long, dull slumber of monotonous hardship and servitude.
For them, the Gospel and the sacraments took on a profound meaning once they understood their responsibility to themselves, to each other, and to their maker. To be set apart from the masses, and know that one’s thoughts, words and actions have real, eternal consequences is at once liberating and terrifying. Suddenly the need for good news becomes apparent because a true consciousness of sin with no respite is intolerable. To discover that one is a divine being, with eternal responsibility, and yet prone to error, leads one to ask for help. The sacraments, or something like them, would have seemed the most precious of gifts to be given in response.
To these poor Japanese, it must have been as if their lives had taken on a new meaning once they’d received Christianity, that the life they lived before wasn’t really life at all. And there was no going back; one could repudiate, deny and run away like Jonah, but their eyes had been opened once and for all to the truth about themselves and their relationship to the Infinite and the Unconditioned.
This, of course, is how all Catholics ought to see it, and although the Church still speaks of salvation and the sacraments, we’ve taken for granted these fundamental truths about ourselves. Outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition, these truths are unknown. The medieval Japanese didn’t know they were made in God’s image, and thus were transformed by the knowledge. We’ve forgotten that we’re made in God’s image, and the Church no longer seems necessary to us. Many of us still adhere to the Catholic pattern of life, but our faith is lifeless. What’s perhaps more surprising is that the bishops are no exception.
When the governments announced that public gatherings were banned and all places of worship were to be closed, the Church didn’t object. In some countries, like Canada, the Catholic Church cancelled all public masses even before the government mandated it. There is still much disagreement between experts on how serious the coronavirus epidemic is, whether a lockdown is a proportionate response and whether there are other measures that would have sufficed. But even assuming it’s as serious as a lockdown would suggest, is it justifiable to deny the sacraments to Catholics? Rather, if thousands are facing imminent death, aren’t the sacraments needed to prepare them for the next life?
The Church simply rolled over in most places without any attempt to ensure that the sacraments continue to be administered. They might have continued public masses with social distancing measures in place, similar to supermarkets, or given a directive to priests to say more masses per day, each with reduced attendance capacity, or developed a new style of social distancing confessional. They might, at the very least, have registered strong and persistent objections to the government and in the media. But, with few exceptions, the Church has remained silent and obedient, and in so doing the Bishops have tacitly admitted that shopping and exercise are more essential than the sacraments. If that is the case, I see no reason to continue as a Catholic.
What would the secret Christians in Japan have thought?
But it’s worse than this. Not only has the Church capitulated to the beliefs and priorities of the government, the media and the public, but the whole western world seems intent on abandoning the revolutionary concept of individual sovereignty upon which our societies are built. It was this unique Judeo-Christian concept that birthed modern democracy. But we are renouncing our roles as God-men in favour of becoming state-men, forfeiting our civil liberties, so that the government can save us from a purported crisis. Former UK Supreme Court Justice Jonathan Sumption put it well: ‘The real problem is that when human societies lose their freedom, it’s not usually because tyrants have taken it away. It’s usually because people willingly surrender their freedom in return for protection against some external threat. And the threat is usually a real threat but usually exaggerated.’
Benjamin Franklin put it even better: ‘Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.’ The cardinal shift has happened and we are now dependents of the state, unable to practise our ancient freedoms of assembly, association and religion, not even using our critical faculties (the logos) to question the government. In Britain we have a new state religion to replace the Church: weekly worship of the National Health Service (NHS), Thursday evenings rather than Sunday mornings. This act of adoration is the one religious act for which public gatherings are evidently still permitted if the scenes on Westminster Bridge are anything to go by. The Church is conforming to the rhythm of this new state religion, having a Cathedral ‘mass for carers’ series Thursdays at 7pm for the NHS. (By all means, the Church ought to pray for healthcare workers but perhaps not by ignorantly participating in its own replacement as a religion.) One of the strongest statements on behalf of Christians in the UK has come not from the Church, but from Francis Hoar, a lawyer: ‘The effect of these restrictions is to prevent communal worship and, for Christians, the reception of most of the sacraments. Indeed, the wholesale closure of churches over Holy Week and Easter were the first such closures since the end of the Interdict of Pope Innocent III in 1213; and churches remained open even during the ravages of the Black Death.’
The revelation of one’s inherent Godlikeness has always lit a spark for the growth of Christianity wherever it’s been given to those it was most intended for: the poor and the oppressed. The rich and comfortable are always unable to see it, because they don’t know the same hardship. Satisfied with wealth and power, they can only see Christianity in one of two ways: a benign curiosity of no consequence, or an existential threat to their position — if the people were to assert themselves with this newfound belief in their intrinsic value, the power structure might collapse. Hence, the horrific persecution.
We live wealthier, healthier and more comfortable lives than any other society at any point in history. We have electronic devices that divert, entertain and distract us from our true predicament. We are now the rich and comfortable who are blinded to the appeal of Christianity and unable to see ourselves as the angelic sinners that we are. Still today, there are people in North Korea and China, who cannot see themselves as anything but pawns of the state. Poor and oppressed, they are forbidden from hearing the Gospel, receiving the sacraments or even learning about their true dignity as individuals. Meanwhile, in the West, we who have all those things, are in the process of relinquishing them, and willfully settling into the darkness in which so many others are forcibly imprisoned.
We deserve neither liberty nor safety. We’ve abdicated our responsibility as sovereign, divine creatures, made in God’s image, and therefore our failings and inadequacies are of no consequence to us and we do not see a need for the sacraments. We’d rather watch Netflix and become pawns of the nanny-state. We have no dignity to be grateful for, we have no sins to confess, we’ve forgotten God and we no longer need the Church.
Perhaps the Church should say something about this.