The following is a guest article by Geoff Jablonski.
Much has been said recently of Martin Scorsese’s latest film Silence. Debuting in Rome in November of last year, it has received critical acclaim from a number of places ranging from Hollywood blogs and movie critics to modern Jesuits such as Fr. James Martin. Sadly, the reviews of Fr. Martin and others, in explaining or defending the apostasy of the main character in the film, suggest that it is possible to maintain a true Faith in Christ separate from the Church. Not only is this not possible, but the suggestion is extremely dangerous to souls.
In this review of the film, we’re going to explore the movie’s spiritual aspects, particularly the tragic case of Fr. Sebastian Rodrigues (played by Andrew Garfield).
At the beginning of the film, Fr. Rodrigues and his companion Fr. Garrpe represent all that a priest should be; they possess a fierce apostolic zeal, love of the Gospel, and desire to see it germinate in even the most inhospitable of conditions. Their loyalty and devotion to the man who brought them up in the faith, Fr. Ferreira, is exemplary and shows itself in their refusal to believe in the validity of Fr. Ferreira’s apostasy as chronicled in a note read to them at the beginning of the film. Combined, these two things drive the two priests in their mission to save the floundering Church in Japan from sinking under the weight of terrible persecution and to discover what happened to their spiritual father. Even if he had apostatized, they said, they must go in search of him in order to bring him back to the Faith in order to save his soul. Such is the perfect reconciliation of missionary zeal with filial love in our two priests at the beginning of the movie.
Indeed, such characteristics are what pervade the movie in its first half. The scenes of catechesis, baptism, confession, Mass, and other religious events done clandestinely in the dark of night are reminiscent, as Fr. Rodrigues observes, of the first Christians in the Roman Catacombs. The Japanese Christians, whose very countenances have been changed under the weight of persecution, begin to be lifted with the restoration of a life strengthened by the Sacraments. Frs. Rodrigues and Garrpe show great virtue in leading their small flock, even risking the trip to outlying villages (Fr. Rodrigues, at one point, travels to Goto, an island off the coast where Fr. Ferreira had ministered) in order to minister the fledgling Christians there as well.
It is at this point that the Japanese authorities, the Samurai of the Tokugawa Shogunate, receive hints of Japanese Christians practicing their faith. Over the course of several days and encounters with the authorities, the Christians are discovered, arrested, and martyred. In order to spare the remaining villagers and cover more ground, Rodrigues and Garrpe separate. Garrpe journeys to Hirado and Rodrigues flees to Goto where he had previously ministered.
It is at this point, when first faced with persecution, obstacles, and adversity that one is able to discern a change in Fr. Rodrigues. When he first ministered on the island and discovered the Japanese Christians had little by way of religious items – crosses, crucifixes, rosaries, images, etc – he began to distribute what few objects he had. The intense desire of the Japanese to possess tangible objects of the faith (when they haven’t had them for years, if not decades) leads Fr. Rodrigues to interiorly question the sincerity of their faith on the grounds that they were attached not to the faith itself, but the objects he disperses. Is their devotion, he wonders, to the objects rather than the faith itself? Such an observation immediately stuck out to me. Considering the great tradition within Catholicism of religious art and its function within the Liturgy and Devotions of the Church, I struggle to understand how a priest ministering to Christians in these circumstances could honestly mistake their love of tangible reflections of their faith as something even remotely close to idolatrous love of images.
When the Japanese authorities show up at the original village and demand four hostages to be taken to Nagasaki, the village meets in order to determine how to proceed. When chosen, one of the men asks the priests what the hostages are to do should the fumie (a metal plate with a religious image, usually Christ or the Virgin) be placed before them. The act of apostasy would be to stamp upon the fumie. Immediately, Fr. Rodrigues encourages them to trample without question in order to save their lives. Struck by such a statement, Fr. Garrpe reproaches Rodrigues stating that such an act is a public renunciation of Christ and that one cannot do it under any circumstances.
