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?