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Bad priests and the valor of pity: Shusaku Endo and Graham Greene on the paradoxes of Christian virtue.

Introduction: Endo, Greene, and the Figure of the "Bad Priest"

SHUSAKU ENDO HAS FREQUENTLY BEEN DESCRIBED--and not least of all by his own publishers and publicists--as "the Japanese Graham Greene." (1) In private correspondence with Greene, Endo once referred to himself as the British author's "faithful Japanese disciple." (2) Greene, for his part, warmly replied that he was Endo's "faithful English admirer." (3) In the summer of 1969, Endo had sent Greene an inscribed copy of his novel Silence in an English translation that, at the time, had been published only in Japan. The French inscription in the book, now in the Graham Greene Collection at Boston College, reads: "A mon maitre G. Green [sic] avec mes grands respects, Shusaku Endo." (4) Here Endo explicitly, albeit privately, admitted the direct influence of Greene--his "teacher" or "master" (maitre)--upon his own work and offered Silence as evidence of this mentorship. This initial gift by Endo prompted a very friendly, lifelong correspondence between the two Catholic authors that was based, above all, on tremendous mutual respect. Indeed, upon reading Silence, Greene proclaimed it "far better than all the Japanese novels I have read" and thought it "a much better book" than his own thematically similar novel, The Power and the Glory, published almost thirty years earlier. (5)

Both novels--each considered a central masterpiece among the works of its respective author--feature hunted, outlaw priests, struggling with matters of faith in the midst of bloody, politically motivated religious persecution. The priestly protagonists of Endo's Silence and Greene's The Power and the Glory, however, both fall woefully short of their spiritual duties, even as they risk, evade, and otherwise confront the terrifying demands of Christian martyrdom. As these two novels demonstrate, Endo and Greene shared remarkably similar theological and literary views, despite significant differences in cultural background and personal experience.

Underlying their great affection and admiration for each other was not only their common religious faith--both minority Catholics living in countries with histories of severe Catholic persecution--but also a shared seriousness of purpose with regard to the aims and stakes of fiction. Both authors, for example, seem to suggest in their works that, at its best, fiction can supplement and perhaps even surpass Church doctrine in getting to the heart of many fundamental theological matters, including especially the reality of sin, the difficulty of redemption and forgiveness, and the inscrutable mystery of divine mercy. Without a doubt, the two authors regularly explored rather difficult questions of faith in their controversial fictions--novels and short stories grounded, more often than not, in the grim realities of human existence at its squalid worst. For all the genuine despair and darkness of their works, however, both Greene and Endo repeatedly succeeded in rendering spiritually compelling tales of woe and ethical failure that ultimately lead the reader toward a kind of hope, however hidden or unlikely, for a saving grace beyond the ugliness and frailty of the human condition.

The various landscapes of Greene's fiction have long been subsumed by critics under the flag of what has been dubbed "Greeneland"--a continent well known to his readers as a murky territory of vice and corruption, shot through with an insurmountable guilt owing, it is always reckoned, to the author's conflicted Catholicism. Much of the same could be said of what might be called "Endoland," which, for its part, is best characterized through the author's persistently recurring metaphor of the "mudswamp called Japan" (6)--that country where "Christianity simply cannot put down roots." (7)

As the rather diabolical, anti-Christian inquisitor from Silence, Inoue, says in Endo's play The Golden Country (a dramatized prequel to Silence featuring several of the same characters),"Sometimes I get to dislike this country of ours. Or, more than dislike, to fear it. It's a mudswamp much more frightening than what the Christians call hell--this Japan. No matter what shoots one tries to transplant here from another country, they all wither and die, or else bear a flower and fruit that only resemble the real ones." (8) Just as Greeneland is always present to Greene's readers, whether the novel is set in Mexico, West Africa, Indo-China, or Brighton, so too must Endo's "mudswamp Japan" be understood as a metaphor for the psyche, especially that part of the soul that in any individual resists the paradoxes of Christianity as unassimilable or, if assimilated, as somehow disingenuous, problematic, or suspect.

It is, of course, a matter of gross reductionism to speak of Greeneland and Endoland as though they were real settings rather than mere critical abstractions of otherwise diverse characters, plots, and locales. Nevertheless, for the sake of critical comparison, it remains useful to characterize each author's respective fictional universe in this way. Similarly, one may begin to identify, within each universe, those particular elements most apt for comparative consideration. As the title of this article indicates, I would like to examine more closely the significant, recurring figure of the "bad priest," who regularly appears, in various permutations, throughout the major fictions of both authors.