Fr. Rodrigues returns to Goto and finds it destroyed and abandoned. After journeying through the countryside for a few days, he begins to discuss God’s “silence” in the face of the Japanese Christians’ suffering and of his own prayers. After reuniting with Kichijiro (the man who had brought him to Japan), Fr. Rodrigues is betrayed and captured by the Japanese. It is his relationship and conversations with the Japanese authorities that truly show the internal state of affairs of Fr. Rodrigues’ mind and soul.
The Japanese offer Fr. Rodrigues an interpreter for his cross-examinations and in their first conversation, the two discuss the merits and philosophy of Christianity versus the indigenous religion of Buddhism. The interpreter then discusses that previous priests never showed an affinity for anything Japanese – culture, language, fashion, etc – and he asks if in his time ministering to the Christians of Tomogi and Goto, Fr. Rodrigues ever bothered to learn anything about the culture he was ministering to. The conversation ends after the interpreter inquires as to how much of the language Fr. Rodrigues has learned in his time in Japan. Unable to make any coherent answer in Japanese, the interpreter leaves the cell, confident that Fr. Rodrigues is the same as the other missionaries who have never gained an appreciation for Japan and says to the guards, “An arrogant man, which means he will fall like the rest.”
This is an incredibly astute and subtle remark that betrays a flaw in the way in which Fr. Rodrigues had ministered. Though we are afforded few details into the more specific aspects of how Fr. Rodrigues ministers to his flock, such a statement seems to indicate that Fr. Rodrigues was only ever focused on his twofold goal of 1) Religious ministry to the Japanese and 2) Finding Fr. Ferreira. Indeed, of the few times we see Fr. Rodrigues interacting with the Japanese outside a purely religious context, he is asking them if they know of Fr. Ferreira or where he is. There is very little interaction between the priests and laity on a personal level where the focus is not exclusively that of religion, but upon the personal circumstances the Japanese Christians find themselves in. In personal experience, one of the great things that has drawn me to Catholicism, and the Fraternity of St. Peter in particular, is not only the great holiness of the priests, but also their ability to both meet me as a spiritual father (inculcating dogma, doctrine, and Church Teaching) and as a human being, anxious to know what is going on in my life outside the church walls and how they can help make me the man that God wills me to be. There is precious little of this present during the ministry of Fr. Rodrigues.
The first time Rodrigues is before the Samurai, the interpreter’s remarks are further confirmed when Fr. Rodrigues demands that they test his faith. Such a request is noble in principle, but the way in which Fr. Rodrigues voices it – defiance – indicates a personal pride, arrogance, and assuredness about his own faith compared with the faiths of the Japanese Christians. Such an attitude is personified when Rodrigues, perceiving that the Japanese may not be taking him as seriously as he desires, demands to be shown to Inoue, the Japanese Inquisitor. Following his request, the five samurai erupt into laughter, revealing that the old Samurai present throughout the movie is none other than Inoue himself, the governor of the province of Japan where Frs. Rodrigues and Garrpe had landed. The incident reminded me of the words of St. Paul, “Wherefore he that thinketh himself to stand, let him take heed lest he fall (1 Corinthians 10:12).”
In another climactic scene, Fr. Rodrigues is taken from his cell to the beach where he is shown four Japanese Christians who will be martyred by drowning. From a distance, he sees Fr. Garrpe and the interpreter explains that unless Fr. Garrpe apostatizes, the four Christians will die. When he refuses to do so, and the Christians are thrown into the sea, Garrpe immediately jumps into the water in order to save those who are drowning and dies in the process.
Throughout this scene, Fr. Rodrigues is restrained by the interpreter and other men, but it is where his attention is that is important. His attention is not upon the Japanese Christians about to be murdered, but upon Fr. Garrpe and he shouts, repeatedly, for Garrpe to apostatize in order to save their lives.
