When I was in seventh grade, or whatever year we drove to visit a friend of a friend who was a nun in the Bronx, I grew momentarily obsessed with the martyrs of Japan. I remember this because it was raining and there was traffic and I had in my lap this sky-blue encyclopedia of saints from which I’d unceremoniously ripped the dust jacket (as I always do; they are for the weak) and I decided to look up the patron saint of being stuck in traffic, which as it turns out is Saint Francesca of Rome. Sort of. She’s the patron of cars.
When I was not looking to file a grievance, I used the book differently, opening it to a page at random and scanning for names I liked. This is how I came across Blessed Isabel Fernandes (her names by baptism and marriage respectively), a Japanese woman and member of the Confraternity of the Rosary who was martyred for sheltering a priest. According to legend, she brought along her four-year-old son Ignacio, to die for Christ before he could sin against him. The boy’s father, her Portuguese husband, Domingos Jorge, had been martyred three years earlier. I loved letting my eyes linger over their names. So many languages I didn’t know. Such a strange mix of people. Spanish and Portuguese, Mexicans and Azoreans, a flock of Italians, a stray Fleming, a surprise Korean, and so, so many Japanese. They were young priests, catechists, newly professed, married couples, single women and old widows, tertiaries of every persuasion, a bishop-elect. Franciscans, Jesuits, Dominicans, Augustinians. And nearly all of them are remembered by last name. And almost none with a clear birth date. Some burned at the stake, others crucified. Some captured. Some volunteers.
It is, in retrospect, a great credit to my parents that they were not alarmed by this obsession. But then, I suspect they’ve gotten used to this sort of thing from me.
It was also around this time that I learned of the monastic custom of reading the martyrology daily, either during the office of prime (mid-morning prayer) or during meals. The martyrology is an “extensive but not exhaustive” list of saints commemorated on a particular day, with place and circumstances of death given when available. (For an example in English, try this.) The last listing for every day is always “Et álibi aliórum plurimórum sanctórum Mártyrum et Confessórum, atque sanctárum Vírginum / And elsewhere in diverse places, many other holy martyrs, confessors, and holy virgins.” I love this use of “confessor” meaning both “one who professes the faith” and “one who absolves sins,” because that is the essence of it, really: that we are called to glory and that God is constantly intervening to get us there. Confiteor, credo.
“To confess is to unburden oneself of sin with remorseful intent: I have done wrong and will not again; I am sorry; I seek forgiveness. Not at all incidentally, in its classical Catholic sense, a confession is also made exclusively to a man,” Laura Goode writes, justly denouncing the gendered use of “confessional” as a tag for women’s writing. But I stop her there, because that’s plainly not true. We confess to God. I count myself very lucky that I grew up in a liturgically traditional community, because it made things like this instinctively easier to grasp. That parish uses the screen for confession, just as it does Mass ad orientem, in both cases reminding us who we’re talking to. This is what I mean by confiteor, credo, how we deal with falling short is reflective and definitive of what we believe in the first place. If we are just talking to a priest, confession is not a sacrament, or else coffee hour is.
I further reject her disdain for “confessional” as “dismissive.” Confession is an encounter with grace. Confession is go and sin no more. Confession is here I am and here is what I am coming home to. It is not the priest-as-theological-accountant clearinghouse meeting that it has been spit up to be by clericalists in and out of the Church. I would characterize a lot of my own writing as confessional, because that’s what I find worth talking about, moments of repentance and learning and grace. I am not interested in laying a false righteousness before everyone. I am really interested in exploring the ways we fall short so I can figure out where to go from here. In other words, I think an allergy to “shaming” is a bad idea, because shame is instructive, that’s why we have it. This is, incidentally, something I learned from a different kind of confession, one that Goode can probably sympathize with: the call-out.