Characters like Greene's unnamed "whisky priest" in The Power and the Glory and Father Rodrigues in Endo's Silence--the apostate who tramples the image of Christ at the novel's conclusion--can, of course, both be viewed as bad priests and, at heart, as good men who simply find themselves in desperate, challenging situations of life and death. This is especially true, perhaps, of Endo's Rodrigues who apostatizes and tramples the fumie principally in order to spare others--specifically, to spare Japanese lay Christians, not fellow clergy or himself--from suffering horrendous tortures. He is told, "If you apostatize, these people will immediately be taken out of the pit, their bonds loosed, and we will put medicine on their wounds. ... But as long as you don't apostatize these peasants cannot be saved." (9) It should be pointed out that these words are spoken to Rodrigues by a former priest, Ferreira--himself also fallen through a similar act of apostasy--who serves in the novel (as did the actual, historical Ferreira from 1633 to his death in 1650) as an energetically devoted ally of the anti-Christian inquisitors. (10) Endo's Ferreira, however, is somewhat more sympathetic and ambiguous than his historical predecessor, who remains "the only known case [from the period] of a priest who apostatized, was set free by his persecutors, and then worked devotedly for their cause" (11)--but, even so, he remains a very bad priest even in his fictionalized self, preying as he does upon Rodrigues's compassion and tempting him to an apostasy that confuses the competing goods of a physical salvation from torture, pain, and death with the more traditional spiritual salvation of a happy death or martyrdom. If Greene considered Silence "much better" than his own novel The Power and the Glory, it is likely that he did so mainly because the ethical and theological complexity of Endo's conclusion made the final martyrdom of his own failed whisky priest seem, by comparison, altogether conventional and unintentionally simplistic.

In many other works as well, Greene and Endo did not shrink from depicting halfhearted, ineffectual priests (for example, the jovial but unconsoling Father Rank in Greene's The Heart of the Matter (12)) or dubiously motivated, power-hungry ones (particularly the zealous deceiver Velasco in Endo's The Samurai). In spite of their many faults, however, these flawed, fictional priests--including alcoholics, apostates, adulterers, buffoons, weak-willed cowards, and ambitious schemers--inadvertently succeed in fulfilling their intended, consecrated function. As Greene's whisky priest puts it, rather pointedly, "It doesn't matter so much my being a coward--and all the rest. I can put God into a man's mouth just the same--and I can give him God's pardon. It wouldn't make any difference to that if every priest in the Church was like me." (13) Thus, in virtually every fictional appearance of the bad priest in Endo and Greene, the weaknesses and failures of the individual character are supplanted by an all-the-more-astounding movement of divine grace. In this way, such priestly characters serve as paradoxical emblems of hope for divine mercy, despite the depths of human sin and squalor.

Of course, it is worth noting--before continuing a comparative literary analysis--that, in senses much broader, older, and more troubling than in the fictions of Endo and Greene, the figure of the bad priest is both a veritable archetype and an alarming reality. In short, he is a figure (to borrow Erich Auerbach's useful phrase) significantly "fraught with background." (14)

Bad priests, it would seem, have always been with us--woven, as it were, into the very fabric of the religious situation. In the biblical tradition, at least, the bad priest appears almost immediately with the institution of the priesthood itself. The lengthy covenantal discourse on priestly matters such as vestments, priestly consecration, ritual offerings, and so forth in Exodus 28-31 is followed directly in the text with the well-known apostasy narrative of the golden calf in Exodus 32. In a telling example of dramatic irony, it is quite explicitly Aaron--who has just been designated in the text as the founding priest of the Covenant--who first breaks the Covenant by disobeying the clear-cut prohibition of idols commanded by God in Exodus 20:4 (to which he was privy). One might go back even further in biblical narrative to Cain and Abel (Genesis 4), whose sacrifices to God suggest, retrospectively, that they were serving as prototypical priests; thus, the argument could be made that Cain, the first murderer himself, was, in fact, also a bad priest of sorts. No doubt, a multitude of similar, supporting examples can be gleaned from throughout the Hebrew Bible: for example, Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu, who offer an unholy sacrifice at the opening of Leviticus 10; inept, spiritually blind Eli and his greedy, villainous sons as depicted throughout the opening chapters of 1 Samuel; even the good priest Samuel's sons themselves, who "did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice." (15) Likewise, the Pharisees and the Sadducees of the New Testament--and especially the high priests Annas and Caiaphas--seem to continue in many ways the strong biblical line of bad priests.

It can be seen, moreover, that this tradition of the bad priest survived, very often comically, in subsequent folktales and literary treatments, such as those of Boccaccio, Chaucer, and many others, leading, among other things, to the stock comic figure of the "reverend rake." Unfortunately, however, the bad priest was not restricted to the comic bawd of the narrative imagination and appeared, rather more tragically, in many real-life manifestations: Torquemada, for example, was by no means unique--nor could he have acted alone--in his cruel and dreadful zeal.

