A Question About the Mission

After Thanksgiving we debated the Church’s position on war. Make that dual position: The Catechism allows both pacificism and the “just war.” But what do you make of the Church’s historic role helping European governments subdue indigenous peoples, as undoubtedly happened in South America four hundred years ago, literally over the dead bodies of missionary Jesuits? That’s the inescapable question after viewing Robert Bolt’s 1986 film The Mission, starring Jeremy Irons as Father Webster, pacifist, and Robert DeNiro as Brother Frank, mercenary turned Jesuit who dies in battle while contemplating the Eucharist.

The Mission is mesmerizing, and sure, it’s fictionalized. But the plot is based on a history we all understand. You only have to watch it to know how gut-wrenchingly true it is, which is to say, how horribly human. A small band of Jesuits peacefully convert an indigenous tribe of the rain forest, building an idyllic mission in a tropical paradise. But when Spanish and Portuguese land-grabbers want to crush the natives, the Church capitulates, in the person of Archbishop Altamirano (Ray McAnally). The prelate sides with European power brokers, including the Church back home, condoning wholesale slaughter. In such shootouts, cannon and musket always blast bow and arrow.

It hardly seems enough to say, as we Catholics do, “Of course, there are bad priests, bad bishops, but the Church is never in error.” Well, maybe not, but—

The climactic scene of The Mission is heart-breaking and, for all that, deeply inspiring. DeNiro’s character is a convert to religious life; Irons’s is a career Jesuit. When European forces close in, Irons chooses to counter violence with love, saying Mass at the mission altar. Meanwhile DeNiro counters with an eye for eye, organizing a band of natives into armed resistance. Both Jesuits end dead, but in a gripping denouement: DeNiro is gunned down within sight of a Eucharistic procession led by Irons, who carries the Blessed Sacrament out from the mission onto the field of battle, surrounded by a crowd of worshiping natives. As bullets drop them one by one, and a dying DeNiro looks on, Irons bears the Eucharist forward until he is gunned down too. Like one of the African American soldiers in the film “Glory,” who picks up the Stars and Stripes when another flagbearer falls, a native takes the monstrance from Irons’s lifeless hands and carries it forward.

A final voice-over notes that it is the dead, not the survivors, who are remembered by posterity, and a crawl before the final credits states that missionaries continue to this day helping native peoples. But what about the Church? The vaunted Magisterium? The historic Popes who, in such instances, sided with the European powers against, in this instance, the Jesuits who, let’s face it, have not always been darlings of the Vatican? How do you answer anti-Catholic voices who accuse the Church of such atrocities, the old Crusades argument—as in, by what justification could the Church support such a destructive, unjust, and ultimately failed military campaign? By “just” war?

The sight of the Eucharist being carried forward, first by a priest, then by a native, brought tears to my eyes, but I have to ask again, What about the Church?

  • Webster Bull

    Footnote 1: One of the factors that compelled me to watch the mission was learning that it was the last movie project of Robert Bolt, author of A Man for All Seasons. And in 20 years, his theme didn't change: men of conscience ranged against institutional authority.

  • Webster Bull

    Footnote 2: The haunting image on the movie poster is from an early scene in the movie: A missionary predecessor of Irons's character is captured, tortured, and killed by the same natives Irons ultimately converts. He is tied to a cross and sent over these falls.

  • Anonymous

    Great post, but one quick correction, In Glory, the solders were blacks, not native Americans.

  • Webster Bull

    Thanks for the correction, Anonymous. I meant African American, and have changed it accordingly. What can I say? It was 4:42 a.m.!

  • Anonymous

    Ennio Morricone added so much to the film with his musical score that I thought it would be appropriate to copy and paste this interview with him which appeared in the NCR in March 2009. Morricone comments on the movie, the latin rite, B16 etc. Did you know if you wiki TRUTH, B16 is listed. Augustine…Aquinas….Joseph Ratzinger. http://www.ncregister.com/site/article/spaghetti_westerns_and_faith/Appropriate to post not only for your wonderful writeup on The Mission but for past posts as well. To answer your question: the Church's teaching of doctrine is infallible but the people associated with the Church are not. They are human beings guided by free will.