Like Goode, I had my own post-adolescent falling-out with faith. Though it wasn’t as long, deep, or formally marked as the way she describes hers, we both had similar experiences with feminist and postcolonial writers whose writings entered our mental canon alongside Catholic thinkers. When she wonders where to file away Dorothy Day, Mary Karr, and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz—are they Catholic nostalgia for me? or do they have validity in secular contexts too?—I found myself nodding and smiling. Same, girl, more than I can say. But it reminded me of a class session last semester when I was asked to categorize Los de abajo (i.e. please demonstrate you did the reading on various genres’ characteristics), and I responded, “Who cares?” The point being that I am a bad literature student and a rude person and I am working on it, but I also think these categories are really fundamentally unhelpful, especially when there’s so much overlap here. The “call-outs” associated with social-justice education impressed upon me, in a time that confession was not available to do so, that good intentions are not erasers. That actions and attitudes have consequences for other people, and that amends must be made. That apologies are fine, but changes in behavior are what we’re looking for. That reckoning is necessary. Like confession, call-outs work because they are a ritualized accountability. They have a script, sure, but that does not lessen their validity and their instructiveness. They are learning opportunities, moments of grace.
If such “confessional” genres are womanly, count me in. Again, I know what Goode is getting at—women are disproportionately expected to have their emotions exploited, whether that means laying their soul bare on the page or in an interview, or showing up for the guy friend who needs a shoulder during a breakup but never asks how you’re doing. That’s awful, and I am weary of the appropriation of “confessional,” which emphasizes the believer/author’s action, rather than “reconciliatory,” which emphasizes that of God/the reading audience. This semantic shift matters because it is actually not accurate to most so-called “confessional” writing and therefore the genre’s connection to actual confession, which can be replaced accurately with “reconciliation,” is tenuous at best.
Much of Goode’s essay is wonderful and I share so much with her—the city-wandering, what it is to be “ethnically Catholic,” the sadness of realizing that your liberal friends will always disdain a part of you, the joy of confiding in women, the radical aspirations, the untidiness, the admitted anti-clericalism. I get it, and as I’ve reread it, I actually love her essay, as a beautiful almost. Because confession isn’t for confidences, and women are spiritual directors all the time. Confession is for making explicit our hunger for mercy. It’s a gift to us in the sense that it is positively not instinctual. It is my favorite sacrament because it is the most difficult for me. It is the thing that makes plain the question of whether or not I submit myself to this tradition, or if I think I’m above it. When I returned to faith, embracing confession again was entirely an act of willpower for me. Frankly, I find that valuable. Confiteor, credo.
I’ve been thinking about confession because I wept during Silence and not really at the times when the movie felt I should. Jesus falls three times, Peter denies him three times, and Kichijiro betrays Rodrigues three times. He also, crucially, seeks confession three times. The movie uses this as a demonstration: what does it mean to love a wretch like this, it asks. It makes Goode’s mistake in thinking Rodrigues’ love for Kichijiro is the pertinent one. God already loves us wretches. This is very human, and I like that the movie made a point of irritating me on this. Kichijiro is set up for the audience to disdain, this weak-willed almost-hero who frustrates us incessantly and simply refuses to bend to his redemption arc. But if you have even an ounce of understanding of this faith you recognize something beautiful in his desperation. What I would give to hunger for mercy like that, to have the humility to go to a prison and ask the man you put there to absolve you of your sins. Kichijiro’s virtues—his kernel of faith, drowned in alcohol and shame—are silent, it’s his sins that are loud. Rodrigues, set up as the hero, is the opposite: his virtuous ministry is loud, but his sinful despair and zombied apostasy are silent. Kichijiro’s is the obviously more Christian script. This is an indictment of the audience and an instructive one. Confession seems to us like the easy way out. It seems unjust. It is painful. These things are true, from a human perspective. This is the entire glory of the sacrament, and this is why it saddens me that it is the one most often set aside by Catholics. Let yourselves be loved, y’all—
But I digress, I want to talk about the titular question, whose silence exactly are we talking about. The most instinctively interesting answer—God’s—falls flat for me, primarily because if God has fallen silent it means he once spoke to you and that, I think, is the hard thing, to realize that God has said all he has to say. And now you are the one who is being silent before your circumstances, waiting for Him to interrupt you. But you already know what you have to do. That is the painful part of God’s silence, its loud demands.