Sadly, in our own time, we do not doubt for an instant the reality of the bad priest; we have seen him in the flesh or on the nightly news much too often over the last few decades. Indeed, for many--both within and beyond the Catholic Church--it is precisely his opposite, the good priest, who defies belief. We may wish it otherwise, but, in an era of wounding crises and widespread betrayals on the part of bad priests, every priest is subsequently viewed with some modicum of suspicion. The paradoxical comfort in all of this, of course, is that the tradition itself, from its very beginnings in scripture to its liturgy and sacramental theology, has taken into serious account the undeniable reality and persistence of the bad priest.

With respect, then, to the fictions of Endo and Greene--upon both of whom this same tradition weighs heavily--one finds repeated attempts to justify or otherwise to take into account the existence of the bad priest, not in order to vilify him, but, rather, to consider him as a theological test case of the limits of divine mercy. In both Endo and Greene, the bad priest bears the emblematic weight of sin, brought, as it were, fully to consciousness in its commission; in other words, they serve as exemplars of the existential situation described by Karl Rahner in the phrase, "man as a being threatened radically by guilt." (16) Rahner notes:
  The topic, "man as a being threatened radically by guilt," is
  undoubtedly burdened today with a special difficulty: we cannot
  say that people today are bothered in a very immediate way and
  at a clear and tangible level of their consciousness by the
  question whether and how as sinners in their individual
  histories of salvation and its opposite they find a merciful
  God, or how they are justified by God and before God. The
  normal person today does not fear God in this sense, and the
  question of his individual justification, which was, once with
  Augustine and then again at the time of the Reformation, the
  question on which the church was to survive or perish, this
  question does not bother people today very much or maybe even
  not at all. (17)

Certainly, what Rahner says of the "normal person today" does not necessarily apply to all individuals--and especially not to those who, for example, pursue a religious vocation--but his point is well taken. Since matters of "guilt" are now regularly held to stand firmly in the provinces of secular psychology or civil jurisprudence, it seems that the crucial theological-anthropological issues he has in mind (justification, salvation, damnation, divine mercy, etc.) can, in modernity, only be meaningfully addressed under extraordinary conditions or by extraordinary, somewhat marginalized individuals: madmen, zealots, theologians, or saints. Nevertheless, one finds in the fictional representation of the bad priest--a far cry from the madman or saint, but, importantly, a figure both akin to and quite distinct from the normal person today--a special opportunity within the modern situation for heightened attention to the deep (indeed, ultimate) question of "salvation and its opposite."

To illustrate this point--which I see as the main thematic basis for a comparison of Endo and Greene's works--I shall proceed first with a brief consideration of The Power and the Glory, in which Greene depicts with particular emphasis the misery, fragility, and abject poverty--both spiritual and physical--of humanity in its essence. This shall be followed by a short treatment of comparable thematic elements in Endo's The Samurai and Silence.

Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory

The title of Greene's book itself is primarily, and rather poignantly, ironic, standing in marked contrast to the humiliated and destitute existence of its protagonist, an alcoholic priest on the run from the law in the villages and backroads of poorest Mexico. In one memorable scene, for example--evocative of the degradation that characterizes the novel as a whole--Greene's whisky priest, utterly gnawed with hunger, grapples with a mangy, crippled dog over a scrap bone, buzzing with flies, for the bits of rancid meat still clinging to it. At the conclusion of this emblematic episode of struggle and abasement, Greene writes, "no food had ever tasted so good." (18) In a closely related scene, the priest eats a lump of sugar left at a graveyard--whether ceremonially or superstitiously--by an Indian mother near the mouth of her unburied dead child: "The priest bent down with an obscure sense of shame and took it: the dead child couldn't growl at him like a broken dog.... He hesitated, while the rain poured down; then he put the sugar in his mouth." (19) (Unlike the meat stolen from the dog, however, the sugar--revealingly--gives the priest no pleasure: "Immediately he began to eat, the fever returned: the sugar stuck in his throat: he felt an appalling thirst." (20)) The material destitution and hunger of the pathetic priest, suggested in part by such scenes of physical wretchedness as these, is, moreover, matched and mirrored throughout the novel by an equal, if not greater, spiritual impoverishment. In one telling passage, this correlation between the spiritual and the physical is underlined, as the priest's escalating transgressions in matters of religious observation and his growing moral bankruptcy are illustrated by his gradual loss of the material objects and outward symbols of his faith.
  Feast days and fast days had been the first to go: then he
  had ceased to trouble any more than occasionally about his
  breviary--and finally he had left it behind altogether at the
  port in one of his periodic attempts at escape. Then the
  altar stone went--too dangerous to carry with him. He had no
  business to say Mass without it; he was probably liable to
  suspension, but penalties of the ecclesiastical kind began to
  seem unreal in a state where the only penalty was the civil
  one of death. ... He was a bad priest, he knew it. They had a
  word for his kind--a whisky priest, but every failure dropped
  out of sight and mind: somewhere they accumulated in
  secret--the rubble of his failures. One day they would choke
  up, he supposed, altogether the source of grace. Until then
  he carried on, with spells of fear, weariness, with a
  shamefaced lightness of heart. (21)