This event brings to a head the divergence of Fr. Garrpe and Fr. Rodrigues. Though coming to Japan of one mind and heart, it quickly becomes apparent that the two viewed things in Japan differently. The episode of trampling the fumie was but one example. Fr. Garrpe ends his life trying to save his flock. Fr. Rodrigues seeks to save the lives of the Christians at the expense of Fr. Garrpe’s immortal soul through the sin of apostasy. Fr. Garrpe seems to understand and be guided by the principle that while one may exchange one’s physical life for the physical life of another, one is never permitted to bring death to the soul for the sake of another’s physical wellbeing. Fr. Rodrigues, on the other hand, time and again places a greater value on preserving the earthly lives of the Japanese Christians than their immortal souls.
In a scene shortly following the death of Fr. Garrpe, Fr. Rodrigues is brought to a traditional Japanese home in Nagasaki, which belongs to Fr. Ferreira. Ferreira, who did apostatize as was rumored earlier in the film, has taken a Japanese name (Sawano Chūan), married a Japanese woman, instructs the Japanese in medicine and astronomy, and is writing in apologetics against the Christian Faith. Far from a simple apostasy made under the threat of torment, torture, and/or death, Ferreira has gone wholly over to the Japanese, even attempting to refute the very religion and cause he had once vowed to give his life for.
As Ferreira and Rodrigues come face-to-face, Ferreira can only keep his eyes down. Rodrigues, staring intently at his old master, can hardly believe what has happened and begins questioning him. Finally, at the pleading of Rodrigues, Ferreira relates that he believes Christianity to be a lost cause in Japan. After 15 years of working in the country and another year of living in the temple, Ferreira believes the “swamp” of Japan to be incompatible with Christianity, claiming the roots of Christianity, no matter how many times they are planted, will only rot. After the objections of Rodrigues about the 300,000 initial converts, the churches built, and the lives that were changed, Ferreira simply concludes that the faith of the Japanese was never in the Christian God, but it in a bastardization of it and that the Japanese whose martyrdom Rodrigues witnessed were not dying for God, but for Rodrigues himself.
Ferreira’s explanation for the Japanese faith is that they worship neither God nor the Son of God, but the sun itself. To Christians, the Son of God rose on the 3rd day, but to the Japanese, “…the ‘sun’ of God rises every day.” In Japan, Ferreira continues, man finds his true nature and is able to live at peace with nature and himself. It is here that man truly finds God.
That night, Fr. Rodrigues is thinking in his cell of the great difficulty Christ suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane. He finds the words, “Laudate Eum,” (“Praise Him” in Latin) etched into the stone (having been done so by Fr. Ferreira when he was imprisoned). While seeking to pray, Rodrigues’ concentration is interrupted by several noises that resemble snoring and coughing. Seeking peace and respite, he demands the guard outside his cell cease sleeping. He is answered by Ferreira who states that the noise isn’t snoring, but 5 Christians being tortured. They are hung upside down, their heads immersed in a pit filled with animal entrails, human excrement, and other refuse while they slowly bleed to death by way of a small incision made behind the ear. Ferreira upbraids Rodrigues for meditating on the Agony in Gethsemane, stating that neither Rodrigues nor any man is worthy to compare himself to Christ.
As he is brought out of his cell, Rodrigues demands they apostatize only to be told by Ferreira that they already have several times over. They will not be let go until Fr. Rodrigues apostatizes himself.
In the climactic scene of the movie, a fumie is brought before Fr. Rodrigues. As he wrestles with the temptation to trample, Ferreira tells him that he can save the men and that, “There are some things more important than the judgment of the Church. If Christ was here and he was able to save these people by apostatizing, he would apostatize. Christ would apostatize.” As he approaches the fumie, Ferreira implores him to trample stating, “You are about to make the most painful act of love ever made.” Finally, after weeks and weeks of suffering, it seems that the voice of Christ speaks from the fumie, saying, “You may trample. You may trample. I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. You may trample. It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.” (quote from the book) Rodrigues then tramples and the scene fades to black.
It is these two scenes, more than any others, which indicate the movement of both Ferreira and Rodrigues throughout the movie. From the time that Rodrigues first meets Ferreira, Rodrigues’ interpreter exhorts Rodrigues to follow the path laid down by Ferreira. He describes it as logical, merciful, and beneficial for all. It is this path and its natural terminus that I want to focus on in light of the two events.