  • Anonymous

    Human beings are not divine. They do have free will but they never possess all the information. Fr. James Schall is a Jesuit political philosopher who has written at length on this subject in his published books and essays and strongly recommend as a resource to a complicated question which deserves more than just a few words written in this space.

  • Anonymous

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XvBT9sqXnewMusic to reflect upon the beauty that surrounds us. Fantastic to realize that we are in union with Morricone in the body of Christ. Wonderful learning the TRUTH of Catholicism. Webster, great work to you and pray that you are still enjoying your efforts on this blog. Frank, you too!

  • Anonymous

    The basis for all Christian courage is eternal salvation. Kudos to The Mission for reflecting this TRUTH with this specific story of these Jesuit missionaries.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01819831282677092730 Frank

    Anon 2:09's link made "hot"Morricone's The MissionHe didn't do a bad job on the Eastwood Spaghetti Western soundtracks either. Check the GBU at Music for Mondays.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01819831282677092730 Frank

    Father Webster and Brother Frank? You crack me up Webster ;^)

  • Webster Bull

    Hey Mercenary-turned-Jesuit, You just caught that now? Yours sincerely, The Pacifist

  • Maria

    Webster:"The sight of the Eucharist being carried forward, first by a priest, then by a native, brought tears to my eyes"Oh, what a remarkable scene it was. I cried, as well.It was so tender. Your question:What about the Church? To which I say:THE TWO STANDARDS ST. IGNATIUS OF LOYOLA SJTHE EXERCISES"Listen, in spirit, to Lucifer addressing his ministers, and ordering them to lay snares on all sides for men, in order to their perdition: " Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood, let us hide snares for the innocent without cause. Let us swallow him up alive like hell. We shall find all our precious substances; we shall fill our houses with spoils". (Poverbs 1 11-13). Remark his artifices, and the THREE ORDINARY DEGREES OF TEMPTATION ;-how, first, he catches souls by the love of RICHES; next, how he throws them into the paths of AMBITION; then, from ambition to PRIDE-a bottomless abyss, from whence all vices rise rise as from their fountain".No one is immune, least of all the hierarchy. Others may have more sophisticayed answers like Schall SJ. My money is always on St. Ignatius. Webster, you do such a wonderful job and provide us with such good food for the soul.

  • Webster Bull

    Thanks to all. Anonymous 1:31 references a 2009 interview with composer Ennio Morricone in the National Catholic Register. The answer to one question was particularly relevant to this discussion. I quote: INTERVIEWER (Edward Pentin): Was there a special spiritual component to your film score for The Mission?MORRICONE: In The Mission, they called me to do the music for a film where the protagonists were Jesuits, the Jesuits who went on a mission to South America to be among the Indians, to make the Indians become Christians. What they brought with them was the Renaissance experience of the progress of instrumental music. This is the first thing you see in the opening scenes of the movie, when Father Gabriel teaches the violin to the two boys. Then they brought with them a post-Council of Trent experience — the reform of the music at the Council of Trent in the 15th century. They brought this music not only because they were the central characters, but also because, if they were to serve as religious, they had to offer the music that came out of the Council of Trent. Third, after these [scenes], I was obliged to present the music of the Indians. What was the music of the Indians? I didn’t know, so I had to invent it. The miracle of the music of this movie was the influence of the oboe. So I wrote a theme for the oboe. The post-conciliar motet was very important, because when Cardinal Altamirano came to the mission, the Indians welcomed him with this Occidental, European song. And, of course, writing all of this into the film, you hear the first theme of the film, that of the oboe, then the second musical theme, the post-conciliar music, and then the third, ethnic music. So you hear these three themes — one, two and three. The great thing about this movie is its technical and spiritual effect: that the first and second theme go together, the first and third can go together, and the second and third go together. At the very end, all three themes are contemporary. That was my technical miracle, which I believe had been a great blessing.