The priest views his "lightness of heart" as dangerous and shameful not so much because he continues to say Mass without an altar stone--clearly a forgivable offense under the circumstances--but, rather, because "every failure dropped out of sight and mind," plainly aligning him with something like Rahner's notion of the normal person today. Nevertheless, it is equally apparent that the sins and failures the priest has purportedly "accumulated in secret" through an easy forgetfulness do, occasionally, return to consciousness and weigh upon his conscience at key points throughout the text. Chief among these sins--a mortal one--stands his remembered (but unconfessed) transgression of the priestly vow of celibacy: an act of wrongdoing born more of despair than of desire, by which the whisky priest fathered a child.

As a parish priest--the reader discovers roughly a third of the way into the book--the fugitive had had an illegitimate child, but abandoned the mother and child alike to their poverty by fleeing, in cowardice, the increasing fervor and danger of the religious persecutions. The adultery itself--a "despairing act of rebellion" (22) on the part of the priest--would curiously remain on his conscience, despite his guilt, even unto death, for, he reasons, "What was the good of confession when you loved the result of your crime?" (23) Forced in his travels into hiding in his former parish, the fugitive priest finally has an opportunity to look upon his now six-year-old daughter and notes to himself that "it was like seeing his own mortal sin look back at him, without contrition." (24) In this way, he shows himself utterly incapable of separating the good of the child he loves from the ill of his broken vow. Nevertheless, his own failure to loosen this ethical knot permits (and perhaps obliges) the reader to work his or her own way through the bind. This above all, one suspects, is Greene's reason for immersing the reader in such a landscape--one in which moral failure, destitution, hunger, despair, and confusion are all too commonplace. Indeed, many other scenes and specific details in the novel similarly contribute to its overwhelming sense of squalor, sin, and ugliness, though such squalor seems far afield from "the power and the glory" evoked in the book's title (and which, it should be remembered, belong to God and not to men: "For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory" (25)). Yet, for Greene, all this gloom and ugliness--including especially the priest's own moral, spiritual, and physical degradation--signifies the very condition under which mercy or loving kindness becomes not only meaningful and necessary but indeed possible in the first place--a very important point: indeed, the main point of the novel.

In an extended, central scene of the book, the whisky priest rides uncomfortably alongside a grotesque, sickly, fang-toothed mestizo who will serve, importantly, as the novel's Judas and who insists upon making an impassioned confession to the beleaguered priest. This repulsive, but also comic, character provides the occasion for the priest to meditate upon "the convincing mystery--that we were made in God's image" (26)--an image shared in equal measure by the debased mestizo, the priest himself, and every human alike. This "mystery" (i.e., our share in the divine image) ultimately moves the priest--guilty, of course, of his ownmost sins--to a small but poignant gesture of compassion toward his repugnant companion. He muses:
  God was the parent, but He was also the policeman, the
  criminal, the priest, the maniac, and the judge. Something
  resembling God dangled from the gibbet or went into odd
  attitudes before the bullets in a prison yard or contorted
  itself like a camel in the attitude of sex. He would sit in the
  confessional and hear the complicated dirty ingenuities which
  God's image had thought out, and God's image shook now, up and
  down on the mule's back, with the yellow teeth sticking out
  over the lower lip, and God's image did its despairing act of
  rebellion with Maria in the hut among the rats. He said [to the
  mestizo], "Do you feel better now? Not so cold, eh? Or so hot?"
  and pressed his hand with a kind of driven tenderness upon the
  shoulder of God's image. (27)