The silence, I think sort of evidently, is Rodrigues’, and it’s not when his parishioners are made to die “for him”—he screams during that, he pleads—but rather after he apostatizes. This is tragic, and I don’t really feel the need to meditate all that much on the decisions of torture victims of a totalitarian persecution, because the thing that gives me inspiration in martyrs is also the thing that gives me consolation about suicides (humans are built for survival, something must be seriously broken and/or transcended for your brain to allow your body to do anything else) and that is a thin line I do not want to dance near.
That, and the martyrs are, as saints always are, just a lot more interesting than everyone else. One of the things I appreciate about Silence is that it is unfailingly clear about the stakes from the characters’ point of view, which are precisely as high as they should be (namely: eternal salvation), which is why it’s one of very few portrayals of confession I’ve seen in the media that get it remotely right. Further, you get to see multiple responses to the dilemma before these people. We don’t just get apostates, we get martyrs—among laypeople and clerics alike in both categories. I should have liked to have seen the Japanese martyrs get more interiority, though I suppose that’s not the story that was being told. Still, the question of what faith, exactly, are they dying for seemed less a genuine preoccupation of the movie and more an exposure of the attitude of the Portuguese toward the Japanese. But in filmmaking as in life, the good guys don’t need voiceovers to clarify that they are good people. I am satisfied that their stories are told as an entry in the martyrology. Most of us accomplish far less than that no matter how many thousands of words or hours of film we dedicate to a subject.
God is not silent in this movie, and what he says devastated me. Not because it was shabby theodicy, as a lot of critics are saying, but because it struck me with a love I don’t deserve. I was not silent, I was there suffering with you: welcome to the Incarnation. That’s the thing about Christian theodicy, not even being actual literal God gets you exempt from suffering. Not said, but just as true: I was suffering in you, because truly you are the least, and in you they are doing this to me. It was to be trampled by men that I was born into this world, this is not Jesus endorsing apostasy, this is I love you knowing that you’re a sinner, not because I have illusions that you won’t fail me. Rodrigues is Jesus’ Kichijiro, I thought in that moment. I thought it again later, as the movie ended. Rodrigues’ corpse clasping a cross as it burns within the Buddhist tomb did not strike me as hopeful, nebulous, thought-provoking, it struck me as tragic, sad, tormented, as the visual language pressed upon me that you’re going to burn either way, you ought to do it under the righteous circumstances. His whole tale struck me as exploratory, not emblematic, least of all didactic. I didn’t get an endorsement out of that. Rodrigues asks how God could love a wretch and this movie does its best to answer that in him. It gets us to understand him, to love him with that pitying how far you have fallen how glorious your potential how pathetic your reality mercy. Storytelling as exercise in empathy is its charism, and this right here is why.
Still, if you’re going to ask the boring question, it has a boring answer: Rodrigues never confesses, which is the answer to the question of whether or not he believes. Confiteor, credo, you cannot have one without the other, it does not work, believe me I have tried.
My primary gratitude to Silence is that it has caused me to meditate on it for a week, and knowing that my middle-school desire to tell everyone I know about these people was already coming to fruition in someone else’s mind just a borough or two away. I have wondered many times over the years about Blessed Isabel Fernandes. About what it means for me to admire a woman who brought her son to die. About the heavy-handed providence that led me to read her story in the backseat while my Confirmation sponsor drove my best friend and I to a convent. About whether or not I take it all seriously.
I come back to confessors: to profess the faith is to know how short you fall of it. Confiteor, credo. Omnes sancti confessores, órate pro nobis.