Ferreira knows he is an apostate and is only seeking to convince himself. In the first scene, he cannot bear to look Rodrigues in the eye, knowing that Rodrigues has, for the time being, remained loyal to the Faith and is convinced of the truthfulness of his cause. Finally, after being prompted to speak multiple times, Ferreira launches into an angry tirade against the Church, the Faith, priests, missionaries, and against God Himself. His arguments stem more from anger and frustration than reason and logic.
In the scenes involving the Japanese Christians, their manner of worship, and the reverence with which they adore both the priests and God, we see no indication, absolutely none, that they worship something other than God and His Christ. Even the word Ferreira uses to describe the deity the Japanese supposedly worship is never used by the Japanese Christians. However, the words God, Lord, Jesus, Christ, and others used by everyday Christians ARE used by them in a manner indistinguishable from the way your or I would use them.
Secondly, Ferreira’s argument that the Japanese Christians died for the priest and not God flies in the face of the pleas and prayers of the four martyrs from the beginning of the movie. They invoke Psalms and words of our Lord such as, “Father, into your hands I commend the spirit of jiisama (Japanese word for elder, referring to one of the other marytrs),” the Tantum Ergo, and other invocations of the Lord. There is no indication, whatsoever that the Japanese martyrs are any different in their desire to give up their lives for Christ their God than the martyrs of Rome.
Finally, and most damning of all to Ferreira’s position is the historical evidence surrounding the Church in Japan. Following the expulsion of the final Japanese Missionaries in the 17th Century, the Church went underground. For nearly 200 years until the Meiji Restoration the Japanese Christians continued to pass on the Faith without the benefit of the sacraments (with the exception of baptism). When Missionaries returned to Japan after nearly two centuries, Japanese “Kirishitans” emerged with a faith and catechesis as solid as the day the last priest had left. In spite of the greatest efforts of the state to stamp out the Faith, threatened as they were by the transcendent message and character of the Gospel, they had failed even when they thought they had succeeded. The story of the Japanese Martyrs and Japanese Church in the face of persecution bears remarkable resemblance to stories found all over the world. Virtually every region of the world has its own martyrs. The Church celebrates the Roman Martyrs, the Chinese Martyrs, the North American Martyrs, the Vietnamese Martyrs, the Uganda Martyrs, and so many others. Although Ferreira could not have known that the Christian Faith would survive 200 years completely underground with no clergy, he should have had the sense to glance back in history and seen how Christians were treated and realized that if the Faith survived there, it would survive in Japan.
On a personal note, I have had the privilege of living in Japan and witnessing the faith of the Japanese Catholics. They are as reverent, delightful, friendly, sociable, and loving a group of Catholics as I have ever met. The Church remains strong and rooted in the hearts of the Japanese from the Trappist Monastery in Hokkaido to the strong presence of the Franciscans and Jesuits in Nagasaki.
Having followed the path of Ferreira to the end, Rodrigues suffers the same fate. After being promised that his apostasy was a mere formality, that it was a not true betrayal of the faith, and that he would be freed afterwards, Fr. Rodrigues becomes a stooge of the state. Forced to take a Japanese wife, a Japanese name, and renew his apostasy year after year, it becomes clear that just as Ferreira had lost the faith, so too did Rodrigues. His own loss of the faith is revealed most obviously when he is forced to work for the Japanese Government and prevent articles of the Faith (books, statues, images, etc) from being smuggled into the country through Dutch Merchants. Not only has he now lost his own Faith, he is now actively working to destroy the Faith of others, in spite of the fact that Japanese Christianity was not possible, as Ferreira and nearly every non-Christian Japanese had told him. How is it that one can operate under the logical fallacy that Japanese Christianity is a farce and not real, yet be employed by the state in eradicating the very thing which does not exist, or will die out on its own anyway?