It is curious to note here, in the list of analogues to or images of God, the central position of "the priest," flanked, with a certain symmetry, by "the policeman, the criminal ... the maniac, and the judge." (It is equally curious how much of humanity is left out of this highly selective catalogue.) Greene's suggestion, I would argue, is that the whisky priest--who holds an overtly symbolic or sacramental intermediary position vis-a-vis God and those to whom he ministers--functions as something like an amalgamation of all these stock figures, including as well the central, leading image of God "the parent" (a priest is thus called Father). Moreover, the passage quickly shifts to the scene of "the confessional," in which the priest serves as something akin to a "policeman," "judge," or "parent" to whom one confesses while dispensing, with authority, merciful absolution from the divine judge above. Nevertheless, by evoking also his own "act of rebellion with Maria in the hut among the rats," the whisky priest strongly intimates that the confessor himself is also a "criminal"--or, even worse, given this dizzying, compromised, hypocritical dual position, something of "the maniac." Appropriately, his thoughtful identification with the sinner who confesses--no matter how loathsome his confession might be--compels the "driven tenderness" he finally presses in a compassionate touch upon the mestizo's shoulder. The bad priest thus discovers, by virtue of his own sinfulness, as it were, the motive or logic or instinct to behave as a good priest or a good man should.

It is worth considering at greater length here the main passage of the mestizo's confession itself, for it is not only a marvelous novelistic movement from the ridiculous to the sublime (a comic precursor of sorts to Roberto Benigni's uproarious taxicab confession to the Roman monsignor in the film Night on Earth), but it also expresses, in a rather pointed way, the central theological thesis of the novel. The passage begins with an analogy of the man's confession to the voluminous black ooze of an oil-gusher.
  The man wouldn't stop. The priest was reminded of an
  oil-gusher which some prospectors had once struck near
  Conception ... a black fountain spouting out of the marshy
  useless soil and flowing away to waste--fifty thousand
  gallons an hour. It was like the religious sense in man,
  cracking suddenly upwards, a black pillar of fumes and
  impurity, running to waste. "Shall I tell you what I've
  done?--It's your business to listen. I've taken money from
  women to do you know what, and I've given money to boys..."

  "I don't want to hear."

  "It's your business."

  "You're mistaken."

  "Oh no, I'm not. You can't deceive me. Listen. I've given money
  to boys--you know what I mean. And I've eaten meat on Fridays."
  The awful jumble of the gross, the trivial, and the grotesque
  shot up between the two yellow fangs, and the hand on the priest's
  ankle shook and shook with the fever.

  "I've told lies, I haven't fasted in Lent for I don't know how
  many years. Once I had two women--I'll tell you what I did..."
  He had an immense self-importance; he was unable to picture a
  world of which he was only a typical part--a world of
  treachery, violence, and lust in which his shame was altogether
  insignificant. How often the priest had heard the same
  confession--Man was so limited he hadn't even the ingenuity to
  invent a new vice: the animals knew as much. It was for this
  world that Christ had died; the more evil you saw and heard
  about you, the greater glory lay around the death. It was too
  easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or
  children or a civilization--it needed a God to die for the
  half-hearted and the corrupt. (28)

It is at the end of this passage, mingling confession, boast, and judgment, that Greene reveals the deeper, non-ironic meaning of his book's title--and it is a provocative meaning indeed: namely, that "the more evil you [see and hear] about you, the greater [the] glory [of Christ's] death." Greene's theodicy--insidious in its way, and certainly problematic, but also, somehow, strangely consistent with the topsy-turvydom of Christian paradox (deriving, in large measure, from Romans 5:6-10)--appears very nearly to make a positive virtue of the horrors and hardships in life. This borderline-perverse theodicy is echoed (or, rather, anticipated) in a sermon--very moving in its context--delivered earlier in the novel by the whisky priest to a group of peasants: "Pray that you will suffer more and more and more. Never get tired of suffering. The police watching you, the soldiers gathering taxes, the beating you always get from the jefe because you are too poor to pay, smallpox and fever, hunger ... that is all part of heaven--the preparation. Perhaps without them, who can tell, you wouldn't enjoy heaven so much. Heaven would not be complete." (29) Lest this be judged as mere theological perversity on the part of Greene, that is, a theology of masochism, it is perhaps worth remembering that he puts all these words in the mind or mouth of a character identified, almost exclusively, as a "whisky priest" and a "bad priest"--the latter designation appearing no fewer than five times in the novel, usually as a matter of self-judgment. But such designations as these, like the title of the novel itself, contain a key irony. The priest, sincerely thinking himself damned, bad, and almost completely cut off from grace, is largely, if not completely, unaware of his own virtue--which is nevertheless transparent to the reader, especially as the priest moves willingly, in the service of compassion and the valor of pity for others, toward his own martyrdom at the book's conclusion. In this way, he fulfills as a character one of the seemingly impossible requirements of Christian virtue, which paradoxically dictates that one must "not let [the] left hand know what [the] right hand is doing." (30)

Bad Priests and the Ugly Christ: Endo's Theological Aesthetics

Turning with a comparative eye to the work of Shusaku Endo, one notices the extent to which he and Greene repeatedly developed narrative situations out of essentially the same basic material: namely, deeply personal ethical catastrophes born of some spiritual deficiency or tribulation--the flawed individual at odds with a faulted world. For Endo, however, the major theme that I have thus far illustrated in Greene--that of hope and mercy springing, paradoxically, from the very substance of despair and sin--takes on a much more explicitly Christological emphasis.

