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The Future of the Faith

2/1/2017

by Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson

A new film about 17th-century missionaries sheds light on the mission of the Church today

Carl A. Anderson

Carl A. Anderson

RECENTLY, I HAD the opportunity to view Martin Scorsese’s new film, Silence, about two Jesuit missionaries who travel to Japan during the terrible 17th-century persecution of Christians there. They make the journey seeking to disprove rumors that a more senior Jesuit missionary in Japan has publicly renounced the faith.

Silence is based upon the 1966 novel of the same name by the late Japanese Catholic author Shusaku Endo. The book raises profound questions regarding the challenge to Christian faith in the midst of suffering and a hostile culture. The most obvious is suggested by the film’s title: How are we to understand the silence of God amid great suffering and evil?

This is one of the deepest questions of our time, and it is explored in works about the Holocaust such as Elie Wiesel’s book Night (1956) and Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List (1993).

Catholics have also long admired three exceptional films that have masterfully dealt with the question of conscience and martyrdom: Becket (1964), A Man for All Seasons (1966), and The Mission (1986). Now, 30 years after the last of these, a fourth must be added to the list: Silence.

Some Catholics might wish that a film exploring this topic did not involve a plot about the apostasy of priests. But Scorsese has made a beautiful and important film, one that raises many profound moral and spiritual questions. He said making the film was a sort of “pilgrimage” for him.

Catholics should see his film in just this way — as a kind of pilgrimage, as a challenging and at times uncomfortable spiritual journey that can deepen our understanding and living of the faith.

Silence could not be more relevant today as globalization presents new challenges to the Church’s mission of evangelization.

During one of the film’s highpoints there is an exchange between two Jesuit missionaries. The younger Jesuit asserts that Christianity is universally true — if it is not true in every culture, then it cannot be true for any. But the older one replies that Christianity cannot take root in Japan.

The reality is, however, that thousands of Japanese had become Christians and endured horrible torture and death rather than renounce their faith. But to this fact, the older Jesuit claims that these Japanese martyrs do not really understand the faith; they embrace a mere shell of Christianity.

There is something deeply troubling about this scene, where the sophisticated, highly educated Westerner rationalizes his abandonment of Christianity, while “wretched” Japanese peasants willingly give their lives for their faith.

In many places in the West today, the light of Christian faith is diminishing, while throughout much of the rest of the world Christianity is growing stronger. This is especially true in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, where many Christians are being persecuted and killed because of their faith.

That Silence, written by a Japanese Catholic, would have such impact in the West should tell us something important about the future of global Christianity.

Years ago, I visited the Hawaiian island of Molokai on a private pilgrimage in the footsteps of Father Damien. The “leper priest” was canonized in 2009, and the “colony” he served still exists on the island, with an active Catholic church.

I will never forget seeing a photo of a woman of Japanese descent who suffered from leprosy. She prayed the rosary many times a day. When she no longer had fingers, she held the rosary beads with her toes. Finally, when this, too, became impossible, she would have the rosary placed in her mouth and moved the beads with her tongue.

I thought of this woman as I reflected on the questions raised by Silence: How can Christianity take root in non-Western cultures? What is the meaning of suffering in the midst of God’s silence? Can the sophisticated learn faith from the poor and suffering? What is the impact of globalization on the solidarity of Christians?

Christians will need to contend with these questions in the coming years, and how we do so will determine in many ways the future of Christianity. Through our principles of charity, unity and fraternity, Knights of Columbus are already providing concrete answers on all these fronts. And we must continue.

Vivat Jesus!