‘This is a spiritual & cultural artefact’ – was how a producer at the BBC described Scorsese’s recent adaptation of the Shusako Endo novel ‘Silence‘. A work of historical fiction, i.e based on real characters, about the Jesuits in Japan. Having seen the film about a month ago, I tend to agree, although the cinema was fairly empty and I notice there is no ‘awards buzz’ about it – I think it will grow in stature and popularity. I hope it will slowly acquire cult status, it doesn’t have the feel-good, crowd pleasing appeal that LaLa Land has ( and surely people need that in our fragmented times) …. but it has a depth and leaves a ‘haunting’ imprint that will mature over time. Like an artefact it will stand the test of time.
If you think about explicitly Christian films that have gone mainstream, all have differing levels of depth. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, in its own way a masterpiece – has the force of a sledgehammer and I would place it in the Key Stage 3 RE category. Roland Joffe’s The Mission, slightly more complex interweaving of theology / politics/ ecclesiology maybe would be GCSE, (Key Stage 4) Level. But Scorsese’s Silence – is certainly A Level (KS5) material – with all its glorious and infuriating ambiguities. Leaving scope for discussion and meditation.
Here in Manchester – many of the students are divided by it, and fascinating discussions ensue. Some get hung up on the priests apostasy and a sense of betrayal from that, without taking into fact the incredible commitment and self-offering that have got the missionaries their in the first place. In a similar way many of the reviews are polarised. The more secularised, the less they ‘get it’ – including one absurd review accusing it of ‘torture porn’ (I actually thought the film wasn’t as harrowing as I was expecting). It is as though the sheer fact that you can believe in something enough that you are prepared to die for it. is inconceivable to the more superficial reviews. Many people (even the usually prescient Robert Barron) seem to fixated on the ‘apostasy’ element. Which I think misses the point of the film (and the novel). For me Kichijiro is the main character in the film – and it is God’s Mercy for him , through sacramental confession, this is the most powerful aspect for me.
A former student sent me a wonderful email which expresses it like this, “I found myself really focusing on more in the film was the mercy of God, which I think is and should be the big focus within the film and book. The question: How much should I forgive my brother? Seventy seven. Is something I often thought about when watching this film especially when witnessing Kichijiro continuously plead for confession. For me Fr. Rodriguez and Fr Ferreira are insignificant as for me really the true Christian is perfectly embodied in Kichijiro. As he is what a christian really is: a sinful and weak creature totally dependent on God’s mercy. Interestingly Kichijiro does not really seem to care about human respect or his reputation as seen by his continuous grovelling and humiliating display of weakness before the priest. To me I think the book and film do a great job in showing this about Kichijiro and the mercy of God; but seem to overlook it and get a bit too obsessed with somehow trying to justify someone’s apostasy. The real question I think is how much are we willing to accept our weakness and plead for forgiveness.
Maybe this is echoing Scorsese own life – as revealed in this fascinating interview with the America Jesuit James Martin, his sense of rejection at a crucial age when he wanted to be a Maryknoll Missionary. He was asked to leave the seminary, and ‘crushed’ in his own words, and then his ‘pilgrimage’ slowly and painfully from the outside and back to God (?) . Jim has also written a very good reflective piece on common questions people struggle with after Silence. So is Silence really about about the Silence of God or the Deafness of Man? .
Fr Pedro Arrupe
I have been enjoying a few days in Valladolid with a group of Jesuit theologians who are preparing for ordination. They are taking part in what is called the ‘Arrupe Month’. Fr Pedro Arrupe, then the general of the Jesuits, noticed that in the 1970’s there was a curious phenomenon of men who left the order (and often the priesthood) soon after they had been ordained. It was almost as though even after the long period of formation they were expecting something magic to happen – and had a rather superficial expectation of what the ‘ontological change’ that the sacrament of ordination conferred, really meant. So Fr Arrupe’s letter issued on December 27, 1979 addressed this – and now there is a period set aside for a deepening of self-knowledge and Jesuit identity to help prepare the Jesuit Scholastic for ordination to the priesthood. I have joined them for a couple of days to give some input on thriving in (not just surviving) the first years of priesthood.