In Endo's 1980 historical novel The Samurai, for example, the author develops what practically amounts to a soteriology or Christology of ugliness--a theological aesthetic of sin and suffering--closely akin to that put forward by Greene in The Power and the Glory. The novel, set, like Silence, in the early seventeenth century, follows a group of non-Christian Japanese emissaries who undertake a voyage to the Western Hemisphere with the goal of establishing trading privileges with the New World. The mission is led by a scheming Spanish Franciscan missionary, Father Velasco, who despises his Jesuit brethren with bilious rancor and who dreams of becoming the bishop of Japan as the result of brokering a successful trading agreement.

Father Velasco--a self-justifying liar, full of ambition and hate--serves as the major counterpoint to the novel's protagonist, Hasekura, the politically unimportant but extremely devoted samurai, for whom the book is titled. Throughout the novel, Velasco's guile is unfavorably juxtaposed with Hasekura's honesty and sense of honor. As the sole translator for the mission, for example, Velasco repeatedly mistranslates and lies boldfacedly to the Japanese and the Spanish alike, seeking after his own gain. Most importantly, he cajoles the Japanese emissaries to convert to Christianity under false pretenses, preying upon their sense of duty to the success of the mission. For their part, Hasekura and his fellow emissaries are utterly baffled by the Christian worship of the "ugly and emaciated" figure they seem to encounter everywhere in this New World (i.e., Mexico, once again, but three hundred years before the period depicted in The Power and the Glory).
  Everywhere they went they had seen men and women kneeling in
  the churches, and images of a loathsome, emaciated man
  illuminated by the flames of many candles. The very life of
  this vast world seemed to centre on whether one believed in
  this loathsome man or not. But as a Japanese raised in a tiny
  marshland, [Hasekura] could feel no interest or concern for
  this man called Jesus. Such a religion was alien to him and
  would remain so as long as he lived. (31)

By the end of the book, however, Hasekura has been baptized by Velasco, though he insists, even to himself, that it is not a true conversion, but rather a sham undertaken for the expediency of his mission. But when Hasekura and his colleagues finally do return to Japan--the mission having ended in utter failure--they find their homeland in the midst of a full-blown and bloody persecution of Christianity, and the samurai is shortly thereafter executed for the crime of his conversion, despite his signed renunciation of the faith. The ironies of this conclusion are manifold, as Velasco--for all the wrong reasons--actually succeeds in making a great many converts, while Hasekura, a reluctant and uncommitted convert but a very honorable samurai, dies, for all intents and purposes, the death of a baptized Christian martyr--a death closely akin to that of the ugly, emaciated Christ he loathed, the devotion to whom he could not comprehend.

In one of the novel's key theological passages, before Hasekura's climactic and deeply problematic baptism, a renegade Japanese Christian monk, living not in a Spanish-built monastery but with the indigenous population of Mexico, attempts to explain the mystery of his faith in the ugly, crucified Jesus to his skeptical, non-Christian countryman.
  In the old days ... I had the same doubts. But I can believe in
  Him now because the life He lived in this world was more
  wretched than any other man's. Because He was ugly and
  emaciated. He knew all there was to know about the sorrows of
  this world. He could not close His eyes to the grief and agony
  of mankind. That is what made Him emaciated and ugly. Had He
  lived an exalted, powerful life beyond our grasp, I would not
  feel like this about Him.

  ...He understands the hearts of the wretched, because His entire
  life was wretched. He knows the agonies of those who die a
  miserable death, because He died in misery. He was not in
  the least powerful. He was not beautiful. (32)

This passage, which briefly illustrates what I have loosely called the soteriology of ugliness in Endo, is, at once, perfectly in line with Greene's fictional theodicies, but also much more directly focused and dependent upon the particular image of Christ. If Greene has been moved, to some degree, simply by the essential degraded human condition itself, then Endo seems rather more emphatically to insist upon the primacy of the image of Christ--that is, on the saving power of the ugly, defeated Christ, the man of sorrows--and, therefore, upon the specifically Christological redemption of that same degraded human situation.

