In the history of the Church, many martyrs died for the Faith. Starting with Saint Stephen the Protomartyr shortly after the Resurrection, they were the first to be remembered, venerated for their public witness and raised to the altars with the title of saint. There are also those who denied the Faith under pressure. They are forgotten and buried in the dark recesses of history.
The modern world has a problem with martyrs. People cannot understand the glory of their witness for Christ. Modern man would rather try to find some justification behind the anguished decision of those who deny the Faith.
Such is the case of Martin Scorsese’s latest film “Silence.” It is a tale about this second category of non-martyrs—of whom Our Lord said: “But he that shall deny me before men, I will also deny him before my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 10:33).
Curiously, early reviews of “Silence,” have been negative—even by liberal media hostile to the Church. The consensus is that Scorsese’s attempt to propose for general admiration one who outwardly denied the Faith has fallen flat.
Perhaps it is because human nature finds such denials distasteful. Even the director’s talents, Hollywood special effects and media publicity cannot overcome it. Scorsese’s tortuous attempt to justify his tormented protagonist proves tedious and unconvincing.
Hollywood’s Teaching Authority
“Silence” is based on a 1966 novel of the same name by the Japanese author Shusaku Endo. The plot revolves around the fictional character of a Portuguese Jesuit priest in seventeenth century Japan at the time of a violent anti-Catholic persecution. The film represents a “struggle of faith” in which the priest must choose between the lives of his flock and his Faith. In the face of his trials, he finds God is silent to his entreaties, hence the film’s title. Finally, Christ Himself supposedly breaks the silence by interiorly telling the priest that he might outwardly deny the Faith by trampling upon His image to save his flock.
Such a shallow story so contrary to all Church teaching would usually pose no threat to Catholics who are firm in their Faith. However, Hollywood has tragically assumed the role of a teaching authority to countless American Catholics. Thus, the principal lesson taught by the film—that outwardly denying the Faith can sometimes be justified and even desired by God—does pose a danger to the many uncatechized that might mistake Hollywood script for Scriptures. Any silence about “Silence” might be misconstrued as consent.
It is not the case to review the film or explore its convoluted plot and subplots. Such films are nothing new; they are simply means to reinforce certain false premises that undermine the Faith. It is far better to address the false premises themselves and, especially as it applies to modernity’s woeful misunderstanding of martyrdom.
Martyrdom Is Not Defeat
The first false premise is the modern assumption that life is the supreme value. This is a terrible premise since if there are no values worth dying for then there is no real reason worth living for. In a materialistic world that adores life and its enjoyment, martyrdom represents failure. Those who renounce the Faith and martyrdom are winners. Those who don’t are losers.
The message of fictional accounts like “Silence,” is that life is to be worshipped to such extent that even God must be made complicit in inspiring the apostasy that saves the lives of the faithful. However, such accounts are indeed fiction; they ignore the historical reality of what happened.
A Denial of the Historical Record
The historic record of the Japanese martyrs is one of the most glorious in Church history. It is a burning rebuke of modernity’s idolization of life. Tens of thousands suffered or died at the hands of cruel executioners. If tales are needed to inspire authors, let writers tell of the courage, heroism and constancy of these Japanese martyrs, young and old, male and female, religious and secular, who joyfully gave their lives for Christ and earned for themselves the crown of eternal glory. If villains need be found for their stories, let them find them in the cruel governors and judges who condemned the Christians to death.
In 1776, Saint Alphonsus de Liguori wrote the book, The Victories of the Martyrs, which has one large section that tells incredible stories of the Japanese martyrs. He speaks of a Japanese Christian named Ursula, for example, who upon seeing her husband and two young children martyred, cried out: “Be Thou praised, O My God! For having rendered me worthy to be present at this sacrifice, now grant me the grace to have a share in their crown!” She and her youngest daughter were then beheaded.
Indeed, any priest who would renounce his Faith to save the lives of his flock would be reviled by the Japanese faithful for both his denial and depriving the flock of the crown of martyrdom.
If there is any silence in Scorcese’s “Silence,” it is that silence which ignores the dauntless courage and supernatural joy found in the Japanese martyrs and missionaries whose witness was so superior that their enemies were defeated by their arguments and resorted to killing them. Their martyrdom was their victory, not their defeat.