In seeking to find man’s true nature in Japan through apostasy, Ferreira and Rodrigues have settled for the fallen man. In seeking to find solace, Rodrigues rightly and naturally seeks to find consolation in the Passion of Christ. For that, Ferreira rebukes him stating that his own difficulties are nothing compared to the Agony of Christ in the garden and that no man is worthy to do such a thing. In adopting such a position, Ferreira has rejected one of the great gifts of the Passion and the Gospel, the ability to see that Christ has shared in all of our suffering, desolation, and difficulty and that we can look to Him and find comfort. The Apostle writes, “For we have not a high priest, who cannot have compassion on our infirmities: but one tempted in all things like as we are, without sin (Hebrews 4:15).” The beauty of such an image and concept is that God has become one of us to share in our misery and in so doing enables us to find a source of comfort and inspiration. St. Athanasius writes that, “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” In rejecting the notion that we can seek consolation in Christ, Ferreira ultimately rejects the entire purpose of the Incarnation.
That is what is so insidious about the words from fumie and seeking to attribute them to Christ. He who came to make all things new through the Cross comforts Rodrigues in his temptation by seeking to assure him that to remain on a purely natural level is perfectly fine. To trample and not display heroic virtue is condonable. After all, states the voice, that is why “I came,” to be trampled on by man and bear their pain. Yet, the voice stops there, completely distorting the truthfulness of the statement by not finishing the message. Christ did not come to be trampled upon by man so that we may remain in our sins, but that so we may become new men. He came to pay our debt and earn for us the grace necessary to become sons and daughters of God. That doesn’t happen without the Cross; it doesn’t happen unless we deny ourselves, pick up our cross daily, and follow after Him. In my own view, the voice emanating from the fumie is nothing but the voice of Satan. He twists the words and ideas of Sacred Scripture for his own purpose: the apostasy and damnation of a priest, so that those he leads may also fall.
Finally, there is a small, but significant, difference between the movie and the book at the end. In the book, immediately following Rodrigues’ apostasy, a cock crows. The overarching tone of the epilogue describing Rodrigues’ “employment” by the state is constantly done in reference to the “Apostate Priest Rodrigues,” and he is never given a positive reputation. Endo, it seems, is describing Rodrigues’ action as an act of betrayal and confirms him as an apostate. The film, however, leaves the cock crow out and at the end of the movie we witness the Buddhist Funeral of Rodrigues. As his coffin burns, we are taken inside where we see a tiny crucifix in the hand of Fr. Rodrigues’ body.
Though I can’t be sure of Scorsese’s intent, this addition, which is absent from the book, seems to indicate that in spite of all that he has been through, suffered, and done, Fr. Rodrigues remained, at some level, a Christian. The problems of such a statement are numerous and enormous. A Christian is not called to privatize his religion. Our Lord did not command us to practice in private and never mention Him to the world; He commanded us to go out and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them the precepts of the Gospel. This is why civil governments from Rome to the Tokugawa Shogunate have always persecuted Christians – because they preach a kingdom, law, and life that transcend their domain and reign. To do what Fr. Rodrigues did is still apostasy, it rejects Christ’s message to declare Him before men. We cannot be Christians only in private; we must also be Christians publicly. If that means risking martyrdom, then that is what is required. Nothing can stand in the way of our love of Christ, His Church, or His Gospel. We must love God to the point that the love we have of ourselves must appear as bitter hatred. “Every one therefore that shall confess me before men, I will also confess him before my Father who is in heaven. But he that shall deny me before men, I will also deny him before my Father who is in heaven. Do not think that I came to send peace upon earth: I came not to send peace, but the sword. For I came to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s enemies shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me, is not worthy of me; and he that loveth son or daughter more than me, is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not up his cross, and followeth me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life, shall lose it: and he that shall lose his life for me, shall find it (Matthew 10:32-39).”
LT Geoff Jablonski is a naval officer and convert to Catholicism. He has been on Active Duty since 2011 and currently works in Dahlgren, VA. Geoff will separate from the Navy in September 2017 out of a desire to discern the priesthood and attend seminary at Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Denton, NE with the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter. He is 28 years old and resides in Fredericksburg, VA.