This is represented most dramatically, of course, in Endo's most famous work, Silence. In Silence, the image of Christ--in the form of the bronze iconic fumie--becomes the absolute focus of the novel's complex, unresolvable climax, when Father Rodrigues finally commits his apostasy.
  The first rays of the dawn appear. The light shines on his long
  neck stretched out like a chicken and upon his bony shoulders.
  The priest grasps the fumie with both hands bringing it close to
  his eyes. He would like to press to his own face that face trampled
  on by so many feet. With saddened glance he stares intently at
  the man in the center of the fumie, worn down and hollow with
  constant trampling. A tear is about to fall from his eye. "Ah,"
   he says trembling, "the pain!"

  "It is only a formality. What do formalities matter?" The interpreter
  urges him on excitedly. "Only go through with the exterior form of

  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 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. (33)

Here, Father Rodrigues's vision of the suffering, compassionate Christ, who invites--indeed, who urges--the priest to trample upon his face, is ambiguously bound up with the obvious symbolism of betrayal given in the crowing cock. (34) It cannot, therefore, be resolved whether the priest's apostasy is truly to be deemed a sanctified act of compassion (blessed with a spiritual vision) or a dismal failure of faith (rationalized by an hallucinatory delusion). The ambiguous scene instead stands, as I phrased it in my introduction, as a "theological test case" of the limits both of human virtue (and its opposite) and of divine mercy, necessarily pointing back, rather directly, to the most foundational and inescapable theological test case of its kind: the Crucifixion. Endo's fiction, however, also reinscribes the event of the Passion anew, as an ever ongoing, ever recurring suffering of the incarnate God. Thus, the conclusion of Silence seems not only to echo the gospels, but also to recognize or proclaim every subsequent, and perhaps every preceding, act of human suffering as intimately and forever entangled with the suffering of Christ.

This is a bold theological and narrative move, made yet bolder and more complicated, I believe, by the fact that Rodrigues is led to his suffering and trampling of Christ by the sophistries of the apostate priest Ferreira, just as The Samurai's Hasekura is, in a sense, led to his execution by the conniving Father Velasco. The paradoxical question thus emerges: Is a theology that embraces the suffering of Christ sometimes guilty, in its ministry and in its ministers, of inflicting or encouraging new sufferings? (This possibility is fictively evidenced, one may recall, in Greene's whisky priest, who urged, "Pray that you will suffer more and more and more.") The question is a thorny one, but also somewhat misleading, since it conflates the premise of a genuine faith value--embracing the suffering of Christ--with a mode of behavior altogether contrary to the premise. Endo's fiction actually lays bare a good deal of this problem.

Before Father Rodrigues makes the decision to apostatize and save those being tortured from their physical pain, Ferreira tells him,
  "... I was the same as you. On that cold, black night I, too, was
  as you are now. And yet is your way of acting love? A priest
  ought to live in imitation of Christ. If Christ were here..."

  For a moment Ferreira remained silent; then he suddenly broke
  out in a strong voice: "Certainly Christ would have apostatized
  for them." (35)

The highly suspect Ferreira thus cagily challenges Rodrigues's spiritual fortitude (and perhaps the reader's as well) with a hypothetical akin to the contemporary pop-Christian question, "What would Jesus do?"--and it is no doubt compelling to imagine, as Ferreira does, that Christ would indeed take on his own mode of suffering so as to end the suffering of others. But Ferreira slips on several counts. The pronounced ellipsis and silence after he utters, "If Christ were here ..." underscores the full extent of his apostasy; for, if he does recognize the reality of Christ (a dubious prospect at best), he admits only the dead, crucified Christ of history, not the living, resurrected Christ who would, of course, be "present" with those suffering in his name. Father Rodrigues, had he his theological wits about him or the stuff of a saint, might have curtly and courageously countered, "But Christ is here." More to the point, however, it is also self-evident that, in Ferreira's apostate worldview, there is no longer any authentic recognition of a soteriological element in the suffering of Christ, unless it could be imagined as a kind of anodyne or anesthetic for all the suffering in the world. But the suffering of Christ, as we know, did not end all suffering as such. Rather, as Endo illustrates, the converse seems to be the point: Silence's Christ in bronze says, "It was to share men's pain that I carried my cross" (36) and, as the author would write in The Samurai, "He knows the agonies of those who die a miserable death, because He died in misery." (37) Ferreira's assertion that "certainly Christ would have apostatized for them" is, therefore, not really an answer, but, rather, a question--posed by Endo to the reader: What is the fitting Christian answer to Rodrigues's impossible dilemma? One oblique but apt response might be to remember that Christ was not crucified alone.
  One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and
  saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and
  us!" But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God,
  since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we
  indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we
  deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." Then
  he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
  He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in
  Paradise." (38)

