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Ordained in 2011, Father Friel served for five years as Parochial Vicar at St. Anselm Parish in Northeast Philly. He is currently studying toward an STL in sacred liturgy at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
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“Oh, the happy choir director who is hired to start work on a brand new choir, or who walks into his first rehearsal a total stranger to the existing group—what a fortunate man he is! The new choir director who is a former member of the choir, or a member of the congregation, or the nephew of the alto soloist, or a former altar boy, or otherwise well acquainted with the choir, is in for a few headaches.”
— Paul Hume (1956)

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Debriefing "Silence"
published 19 January 2017 by Fr. David Friel

Y FRIENDS can all attest that I am not a movie person. I don’t own a television (don’t want to), and I rarely go to the movies, so I’m not qualified to comment on the cinematography or acting of Martin Scorsese’s latest film, Silence. As a priest, however, I do have a few thoughts to share about the complex story I saw unfold the other night on the silver screen.

The following paragraphs encapsulate my personal reaction to what I think is a challenging film. These thoughts appear in no particular order, nor are they meant to be exhaustive. I must also acknowledge with gratitude some borrowed ideas from a great post-movie discussion shared over pizza with the three priest friends with whom I went to see the movie.

SPOILER ALERT: If you have not seen the movie yet, you will find details below that may negatively impact your future viewing of the film.

IRST, let me acknowledge that I know some commentators are discouraging people from seeing the film, presumably because the storyline involves Catholic priests who renounce their faith. There is a great deal of value in the film, however, and the fact that Rodrigues and Ferraira both apostatize does not, in my view, call for a boycott. Is the film appropriate for absolutely every audience? Probably not, but the plot will pose no threat to the faith of most people.

Personally, I was bothered very much by Fr. Rodrigues’ cowardly decision to step on the image of Our Lord, established by the Inquisitor as an act of apostasy. My reaction went well beyond annoyance or irritation or disappointment. I felt the same way about Rodrigues as Rodrigues had felt when he first found Ferraira. During their (less than joyful) reunion, Rodrigues says to Ferraira, “You’re a disgrace.” Rodrigues was right about that. And, by his own subsequent defection, Rodrigues also became a disgrace. It is, of course, easy for me to offer sharp criticism from my cushy seat in the movie theater. But the truth remains that the denial of the faith by both Rodrigues and Ferraira is disgraceful.

Why? Denial of the faith is an absolute evil. “He who denies Me before men, I shall also deny before My Father in heaven” (Matthew 10:33). There is no “discernment” necessary about whether or not one should deny the faith in certain circumstances. This question is a major source of the film’s dramatic tension, as both Fr. Rodrigues and Fr. Garupe are placed in difficult—indeed, torturous—positions. Faced with the proposition of remaining steadfast in faith or defecting and sparing the lives of other people, there can be a great deal of temptation to go along with whatever action is being demanded against one’s faith in order to alleviate the suffering of others. Yet, “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, but forfeit his own soul?” (Mark 8:36). Rodrigues would have done well to remember that it was not he who was putting the faithful around him to death; their deaths were the work of a brutal, intolerant regime.

In the novel, Rodrigues’ decision to step on the image is just the first step of a twofold defection. The second denial consists in renouncing his celibacy by taking a Japanese wife. While this detail is included in the movie, it does not receive the same momentous treatment as the priest’s first denial. In the movie, the second step happens almost as a matter of course, conveyed nearly by narration. This is one of my greatest disappointments with the film, since it severely weakens the dramatic power of the novel. It was one thing for Rodrigues to have stepped on the image, ostensibly because he wanted to spare the Japanese faithful who were suffering around him in “the pit.” Without question, he made the morally wrong decision in that moment. But subsequently taking a wife and living as a Japanese in the temple is an even fuller renunciation of the faith, not softened in any way by a spirit (however false) of altruism. By stressing the enormous import of both renunciations, the novel is better able to convey the emptiness and vapidity of Rodrigues’ subsequent life.

