The Pope’s Apostolic visit to Japan, a land soaked with the blood of Christian martyrs, occurred just a matter of days after the Church’s liturgy presented us with one of the most ancient stories of martyrdom in the name of Abraham’s God. Second Maccabees tells the story of a mother and her seven sons who willingly chose death rather than profane the name of their God by eating pork. Many Christians in Japan during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries faced a similar choice.
Though most of us are not forced to make such a dramatic choice in our daily lives, their witness presents us with questions we must face every day. Christianity, to many, consists of a series of moral teachings that encourage selflessness and kindness toward neighbors. But the inconvenient witness of the martyrs shows us that Christianity is less about moral precepts, and more about fostering one’s passion for and deepening one’s communion with Another—a Person, both Christ Himself and our neighbor.
Pope Francis said of the Japanese martyrs: “We are not destined for death but for the fullness of life. This was the message the martyrs proclaimed. Yes, here we see the darkness of death and martyrdom, but also the light of the resurrection, as the blood of the martyrs becomes the seed of the new life that Jesus wishes to bestow on us. Their witness confirms us in faith and helps us to renew our dedication and commitment to that missionary discipleship which strives to create a culture capable of protecting and defending all life through the daily ‘martyrdom’ of silent service towards all, especially those in greatest need.”
Charity toward others is not something accomplished by sheer good-will alone. Martyrdom witnesses to the fact that humanity’s fallen nature cries out for a Savior, for Someone who can make it possible to love our brethren fully, without taint of possession or control. Perhaps the greatest miscalculation of the Enlightenment and its offspring secular humanism, love for “humanity”—as an abstract, faceless entity—has been responsible for some of the most horrifying acts of violence. Plenty of people with good intentions carried out mass murders thinking they were acting in the best interest of “humanity.” Figures like Hitler and Stalin testify to this naive mentality.
Instead, it is only through an encounter with the Creator-made-flesh that we can truly value each and every creature—each individual person, with all the goodness and beauty He’s bestowed on them.
To honor Francis’ visit, I decided to screen Martin Scorsese’s 2017 film Silence with my students. Though many criticize the film for it’s “Jesuitical” blurring of moral lines, I think the film sharply highlights the true meaning of martyrdom and of discipleship more generally.
We are introduced to two young Portuguese Jesuit missionaries, Fr. Rodrigues and Fr. Garrupe, who decide to set out to Japan to find their mentor, Fr. Ferreira. Word on the street is that Ferreira abandoned the faith and is living a lay life among the unevangelized Japanese. Unable to accept the possibility of their mentor—the man who led them to the certainty of their vocation—negating everything he taught them, they are determined to find him continuing to live out his vocation as a priest.
For me, this is where the red flags start to emerge. What if he had chosen to apostatize? Would that make Christ less Divine? Would it render their vocations less true? Rather than face this dramatic internal question as a spiritual journey, they reduced it to a mere matter of seeking empirical evidence to assuage their doubts.
We soon start to see the distinct temperaments of the two young priests emerge as they make their way over to Japan. While Garrupe can be moody and cynical, Rodrigues is vibrant and enthusiastic, with heroic ambitions of nourishing the faith of the small Japanese church community. There are moments when Rodrigues’ self-seeking interests begin to emerge, and we are left to question what intentions lie beneath his heroic enthusiasm. Does he believe that he is “bringing Christ” to the people, or that he wants to be seen as Christ? Is it a desire to be obedient to his vocation, or to receive honor and glory for his missionary work?
When government officials discover the clandestine community, they presents them with a fumie (an image of Christ upon which they are expected to trample). Rodrigues advises them to trample on it to protect the community. Garrupe is scandalized when he finds out what Rodrigues advised them to do. It leaves us wondering if he was too prideful to present the flock with the ugliness of the Cross, for fear of them rejecting him.
After his own captivity, we see him wrestling with the question of whether he should trample on Christ’s face or not. This internal struggle seems to place his own ambitions of heroism in centerstage, placing his struggle…his prayerful dialogue with Christ further and further into the margins. When placed in front of the fumie, we hear a voice telling him that it’s ok to step. Though the actual voice is that of Liam Neeson’s character Fr. Ferreira, we are left wondering once again: is it the voice of Christ, Satan, or perhaps Rodrigues’ own voice?
Scorsese seems to hint at Rodrigues’ true intentions when at several points he fazes in the face of Christ (from El Greco’s Veil of Veronica) over Rodrigues’ face. Is it that he yearns to see the face of Christ, or to view himself as his own god, as his own savior?
This, to me, is the genius of the story. On one’s own, no one can say yes to martyrdom. Without grace, without that dialogue, without the divine initiative of Another, no one can live up to the ideal of love or moral goodness by their own courage or moral strength. As Jesus Himself said, “no one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18).
Martyrdom is impossible for humans. Only he who remains poor—that is, open to grace…begging for grace—can find the courage to stand up to such seemingly pointless torture. He who wants to prove himself worthy will be humbled—as was Fr. Rodrigues.
Ironically, Andrew Garfield discovered this fact while preparing to play Fr. Rodrigues. It was while being led through the Ignatian Spiritual exercises by Fr. James Martin that he had a life-changing encounter with Christ.
“I feel like I’ve been gifted and cursed with a closeness to some grief…the grief of living…the grief of living in a time and a place where a life of joy and love is f–ing impossible…”
Through his meditations on the Gospels, he discovered that Christ offers a response to the “impossibility” of loving and living with joy.
The main thing that I wanted to heal, that I brought to Jesus, that I brought to the Exercises, was this feeling of not-enough-ness. This feeling of that forever longing for the perfect expression of this thing that is inside each of us. That wound of not-enough-ness. That wound of feeling like what I have to offer is never enough. –America Magazine
While I hope to never have to face martyrdom, I do have to face Rodrigues’ dilemma in my daily work. I want to help my students. I want to be of service to them. But can’t I do so just be being “good” or selfless. This naive intention lasts for the first few weeks of school. But soon I am humbled and realize that I don’t have it in me. I can’t give my students what they need…and I am certainly not their savior.
It’s only when I accept my poverty and go on my knees, praying for them, to understand them, to understand their needs, and to be able to serve them in the way they need me, that I begin to feel free in my front of my classes.
I take solace in one of the last scenes in which Kichijiro asks Fr. Rodrigues (post-apostasy) for confession. This sign reminds us that even when we abandon God, even when we try to take our lives—and the lives of others—into our own hands, He continues to reach out to us. Kichijiro is a supreme sign of God’s mercy, that God continues to desire Rodrigues, continues to call him, despite his betrayal.
While I understand people’s reservations about the implications of Silence, I think it presents all people with a crucial question whose answer we can’t afford to take for granted. Will I be Peter or Judas? Will I reject God’s grace, or will I accept His mercy, His renewed initiative to call me when I’ve been unfaithful, selfish, proud?
To face this question, I will return here to meditate on the closing words of Francis’ homily on the Japanese martyrs: “May we never forget their heroic sacrifice! May it not remain as a glorious relic of the past, to be kept and honored in a museum, but rather as a living memory, an inspiration for the works of the apostolate and a spur to renewed evangelization in this land.”