by Bill Droel
Martin Scorsese was vaccinated with “a Catholic imagination,” writes Fr. Andrew Greeley (1928-2013). For Scorsese this means that the use of Catholic images and themes in many of his films is “not a matter of choice but of necessity.” The Catholicism of the films, Greeley emphasizes, is not churchy. Sorrow for sins plus redemption “is worked out not in church.” The quest for holiness occurs in the messy world itself. For Scorsese and for others with a Catholic imagination, it is down-to-earth ordinary life that “hints of what God is like.”
The Catholic imagination also means that people are entangled with and obligated to their extended families, neighborhoods, religious orders and the like. This worldview is different from the dominant creed of libertarian individualism that equates freedom with maximum options. Catholicism says that it is precisely within constraining bonds that genuine though complicated freedom is found.
Two clarifications: 1.) Not all Catholics use a sacramental imagination and likewise a non-Catholic might have an analogical or sacramental take on the world and on God. 2.) To have a Catholic squint on things, a filmmaker or another type of artist, or any other worker might not be exemplary in every way, on every day. Scorsese, for example, has been married even more times than Donald Trump (who, by the way, is representative of the individualistic worldview). Scorsese admits he has sinned. But, he says, “I am a Roman Catholic; there’s no way out of it.”
Scorsese’s latest film, Silence, is a historical drama set in 17th century Japan. It is based on a 1966 novel of the same name, written by Shusaku Endo. Paul Elie, writing in New York Times Magazine (11/27/16), summarizes the plot, details the production process and connects the new film with Scorsese’s Catholic imagination.
Two Portuguese priests undertake a mission to Japan. They happen to be Jesuits, which accounts for the meeting Scorsese had with Pope Francis in late November. The missionaries are persecuted. As the plot develops, the tormentors present a choice: Continue to assert your foreign creed and face martyrdom or deny your creed and save other people. Thus the film asks: Do intentions count when determining morality? One interpretation of the film, as Elie writes, can be that “a seeming act of profanation can be an act of devotion if done out of an underlying faith.”
On the surface the film is about Jesuit missionaries. But its lesson is not churchy, just as its setting is not inside church institutions. Further, the film’s protagonist does not work things out by rising above the entanglements and obligations around him. Instead, he moves deeper into the limitations and only thereby—as some moviegoers might conclude—does he experience freedom.
Elie tells us that in 1988 Most Rev. Paul Moore (1919-2003), Episcopal bishop of New York, recommended Endo’s novel to Scorsese. From then until now, almost 28 years later, it was Scorsese’s passion to put the story onto the screen. Despite financial, legal and technical complications, Scorsese felt obligated (or more accurately, felt called) to complete the project.
A new edition of Endo’s novel is available from Acta (4848 N. Clark St., Chicago, IL 60640; www.actapublications.com) for $16. The same publisher has two reflections on the novel: Silence and Beauty by Makoto Fujimura ($26) and Faith Stripped to Its Essence by Patrick Reardon ($12.95).
Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a free printed newsletter. Its next edition will feature a reflection on Silence by Greg Pierce.