(Taplinger, 1980) 
294 p. Second reading.
“Now a Major Motion Picture,” as they say, and I count myself among those anticipating Martin Scorcese’s long-gestated film adaptation of this, one of the notable, but controversial, Catholic novels of the twentieth century.
I want to discuss some aspects of the novel in detail, and this will involve spoilers. If you’ve not read the novel, you might wish to stop here.
The book is set in the early seventeenth century. We follow Rodrigues, a Portuguese Jesuit priest preparing to depart for Japan, where a severe persecution has oppressed the Christians and led some, including a revered Jesuit missionary, Fr Ferreira, into apostasy, or so the rumours run. Rodrigues doesn’t believe it, and embarks for Japan full of confidence.
He discovers soon enough that the persecution is no rumour, and he and his companion priest, Fr Garrpe, spend much of the first half of the novel in hiding or on the run, ministering where they can to the beleaguered Christian faithful. In the novel’s second half Rodrigues is captured and pressured to apostatize, an act dramatized by stepping on a fumie, a bronze picture of Christ’s face. “Only a formality,” he is told, but clearly not considered such by the people, nor by Rodrigues, who has a special devotion to the face of Jesus.
Silence has been regarded with admiration and suspicion since its publication. It is admired because it is undoubtedly a fine novel: well-written, memorable, and challenging. But many readers, especially Catholics, have found it troubling, and for a variety of reasons.
Some have objected to the dispiriting arc of the story. Why write or read a novel about Catholics who apostatize under persecution? This I take to be a weak objection, for such persecutions, and the very real and human challenges they force on the faithful, are as much a part of our history as any more positive tale, and should we not hold the plights of our beset brothers and sisters close to our hearts as well, even though they fall short? Especially today, when persecution is a real and widespread reality in many parts of the world, we do well not to turn our eyes away.
A more substantive criticism concerns the way that Rodrigues finally apostatizes. He is imprisoned but treated well, while other Catholic prisoners are subjected to brutal tortures, and Rodrigues is told that the torture will stop only if he, Rodrigues, apostatizes. His motive in stepping on the fumie, then, is plausibly not to apostatize, but only to bring relief to those who suffer.
I think this doubt has some merit, and I think it plausible that Rodrigues’ sin is not really apostasy. There is some evidence in the books final pages that he retains his faith, although he lives as a Japanese and has forsaken the duties of the priesthood. But if his sin is not apostasy, it is, on this reading, certainly lying and causing scandal, for by his actions he brings the faith into disrepute and leads others to believe he has apostatized. Rodrigues is not exonerated; his desire to do good by evil means still involves him in evil. He obviously falls far short of the example of uprightness and courage set by, for example, the Roman martyrs, who refused to offer a pinch of incense to the bust of Caesar.
A second, more vexing, element of his apostasy is that in the moments before he tramples the fumie Rodrigues sees the face of Christ urging him to trample it. The passage reads:
The priest raises his foot. In it he feels a dull, heavy pain. This is no mere formality. He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and the dreams of man. How his foot aches! And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: “Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”
The priest placed his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.
This flirts with sacrilege on Endō’s part, for Christ appears in the role of tempter. In the Gospels Christ comforts sinners with words of mercy and forgiveness, he does not do so prior to the sin, but only after; prior to the sin he urges them to sin no more. And it is not true that Christ came into the world in order to be trampled on by men; he came to save their souls.
Just prior to this dramatic climax, Fr Ferreira tries to convince Rodrigues to apostatize, arguing that trampling on the fumie is “the most painful act of love that has ever been performed,” and that “Christ would certainly have apostatized to help men”. Trampling on the image of Christ is framed as a kind of self-denial, in which Rodrigues is urged to sacrifice that which is most dear to him — his conscience — for the good of others. This, we have to say, is deeply confused. That one should sacrifice one’s conscience as a form of self-denial, doing evil as a kind of asceticism, or even out of love for neighbour, is clean contrary to the moral teaching of the Church, which says both that there is always a strict obligation to obey one’s conscience and that love of neighbour is rightly rooted in love of God and of oneself (which we have on good authority); therefore one could never rightly show love to one’s neighbour by intentionally doing harm to one’s own soul.
These faults, most of which are packed onto just a few pages, mar a novel that otherwise has much to recommend it. I was particularly drawn, for example, to a secondary character, Kichijiro, who apostatizes early on, but who then follows Rodrigues throughout his wanderings and imprisonment, on the periphery, but intervening now and then to help Rodrigues. Kichijiro, we eventually come to learn, is truly repentant for his sin, and seeks to make amends. There were times when I wished I could read his story instead of Rodrigues’; it is a story in which I expect the imperatives of conscience, the horror of sin, and the mercy of Christ would be major themes.
An important question raised by the novel concerns the challenges of presenting the Gospel to a culture that has not heard it before. At first Rodrigues is impressed by the spread of Christianity in Japan following the initial mission of St Francis Xavier. “Our religion has penetrated this territory like water flowing into dry earth,” he thinks. But when he finally meets Fr Ferreira, the latter complains that the Japanese could not truly accept the faith, for when they attempted to adopt it they changed it. He says to Rodrigues:
“But in the churches we built throughout this country the Japanese were not praying to the Christian God. They twisted God to their own way of thinking in a way we can never imagine. If you call that God…” Ferreira lowered his eyes and moved his lips as though something had occurred to him. “No. That is not God. It is like a butterfly caught in a spider’s web. At first it is certainly a butterfly, but the next day only the externals, the wings and the trunk, are those of a butterfly; it has lost its true reality and has become a skeleton. In Japan our God is just like that butterfly caught in the spider’s web: only the exterior form of God remains, but it has already become a skeleton.”
The habits and categories of thought of the Japanese were sufficiently different from those of Christian lands that this mistranslation was seemingly inevitable. Ferreira therefore concluded that missionary work in Japan was pointless. He ought to have concluded that missionary work in Japan must be slow and careful, giving adequate respect to that country’s native culture, and that missionaries to Japan, like himself, must be patient. But the frustration is an understandable one, and the challenge is a real one that the Church must always grapple with.
Another major theme explored in the novel, from which it takes its name, is the silence of God in the face of suffering. Again and again Rodrigues has to confront the fact that he sees the Japanese Christians suffering, sometimes horribly, and yet God seems absent. There is a partial answer to this question, perhaps, in the fact that Rodrigues recapitulates the Passion of Christ in his own suffering — on numerous occasions he notes how one or another of his experiences reminds him of an episode in the Passion — and so Christ is present to Rodrigues in an intimate way, though Rodrigues himself does not see it. But what this story is lacking is an analogue of the Resurrection. Instead, Rodrigues’ commitment dwindles away, the persecution continues, and, in the long run, Japanese Christianity is very nearly exterminated. And this is what actually happened.
The novel is a haunting one. I’d be most interested to hear from others whether I’ve interpreted it sensibly or not.