We are staying at a fascinating and beautiful College – the Royal English College ‘St Albans’ in Vallodalid. It was founded by the English Jesuit Robert Persons in 1589, during the English Reformation, as a seminary to train Catholic Priest for the English and Welsh Mission, at a time when it was illegal to do so in the UK. It has an impressive legacy of alumni who are saints – many Jesuits, although not all – who would eventually be executed on their return to Britain. Their portraits line the corridors. In today’s climate of Islamic violence we have to be careful about the narrative of martyrdom – although it is worth noting that none of the Catholic men and women executed were perpetrators of Violence. Although it fair to say that Fr Persons was agitating the Spanish King to invade so that England could return to becoming a Catholic country. This resulted firstly in the famous failure of the Armada. A second attempt was foiled in Cadiz by Walter Raleigh …. but we will come to that in a minute. The College, well endowed, and beautifully kept, still has the patronage of the Spanish Royal Family. When you enter the college you are greeted with a picture of the King & Queen of Spain with an affectionate and personal message to the College. This Royal patronage is important when you think of how the Jesuits where expelled from Europe, from different countries on numerous occasions, so you can see how it is good to know you have powerful allies …. things can change however.
For me the jewel in the crown in Valladolid is ‘La Vulnerata’ or the Wounded One – a disfigured statue of Mary in the chapel. After Sir Walter Raleigh defeated the Spanish Fleet in Cadiz and took control of the city in 1596, some of the English troops started a riot (like the football ‘fans’ in Marseille). The soldiers dragged the statue to the market square where they desecrated it. The priests and seminarians of the English College in Valladolid brought it to Valladolid and installed with great solemnity in the College Chapel in 1600. They wished to make reparation for the desecration of their fellow country men. Every year during Holy Week the statue is processed along the street, where it is met by a huge paso or float, which has a large depiction of the Crucified Christ resting on top of it. The two images meet, and dance to each other for a brief period—then the Vulnerata comes back to the College
A little like the famous Image of the Icon of the Black Madonna of Czetochowa which was similarly damaged by Hussite raiders in 1430… and has now become the most visited shrine in Poland, and revered by Catholics and Orthodox alike. The potential power of our vulnerabilty is a spiritual paradox. Christ glorious risen body still carried his wounds as St Thomas can testify. The popular devotion to these disfigured images of Our Lady are striking – they seem to unlock a mysterious power in peoples hearts. Many people point to John Paul II visits to Czetochowa as the start of the fall of communism, how this icon of the suffering Poland and the first Polish Pope drew millions together in defiance of the authorities. Pope Francis will be visiting next week during the world Youth Day celebrations, I hope the Queen of Poland draws the 2 million young people expected to attend, to her heart.
Travelling from Nairobi to Arusha takes us through Maasailand, which straddles the border between Kenya and Tanzania. The Maasai with their distinctive dress and beautiful jewellery are for many one of the iconic African tribes. However their uneasy relationship with the modern world provide a fascinating lense through which to think through some of the issues around development. The Maasai are essentially nomadic cattle herders, their herd (often cows / goats) are their wealth and are referred to as the ‘breath of life’. It was their fierce defence of their cattle from lions and other alpha predators that led them to value courage and bravery highly. This also contributed to their reputation for being fierce warriors. In the 18th Century – trade caravans moving inland from the east coast would cross Maasai territory with trepidation.
When the British replaced the Germans as the colonial power after the First World War they were fascinated and perplexed by the Maasai. They encouraged them to adopt European practices of education and medicine but also wanted them to keep their traditional culture, moving them and hoping to contain them to a reserve in Southern Kenya. Sadly the Maasai were seriously weakened by the inadvertent introduction of rinderpest ( a bovine disease) which wiped out 80% of their herd. Also weakened by inter-tribal fighting their are now estimated to be 150,000 Maasai in Kenya and an equivalent number in Tanzania. With many now moving away from the nomadic lifestyle they are now living in villages and have adopted more modern ranching and farming techniques. A large amount have moved to the cities of Arusha, Dodoma and Dar es Salaam where they are often employed as security guards.
Modern urban life can be quite cruel to them, often mocked and looked down upon by modern citizens of East Africa, it is not unusual for the Maasai to live a sort of double life – some time spent back in their villages in traditional dress and then moving into the cities and working in western dress. Uneasily straddling these two cultures….. modernity, mobile phones, wages and bank accounts on one hand, or spears, jewellery, traditional dress and bartering. Travelling along the highway which links the two countries you get tantalising glimpses into these two worlds. Also you certainly can experience some full on bartering at the border crossing of Namanga. These fleeting encounters with Maasai give you a lot to ponder about. Certainly the modern world has much to offer, and some of the traditional customs – the high rates of FGM are appalling, however are we not more rushed, more stressed and more unhappy? Should we loose our traditions so quickly? With the majority of the world now living in cities, what life are we creating for ourselves? Writing this I remember a very interesting discussion with a couple of young professional Indian women in the back of rickshaw in Bangalore who were strongly against wearing jeans. They persuasively argued in favour of the Sari. All the indications are that the Masaai will be slowly sucked into modern urban life, at what cost? Is this really development?