In the light of Luke's Gospel, Ferreira's manipulative argument sounds conspicuously like that of the first criminal, who derisively demands, "Save yourself and us!" Similarly, what Rodrigues appears to forget in electing to apostatize is not only the promise of Paradise for himself and for his would-be fellow martyrs but also the fact that he and they alike "are under the same sentence of condemnation." That his act of trampling the fumie is one of well-intentioned and even profound Christian compassion does not altogether place under erasure his real failure--principally, a failure rooted in hubris--as seen from the perspective of faith. In short, he neglects to realize that there are some modes of suffering that are simply not in our power to alleviate: "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible." (39)


Unlike the formal theologian, who is always bound, in one way or another, to determine a specific, doctrinal solution to fundamentally insoluble problems, the fiction writer is instead free to pose such questions in narrative form, neither answering directly, nor leaving wholly unanswered, the difficulties he or she brings to the reader's attention. With respect, then, to the fictions of Endo and Greene, one finds in their repeated attempts to take into account the problematic existence of the bad priest some extremely moving, experientially convincing invitations to meditate more fully upon the themes of sin and redemption, virtue and faith, without ever reducing moral and spiritual complexity. In many ways, Endo and Greene's most flawed characters are redeemed, paradoxically, by their own failures, eliciting the reader's pity, which, in turn, mirrors (though only "in a glass, darkly") the divine mercy of the crucified God--of whom Paul writes, "For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person--though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us." (40) Though fiction--including various works by Endo and Greene--is certainly not devoid of its virtuous and even lovable priestly figures (nor should it be, for neither is life), it is in facing our bad priests that we are much more urgently called or driven to a sense of concern, sadness, pity, and, in the long run, hope and wonder before the mystery of divine mercy.

It might be aptly and seriously countered that the lessons to be drawn from such fictional creatures are much less obviously apparent in the real-life pedophiles, abusers, and figures of corruption who have so injuriously scandalized the Church in recent memory. I would argue, however, that the fictions draw their strength from precisely such dire and difficult realities and that even the very worst villains among us can serve, provokingly, to remind us yet again, "that while we were still sinners Christ died for us."


(1.) Shusaku Endo, Silence, trans. William Johnston (1969; New York: Taplinger, 1980), vii.

(2.) Shusaku Endo to Graham Greene, March 27, 1972, MS, Graham Greene Collection, Burns Library, Boston College.

(3.) Greene to Endo, April 17, 1972, MS, Greene Collection.

(4.) Inscription in presentation copy, Greene Collection.

(5.) Greene to Max Reinhardt, October 13, 1969, MS, Greene Collection.

(6.) Shusaku Endo, The Golden Country: A Play about Christian Martyrs in Japan, trans. Francis Mathy (1970; Boston: Tuttle Publishing, 2003), 127.

(7.) Endo, Silence, 187.

(8.) Endo, Golden Country, 64.

(9.) Endo, Silence, 168-69.

(10.) Endo, Golden Country, 8.

(11.) Ibid., 11.

(12.) Greene writes of Father Rank in one passage, for example, "His joviality filled the room with hollow sound. For twenty-two years that voice had been laughing, joking, urging people humorously on through the rainy and the dry months. Could its cheeriness have ever comforted a single soul? Wilson wondered: had it even comforted itself?" (The Heart of the Matter [1948; New York: Penguin, 1978], 68).

(13.) Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory (1940; New York: Penguin, 1991), 195.

(14.) See Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. William Trask (1953; Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), 12ff.

(15.) 1 Sm 8:1 (New Revised Standard Version).

(16.) Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith, trans. William V. Dych (New York: Crossroad, 1997), 90ff.

(17.) Ibid., 91.

(18.) Greene, Power and the Glory, 145.

(19.) Ibid., 156-57.

(20.) Ibid., 157.

(21.) Ibid., 60.

(22.) Ibid., 101.

(23.) Ibid., 176.

(24.) Ibid., 67.

(25.) Mt 6:13 (King James Version).

(26.) Greene, Power and the Glory, 101.

(27.) Ibid., 101.

(28.) Ibid., 96-97. Italics added, second and third ellipses in original.

(29.) Ibid., 69. Ellipsis in original.

(30.) Mt 6:3 (NRSV).

(31.) Shusaku Endo, The Samurai, trans. Van C. Gessel (1980; New York: New Directions, 1997), 120-21.

(32.) Ibid., 220.

(33.) Endo, Silence, 171.

(34.) Cf. Mk 14:66-72, Mt 26:69-75, Lk 22:54-62.

(35.) Endo, Silence, 169. Ellipsis in original.

(36.) Ibid., 171.

(37.) Endo, The Samurai, 220.

(38.) Lk 23:39-43 (NRSV).

(39.) Mk 10:27 (NRSV).

(40.) Rom 5:6-8 (NRSV).
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Author:Link, Christopher A.
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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