January 9, 2017



The new Scorsese film, "Silence," based on the 1966 historical novel (with the same title) by Japanese Catholic, Shûsaku Endô, is a take on: missionary activity, Christianity, the priesthood, the sacraments, religious persecution, torture, suffering, the suffering of God and the God of suffering. I read the haunting novel several years ago, and I'm sure the ending is what sticks with everyone: the conundrum of an ultimatum that does not allow YOU to suffer for your Faith, but rather makes OTHERS suffer for YOUR Faith until YOU renounce God (or "apostatize," making you an "apostate"). And actually, it doesn't even matter if those made to suffer for you are your fellow Christians or not: human beings will suffer greatly because of YOUR profession of faith.

The main way (among others) that Christians had to denounce Christ and faith in Christ was to step on His image.


Now, perhaps the above information was a bit of a SPOILER for you. If so, I apologize. But it casts a back-shadow over the whole story and is actually its premise. Two young Portuguese Jesuits (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) go to Japan to find their older mentor-priest (Liam Neeson) who, it is rumored, has apostatized. They meet up with secret Japanese Christians along the way and minister to them. For these young, idealistic and fervent men, the glory of martyrdom is straightforward and clear cut. They refuse to believe their spiritual father has abandoned Christ and are convinced it's simply the slander of Japanese officials. They can't imagine the choice and the crossroad before them--they will tread the exact same excruciating path their beloved mentor trod.


Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka) is a Christian who denied Christ out of weakness, and we can tell right away that he's going to be trouble, a kind of Judas figure that can't be trusted. However, just like the rest of this rich tale, he is not going to be a typical tragic Judas figure. In fact, he's even a bit of comic relief. At no point are we directed to judge anyone--only to keep putting ourselves in the midst of these troubled times and in the place of these troubled souls. Jesus Himself is presented in the film as a compatriot, a com-passionate-er ("to suffer with"), a Savior, a model, a friend--not a judge.


Japan is spoken of as a "swamp" by the missionaries and the Japanese themselves. A swamp that drowned Christianity (Christianity had flourished in the time of Francis Xavier and immediately after, until the Japanese officials not only instituted a crushing and murderous persecution, but forced priests to make the terrible decision.) But. #1 Christianity survived (albeit in small numbers) and was reintroduced in later centuries. #2 If the Japanese officials had found the perfect way to kill Christianity, why was this tactic not used everywhere in the world that opposes Christianity or opposes anything else for that matter? Surely this is not the first time oppressors realized that threatening someone's family/friends works way better than threatening the person themselves! So, on one hand, I think it's a false conundrum. What I used to think was the absolute death knell of faith (when I first read "Silence") is just another dastardly trick.


What does "silence" mean? The silence of God in the face of human suffering. In the face of prayers that seem to spiral out into a void. The silence of the lack of God's intervention in affairs both human and divine. But here we must be careful of demanding God to fulfill promises He never made. Tell me where/when Jesus ever promised a life free of suffering to His followers or anyone else? Where did Jesus promise us long life or even tomorrow? This is all wishful thinking on our part. Instead, Jesus promised us the exact opposite: persecution, death, hatred, the exact same treatment He received. "God is not a rescuer, He's a Redeemer" (my friend, Fr. Michael D'Cruz, OFM, 60 years a priest). Still want to be a Christian? "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life" (John 6:68).


But just to play devil's advocate here: was outward apostasy the only choice? What if the priests had refused to publicly "deny" Christ and had to continue to listen/watch as the Christians (who had already apostatized and would only be relieved by the priests' forfeiture) were tortured? (And we know the Japanese officials were true to their word and ceased the torture as soon as the priests capitulated.) Surely this was still a choice--but not a "Christian" one? Christ/Christianity does not believe in avoiding suffering at any cost, but neither does it accept suffering that can be avoided--even at great cost--out of compassion. And yet--might the Japanese officials have believed if the priests "stood firm"? Or would they have thought the priests and their God cruel beyond words--crueler than themselves? Or would it have made no difference either way? Did not the early Roman martyrs face similar choices? Who did the priests really need to witness to: God? Themselves? The Japanese officials? The Japanese Christians? Christian Europe? History? The future? All the above? God is merciful, certainly, but what of: "...if we endure, we will also reign with Him; if we deny Him, He will also deny us..." (2 Timothy 2:12)? Is our profession of faith the one thing we must never give up in this world no matter what?