  • Maria

    Webster: Truly amazing…

  • Anonymous

    Maria,I commend your affection for St Ignatius but the beauty of James Schall SJ is his profound knowledge and his ability to relay Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas,Chesterton, Pieper, Lewis,Strauss,Charlie Brown, Voegelin, Lubac etc in such simple terms. Please do yourself a favor and purchase Another Sort of Learning which is a collection of essays by Schall SJ and you will be left thirsting for more. Since Webster has been speaking of finding Catholicism in the secular, I highly recommend his essay on The Seriousness of Sports. I quote, "The nearest most of us get to contemplation is when we watch a good game. Here, in a way, we near what is best in ourselves, for we are spectators not for any selfish reason, not for anything we might get out of the game, money or exercise or glory, but just because the game is there and we lose ourselves in its playing, either as players or spectators. This not only should remind us that we are not sufficient unto ourselves,but that what is higher than we are, what is ultimately serious, is itself fascinating and joyful. Watching games, I suspect,teaches us about what was once called homo ludens, the being that plays."To the Jesuit missionaries who were depicted in The Mission, I will quote Schall again from the last pages of Another Sort of Learning:Indeed, this seeking is what life is about, this life that we are given, and we begin our search from our own insufficiency. But we are not alone, and this is testified to by the many men and women who have gone before us, those who did not live in our own time or place. Sometimes we can find our way because others have found theirs, because they realized that the higher things were worth pursuit, as Aristotle told us and our religious tradition has often repeated to us. In the words of St. Ignatius, A.M.D.G.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08198375222527409148 Hugh

    Hi Webbster and Frank, your blog is like being at the best dinner party ever. Food for thought.

  • Webster Bull

    Hugh, I am personally nominating this for "Comment of the Week," and I have some pull around here. I don't usually read comments to Katie, but yours, yes. Thanks! :-)

  • Maria

    Anonymous: Tell us who you are. Unveil your mystery!Actually, I discovered Schall SJ prior to your suggestion. He is wonderful. Right now, I am just in love w/ Ignatius. I love the last quotation by Schall SJ. When all the smarty pants over @ America Magazine are so busy with their daily apostasy, I want to remind them of precisely this. There is no need to re-invent the Church. Our Holy Mother gave us an ocean of wisdom in those who went before us, right?

  • Maria

    Webster: Maybe it is Jesuit turned mercenary, huh?

  • Maria

    Hugh:Can you, or anyone else explain to me, while I prepare my grilled cheese on rye,why I am cannot locate people capable of these sorts of conversations, such as yourself, in my real, walking around life? And, while we are at it, Webster could you find some lox and caviar. Oh. And some champagne???

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01819831282677092730 Frank

    Perhaps Jesuit turned Musketeer? Aramis, Abbé d'Herblay, Chevalier d'Herblay,the Bishop of Vannes, the Superior General of the Jesuits, the Duke of Alameda?Jeremy Irons as Aramis in "The Man in the Iron Mask"Oops, wrong movie!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15210458874431231007 wayhip

    First, to echo others' comments, I was so glad when I happened upon this blog – it has been one of my favorite reads.I think it always significant to mention in any discussion of the film "The Mission" that it was chosen by the Vatican in 1995 as one of the "Important Films" of the first 100 years of motion picture history. It is a powerful film which message transcends any doubts we may have about the institutional church past, present, or future. Isn't that what faith is all about?

  • Maria

    Wayhip:We welcome you. "I think it always significant to mention in any discussion of the film "The Mission" that it was chosen by the Vatican in 1995 as one of the "Important Films" of the first 100 years of motion picture history". I did not know this. That it is so, does not surprise me. You are right with regard to the Church. No matter who assails Her, with Jesuits at the helm and leading the attack today, she stands, and stands forever.Deo gratias.

  • Anonymous

    The Great Heresies by Hilaire Belloc almost made the cut for the second reading for the YIMC Book Club and Webster's post and his question about the unmistakable fallibility of human affairs in the Church ( also post re: confession/intermediaries) should lend itself to examining Belloc's great contribution and legacy according to Schall SJ. What is Belloc's legacy?Father Schall: Two of Belloc's most provocative statements are: that the greatest spiritual invention is the 20-minute Mass; and that as we get older, we worry about the human structure of the supernatural Church. In both cases, he was being both amusing and incisive.That the main concern today is precisely the human side of the supernatural Church seems almost prophetic.


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