Acts Have Meaning
A second premise is that outward acts have no meaning, or can mean whatever the person determines them to be. Such a premise is typical of postmodern thought that would “deconstruct” acts from their natural meaning and context.
Thus, any benefit or inspiration can justify an act that signifies the denial of the Faith, since acts have no fixed meaning. Indeed, the theme of the film shrouds the outward denial with the good intentions of the protagonist’s concern for the safety of his flock.
Again, this shows a profound misunderstanding of the idea of martyrdom. The word martyr itself means witness—an external manifestation of Faith to others. The postmodern interpretation of the martyr’s dilemma questions the notion that there can be witnesses that are so firmly convinced of the truths of the Catholic religion that they gladly suffer death rather than deny it. The “meta-narrative” of the great deeds of the martyrs is no longer valued. Even the idea of truth is relative. All must be reduced to the level of personal experience.
Again, such an interpretation runs contrary to the historical reality that was centered on the notion of objective truth. Those who persecute the Church hate this truth and the moral law taught by Christ and His Church. They especially hate the public witness given by Christians because this witness denounces them for their sins and wickedness. All they asked of their victims was an outward sign of denial. For this reason, persecutors often preferred to force Christians to deny the Faith than to take their lives.
Historically, that is why those who persecute the Church are always willing to offer honors, offices and benefits to those who renounce the Faith. They will always give Christians an excuse to stop being witnesses. This includes those “good intentions” to diminish the sufferings of family, relatives and fellow Christians. However, this is only a pretext. Indeed, what they want to destroy is the witness that haunts them and calls them to virtue. They want renegade Christians to make their denial public to discourage the witness of others.
Thankfully, their efforts are often frustrated by the constancy of faithful Christians that moves others to conversion. They do not understand Tertullian’s encomium that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church,” (Apologeticus, Ch. 50).
The God of Silence
The final false premise comes from a naturalistic understanding of the world in which people do not grasp how God works in souls. The secular world assumes God’s natural position is one of silence. When secular writers are forced to imagine the action of God upon their characters, they portray it as a purely personal matter based on feelings and emotions inconsistent and outside the logic of divine law.
This is perhaps the greatest misunderstanding of the Faith. Modern authors create their own god of silence and believers outside of the life of grace.
Such a combination leads to absurd characterizations like that of “Silence.” Martyrdom cannot be based on emotion or feeling since it involves surrendering man’s greatest natural gift—life. This is something so difficult that it is beyond human strength to achieve. Martyrdom must entail grace, which enlightens the intellect and strengthens the will to allow Christians to do that which is beyond human nature. God’s grace would never allow a person to deny Christ before men.
Martyrdom—The Fruit of Grace
That is why Saint Alphonsus states that it is a matter of Faith that, “Martyrs are indebted for their crown to the power of the grace which they received from Jesus Christ; for he it is that gave them the strength to despise all the promises and all the threats of tyrants and to endure all the torments till they had made an entire sacrifice of their lives.”
Saint Augustine further states that the merits of the martyrs lie in being the effects of God’s grace and their cooperation with grace.
In other words, God cannot be silent in the face of martyrdom as Scorcese’s “Silence” film affirms. His justice will not allow a person to be tempted beyond their capacity to resist. He is intimately involved in those facing martyrdom. He gives them grace—a created participation in divine life itself. Facing martyrdom without grace is impossible. While God may allow for trials, He is never silent.
Catholics Cannot Remain Silent
And that is why faithful Catholics cannot remain silent in the face of Scorcese’s “Silence.” Scorcese’s film is a tragic denial of God’s grace in a world in dire need of it. In these days when Catholics are being martyred, Catholics need to know that God is never silent. They will never be put in a situation where God betrays Himself. He will always be there when needed.
The secular worldview is so narrow-minded and asphyxiating, but alas so prevalent. Today’s obsession with self permeates the culture to the exclusion of God. It is little wonder that so many would think there is “silence” on the other side of martyrdom. It is largely because they find emptiness in their own lives. They cannot imagine the action of God and His grace.
Amid the frenetic intemperance of the times, the agitated crowds ironically do not seek out God where He is always found—in the silence of their own souls.