THE FILM “Silence” is a heart-rending movie that creates a feeling that God is not listening to our prayers. This feeling led many to lose their faith. Others however remain faithful and “endured God’s silence” believing that God truly listens and acts in due time.
The film is set in 17th century Japan when the Japanese launched a persecution of Christians rivaling that of the Roman empire in cruelty and duration. The methods used by the Japanese are almost beyond belief that humans can so treat another human with such brutality that only the most vicious mind can concoct.
The story is a historical fiction written in 1966 not by a white man or a Westerner but a Japanese, Shasoku Endo which gives the novel a level of credibility on the torture of Christians to renounce their faith. The author speaks through the narratives of Dutch trader who knew the events concerning the attempt of two Portuguese missionaries to look for their mentor, Cristavo Feriera who was reported to have apostatized. They could not believe the story and went to Japan not only to know the truth but also to find out whether the Church still existed in that Buddhist country.
Smuggled into Japan, they found that there was an underground Church and they administered the Sacraments. The authorities learned of their presence and through spies ferreted out the Christians. With unbelievable cruelty, the authorities tortured the Christians who refused to denounce the faith by stepping on the icon of Jesus or spit on the Cross. It was a way to force the priests to come out.
But despite the unimaginable forms of torture and ruthlessness of their execution, the Christians refused to step on the icon or betray the priests. The priests were eventually captured and the Japanese inflicted on one of them, Fr. Sebastiao Rodriguez such mental torture that tested his faith. He was made to watch as the Japanese torture and execute the Christians who refused to apostatize.
The Japanese finally brought in Fereira who had abandoned his faith and became a colleague of the Japanese in astronomical studies. He tried to convince Rodriguez to follow him and step on the icon of Jesus. But the young priest continued to refuse. Fereira told him that he would be able to save many lives by renouncing the faith but if he continued to refuse he would be responsible for the death of innocent people. This was the same line of argument of the Japanese. The Japanese told him that if priest would not apostatize, the Christians would not.
After being tortured, Rodriguez cried out that God was “silent” and finally succumbed and stepped in the icon of Christ. The film showed that Rodriguez heard Christ saying, “it is all right. That is only an image.” The Christians followed the priest and renounced their faith.
Rodriguez resented God’s silence but heard God say, “I was not silent but suffered alongside with you.”
Let me not deprive you of the dynamics of this film and how it ended. It is for the viewer to make judgments as to whether giving up the faith is worth the earthly prize and whether the Japanese could have saved themselves had they also renounced the faith that their authorities said was incompatible with their being Japanese.
There are two lessons of the film: the role of the priest in the steadfastness or weakness of the people’s faith and that of religious icons or holy images in the Church and in the lives of the Catholic faithful.
The film portrayed the priest as a role model and that his fidelity influences the faithful even unto death. The renunciation of the priest of the faith caused the collapse of the faithful’s strength to persevere. It is heart-wrenching indeed that the Japanese faithful died with God on their lips while a priest could not suffer for fear of tortuous death.
The film portrays the role of the religious images in the life of the faithful especially in those times when they had no priest and only the icons gave them strength and the means to endure.
Catholics do not worship the image as material object but honor the person represented by the icon or the straw cross the Japanese Catholics made to testify to their faith. The Japanese Catholics respected the icons because they see Christ, not in person but in representation.