When St. Francis Xavier brought Catholicism to Japan in 1549, conversions were hard to come by. Xavier struggled to learn Japanese, and initially relied on imagery, usually illustrations of Christ, Mary, and the saints to tell the Christian story. He died just three years into his mission.
Yet hundreds of thousands did convert, and the Japanese Church flourished for more than a generation, until the persecutions began. In 1597, twenty-six Christians were crucified in Nagasaki. Then beginning in the following year and continuing into the 1630s, another 205 were martyred throughout the country. And by the time the two Portuguese priest-heroes of Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel, Silence, came to Japan in 1639, an additional 206 had been killed for being Kirishitan.
What Japanese authorities had taken to be a curious adjunct of trade with Western nations was now considered a lethal threat to the nation’s cultural patrimony. Missionary work was dangerous, and those fictional priests, based on real missionaries, fully expected to die for Jesus.
But Endō’s book (and Martin Scorsese’s new film version of it) isn’t about martyrdom; it’s about avoiding it. Above all, the authorities want apostasy (sincere or not), and most of the main characters apostatize.
Now it’s easy at the distance of half a millennium to look with disdain upon a priest who knows the risks and yet abandons the profession of faith to which his ordination bound him. Scorsese seems to ask: What would you do when asked to trample on a sacred image of Jesus, if doing so would save the lives of others? Kirishitans are hanging upside down in a pit, small incisions in their necks, slowly bleeding to death, and only you can save them. All you have to do is stamp your foot on a fumi-e – a sort of demonic icon depicting Christ. What would you do?
Well, those hundreds of real Japanese martyrs, saints one and all, perished because they refused to apostatize – because they believed their lives, though ending in agony, were redeemed by Christ. Eternal joy awaited them.
Endō was a Catholic convert, and it’s fair to wonder how complete his conversion was. Martin Scorsese is a cradle Catholic who, despite meeting with Pope Francis during promotion of his movie (which premiered on December 23rd), shows no signs of being a faithful Catholic.