BIG SPOILER ALERT: In the film, Jesus imaginatively begins to give an answer to the conundrum  (so much for "silence"). He soothingly says: "Go ahead. Trample Me. That's what I came for: to be trampled on." I don't know if I'm the only one who thought this--but those could be the very words of Satan. A deception of Satan. I really got the creeps at this point in the film.


Apostasy was THE great unforgivable (in many Christian leaders' eyes) sin of early Christian times. Many who apostatized were not readmitted to the Church after persecutions died down, and a controversy over how to deal with apostates raged. "Silence" just made me think how easily we apostatize today! Without even any serious threats! How we are actually living in times of such weak faith and mass apostasy--without people even realizing what they're doing. It's almost like we act as though we're living in an illusion where nothing really matters, nothing is really real and there are no real consequences to our actions or inaction. But such are our New-Age-tinged, relativistic times that tell us there is no immutable objective truth to be sought, known or adhered to. Let alone God.


Blessed Franz Jagerstatter, "the only Austrian to stand up to Hitler," was told that because he wanted to do his precious little conscience, his wife and three daughters were going to suffer. Although he wasn't faced with the clear, horrorful choice of the Portuguese Jesuits, he nevertheless stated: "I don't think that just because a man has a family he is dispensed from doing his conscience." Wow. Let that sink in. We all have someone to protect. During the time of the Maccabees, the mother of the seven martyr-sons was told to dissuade her sons from death, but she did nothing of the kind and instead encouraged them to give up their bodies and limbs to the One who gave them and could restore them. And the old Jewish man was told to pretend to eat pork and save his life, but he said: "What kind of an example will that give to the young?" I know this is all so harsh. I'm just sayin. (Incidentally, Jagerstatter was guillotined by the Nazis--face up--and nothing bad happened to his family.)


I am not strong. I have a pain tolerance of zero. And I am a totally chicken- and lily-livered in the face of any intimation of any kind of bodily harm. Without some kind of extraordinary grace of God, I would cave in, oh, the first 4 seconds of torture. What would I have done in the priests' situation? I don't know. And so, we must all throw ourselves on God's mercy. At all moments. This is definitely a film about mercy.


The Christians are all peasants who have come to see themselves as beloved sons and daughters of the Father. "Christianity brought love." They are no longer animals and slaves. Not only that, there is a "paradise" awaiting them. Are they fools? Only if it's not true. So Christianity is the religion of the poor? Yes. The poor in spirit. And guess what. We're all going to die. Rich and poor alike. As the non-denoms and fundys and Evangelicals like to ask: "Are you saved?" "Do you know where you're going?" It's kind of an important question. Actually, it's all that really matters, isn't it?


The padres are not seen as gods to the Christian peasants, but they understand very clearly that the sacraments (God working through matter) come through these chosen men. Sometimes they seem to have more faith in the priesthood than the priests themselves. How often the priests are edified by their great faith! Let's remember that these valiant Christians really did exist. Thousands were killed for their faith. And who are we to judge their faith? Maybe it is simpler and truer and purer than our own. If anything--these Christians could stand in judgment of the faith (or lack thereof) of us Christians of today.


There is so much in this non-tedious 2 hours and 41 minutes film that we could and should talk about for days. It's not that it's jam-packed, it's just that the very nature of God, faith, culture, Christianity and suffering are all glaring, blaring, blazing themes, and they all come together in one big package--of necessity. My head is still spinning. In a good way. And, on top of it all, many of us watching this film are looking at our Euro-centric forebears in the Faith who had a deeper, more tactile, more immediate, more vibrant, more black and white, more urgent sense of salvation than we soft, 21st-century, relativistic, dualistic (separating body and soul), abstracting postmoderns can even begin to muster a concept of. One would hope that we ahistorical folks are able at least to realize what a different mindset people had at this time in history (both the European Christians and the Japanese Buddhists). "Freedom of religion" as we understand it today was largely unheard of in the 17th century.