There is an earlier scene in which Fr. Rodrigues and Fr. Garupe disagree about whether or not it is permissible for the faithful to step on the image of Our Lord in order to preserve their lives. The fraternity shared between the two priests served, in that instance, as a corrective, and I am sure their collaboration and friendship would have made the extraordinary difficulties of their missionary work much more tolerable. At a certain point, though, they decided to separate, both for their own safety and to serve the people of the coastal villages better. Nothing good came from their separation. This is a reminder to us of the need for Christian community. In the end, it was possibly a bit of longing for fraternity that led Rodrigues to give in and take his place working alongside Ferreira. He traded the fraternity of a fellow missionary priest (Garupe) for the companionship of a fellow lost priest (Ferreira).

On a much lighter note, I laughed out loud the first time Rodrigues and Garupe began scarfing down their food without pausing to pray grace before meals. The same thing happens twice in the movie, and probably much more frequently in real life. Let this small bit of humor be a reminder to all of us, and perhaps especially to us priests, never to skip grace. We should never be too busy or too rushed to pause for a moment of thankfulness—no matter where we are eating, what we are eating, or with whom we are eating it.

Another part of the film that I found humorous was the return of Kichijiro for absolution time and time again. Why would I find this humorous? Because it is so true to life. I saw myself in Kichijiro. I return again and again to confession, often with the same sins, but nevertheless sincerely contrite and trying to amend my ways. I also saw myself in Rodrigues in those moments, as a confessor struggling, in his humanity, to be patient and forgiving to all. There was something humorous about Kichijiro, but also something very real. Which is better, in the end? To repent many times over for the repeated sin of apostasy, like Kichijiro, or to deny the faith only once, but to continue unrepentantly through life, like Rodrigues?

One scene struck me as anachronistic. It was the scene wherein Rodrigues has a discussion with one of the Japanese officials, who suggests that the Christian converts are insincere. He claims that they are truly worshiping the sun, not Deus, the “Son of God.” The same official makes an argument that tries to equate Buddhism and Christianity, suggesting that the two faiths are equally valid and rather similar, but that one is better suited to the East and the other better suited to the West. His whole line of argument struck me as exceedingly modern. Are these thoughts that would really have been alive in the mind of a 17th-century Japanese man?

The perceived “silence” of God in the face of human suffering is a struggle for all people to understand. If we have not wrestled with this question personally, then we have not thought deeply about living. First, it is worth saying that God very often is not silent; it is often we who are not listening. But there are, just as surely, times when the Lord truly seems silent. What is a faithful Christian to make of these moments? We must trust in such difficult times that the Lord is actively at work in ways beyond our understanding. God’s silence should never be mistaken for His absence, nor should it be construed as a sign of His disregard or even antipathy.

It is worth considering the various “silences” present in the film. There is the beautiful silence and resilience of the Japanese martyrs, whose courageous faith did not permit them to deny Christ. There is the shameful silence of the lost priests, who lacked the strength to remain steadfast in professing the faith. There is the remarkable silence that pervaded the land before Rodrigues and Garupe arrived, throughout which the Japanese Christians kept their faith in secret amidst persecution.

The perseverance of the faith among the Japanese laity is truly extraordinary. The movie captures well two of the most remarkable aspects of their steadfastness. First, the authentic role of the laity shines through gloriously. These Japanese Catholics had ownership of their deeply held faith, and it motivated them toward praise of God, charitable works, and communal support. The faith grew and spread even at a time when its practice was forced underground and did not have the benefit of ordained ministry. Secondly, the film shows beautifully how the lay faithful treasured the gift of the priesthood. Their eagerness upon the priests’ arrival, their concern for the priests’ welfare, and their joy at being able to make confession and receive the Eucharist testify to the sincerity of their faith. The real-life Jesuit missionaries of the time period must have found the faith of the Japanese Catholic community to be inspiring and humbling.

If you choose to see this film, I hope that the thoughts above will help to guide you in your own reflections. Another good and very succinct response can be found over at Aleteia.

The story of Silence is rich with religious themes and moral questions, such that it would be difficult to walk out of the theater without being perplexed and disturbed in some ways, challenged and enlightened in others. These were the same effects that encounters with the Lord had on His disciples, friends, and adversaries.

May the difficult quandaries of this movie, as well as its inspirational aspects, serve to strengthen our fidelity to Christ!