Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” tells the story of Portuguese Jesuit missionaries in 17th century Japan. Although the film is based on a fictional novel by the Japanese author Shusaku Endo, many of the events and people depicted in “Silence” are real.
Francis Xavier, SJ and other Jesuits landed in Japan in 1549. From then, a steady stream of Jesuits, mainly Portuguese, continued to arrive through the 1570s. It is estimated that 300,000 to 500,000 Japanese were baptized as Christians. According to Fr.Antoni Ucerler, SJ, an expert in Japanese Christian history, “Perhaps a certain number of these Christians were not really believers. Some did abandon the faith when commanded to do so, but many others held fast to their faith,” he explains. “That is comprehensible, because those were the days when, just as in Europe, if your feudal lord told you to do something, you did it.”
The Jesuit mission, which included a Jesuit college, several schools and a novitiate, grew until 1597. Under a persecution by the feudal lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, 26 martyrs of Japan were crucified on a hill, now known as the Holy Mountain, overlooking Nagasaki. Among them were priests, brothers, and laymen, Franciscans, Jesuits, and members of the Secular Franciscan Order; there were catechists, doctors, simple artisans, and servants, old men and innocent children. The most noted of the martyrs was St. Paul Miki, SJ, a native-born believer.
The simple execution was the least of the tortures devised by Hideyoshi. When the feudal lord realized that martyrdom was emboldening the people, he changed strategy and pursued and hunted down the Jesuits. Hideyoshi knew that if the Jesuits would renounce their own faith, then the Christians would be demoralized. The worst tortures were reserved for the Jesuits and is graphically shown in the movie “Silence.”
Fr. William Johnston, SJ, an Irish Jesuit working in Japan was a close friend of the author of Silence, Shusaku Endo. Johnston says that “‘Silence’ asks some of the absolutely most difficult questions about human life and death and faith. What does it mean to be loyal? What does it mean to have a belief? What does it mean to live and die for that belief? And what happens when you don’t always succeed? Did Jesus succeed by dying on the cross? Where is God’s mercy is all of this. That’s the mystery that Endo was trying to understand.” It is what Martin Scorsese tries to depict in the film version.
In 1600 a shogun united Japan and ordered all Christian missionaries out of Japan. Christianity was officially outlawed. When missionaries returned to Japan in the 1860s, at first they found no trace of Christianity. But after establishing themselves, they found that thousands of Christians lived around Nagasaki and that they had secretly preserved the faith.
On this the feast of St. Paul Miki and companions, let us give glory to God for the martyrs, let us pray for those who publicly renounced the faith, and for those who quietly held out against the evil in the world only later to become a light to the nations.