What does Scorsese think? What does Scorsese believe? I think he tipped his hand in the closing scene and the brief text-epilogue-dedication. I would rather the film have been without both.



--Garfield was good. Perhaps a bit too perky and hopeful and not anguished enough. Driver was also good, but wasn't given many lines or much of a part, really.
The Japanese actors are P-H-E-N-O-M-E-N-A-L.

--The cinematography was not really lush, certainly nowhere near as lush as "Kundun." "Silence" is a dire human drama that can't afford to get lost in beauteous nature. There is no great horrific gore-fest here (that Scorsese could have done so well). Rather we get lost in the faith of the people, not their pain.

--Evil is not "beautiful." It is glamorous. And no one needs be "worthy" to be called evil as though evil is an actual good or substance. It is only a lack. Evil is the great illusion that will be done away with.

--Bishop Barron's even-more-spoilery-than-my-review-review (I agree with his critique in part): https://www.wordonfire.org/resources/article/scorseses-silence-and-the-seaside-martyrs/5360
Before the film came out, friends of mine were worried that the message would be: "See? Capitulation and dissembling and complying are ALWAYS better than suffering: one's own or someone else's." But that wasn't quite the message, especially when we see in the film plenty of Japanese being killed for the Faith outright with no complex dilemmas involved.... I do agree that the heroes put forth here are the "simple" Japanese faithful. But when we get to the other side, we'll see whether or not they were so "simple." Maybe just "stalwart"? At any rate, we know for a fact that they are saints. Martyr-saints.

Bishop Barron draws an interesting parallel with today's persecution: the privatization of the Faith. A Faith which is increasingly being restricted from being Catholically operative in the public sphere or in works of charity such as education, healthcare, etc. The Catholic Church increasingly cannot actually require that her institutions be Catholic any more. She "must" operate according to the "progressive" mores and policies of an "enlightened" society.

--Good, brief overview of book and film: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silence_(novel)

--"America Magazine" interview with Martin Scorsese: http://www.americamagazine.org/issue/creating-silence

--A historian friend of mine has this to say:
"Cristóvão Ferreira, the priest (Liam Neeson) in , actually recanted his denial of Christ & died a Christian martyr"
"A simple Google search reveals that historically there have been sources revealing that witnesses reported his conversion at the end of his life and subsequent martydom. The book 'Silence' is historical fiction. There is controversy regarding this real priest. Unfortunately Scorsese and his priest consultant James Martin SJ chose the negative interpretation. The Japanese author admitted that he hypothesized what could have happened not what did happen. We need a Catholic historian to write a review based on historical analysis.

I think Endo did nothing wrong because he presented it as fiction. Scorsese conflates the history and the fiction by focusing on a real person without a disclaimer, without a note in the beginning that this is based on a novel. It is not fair to include a real historical person in a film yet not acknowledge that the ending is fictional. It saddens me that Scorsese neglected to include even the possibility based on historical accounts that Fr. Ferreira may have returned to the Church and died as a martyr.

The beautiful part of the film was the coverage of the martyrs. Very moving. It's too bad the ending had to be so negative. Jesus would never say deny me and trample on me. He said if we deny him, he will deny us. Of course he is merciful to we who do things out of fear but this film glorifies apostasy and doubt."

--My 90 second audio review:


  1. Thanks Sister for your post.

  2. Jon Hartman8:58 PM

    Interesting. I have read the book and I have not seen the movie yet. It's ok to be disappointed in the ending but also, it's important not to romanticize martyrdom. You were given beautiful examples of martyrs. The author just put more effort into an emotional connection to a character that disappointed you. Why were you disappointed? Kind of just explore that. Just something to think about.