Second Sunday of Easter
1 Peter 1:3-9
Where is God amid all the pain and suffering in life? Why is God silent? Such are the questions asked by Shusaku Endo in his novel “Silence,” most recently translated into a film by Martin Scorsese.
It is the story of two Portuguese Jesuit priests who make their way to 17th century Japan in the midst of a horrendous persecution to eradicate Catholicism from the nation. The two priests are eventually captured and forced to witness the brutal tortures of native Catholics who steadfastly refuse to deny their faith in exchange for their release.
The test of their willingness to apostatize is to step on the fumie, a bronze plaque with the image of the suffering Jesus. “It is a mere formality,” they are continually told. “Simply place your foot on it and you will go free.” Because they refuse, they are forced to undergo excruciating pain and suffering, enduring it for days on end until they succumb to death.
Sebastian Rodrigues is one of the Portuguese priests forced to watch the suffering of the simple Japanese peasants. He finds himself tortured by the question of why God is silent amid such suffering. Why must innocent people of faith endure such violence? Why does not God speak?
By the end of the novel, Rodrigues is told by his captor that he can spare the lives of these believers if he himself apostatizes and steps on the fumie. What the captor seeks, he tells him, is to cut the very roots of Catholicism by the apostasy of the priests. To free the people from their suffering, Rodrigues must step on the fumie.
Such is the dilemma Rodrigues faces. If he continues to be faithful to his own faith and refuses, the terrible pain inflicted on the Japanese believers will continue. To free them, he must be unfaithful to his own convictions and love for the Lord Jesus.
“It is only a formality,” he is told. “What do formalities matter? Only go through with the exterior form of trampling.” At that moment, Rodrigues realizes that if he steps on the fumie, no one will understand why he did so, that he did it out of love for the Japanese farmers. All will think of him a coward, an apostate, someone who ran.
(Spoiler alert) Faced with the dilemma, “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.’ And with that the priest placed his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.”
The Gospel this Sunday is the story of the doubting Thomas, the one who will not believe until he can put his finger into Jesus’ nail marks and his hand into Jesus’ side. It is a week later when Thomas finally does see, and is able to slip his hand into the side, when he actually sees in a way he has never seen before. It is then that Thomas comes to believe that the Lord has indeed been raised and is alive. Then the silence of his unbelief is shattered. It is only when Thomas is willing to enter the wounds of the other in a deep and profound way that he then believes.
The story of Thomas is also the story of Sebastian Rodrigues, told by Endo, and it is also our story. When we enter the pain and suffering of others in a profound way, when we make it our own, when we sacrifice our own wellbeing for them, then we begin to see the new life that comes forth. Then we begin to understand what it means to walk in the steps of Jesus. Then, his pain and their pain become our pain. Then, the doors open to resurrection and faith. Amid such silence, then, we hear God say, “Peace be with you.”
– When have you found yourself needing to make a decision for the good of another, that everyone else misunderstood?
– Has your faith ever taken you to such places?
(Fr. Juknialis is a senior priest of the Milwaukee Archdiocese.)