“Catholicism is not a solo, but a symphony,” according to Japanese novelist Shusako Endo. His 1966 novel Silence focuses on the danger of one man’s preconceived solo. In envisioning the glories that await him, the Jesuit protagonist, Sebastian Rodrigues, reveals a narrative that he has already written for himself: Men are strong or weak; there is Christ, and there is Judas. Rodrigues is Christ, ready to give his life for his people in a “glorious martyrdom.” He is even plagued by his own Judas, the cowardly apostate Kichijiro, who betrays him to the authorities. Everything is set for Rodrigues to be the hero. Instead, the priest apostatizes by stepping on an image of Christ (the “fumie”). Rather than repent and transform into a Peter figure, Rodrigues traps himself in the Judas role by clinging to an idealistic and inflexible narrative.
For Rodrigues, being a Christ figure entails being a hero. His sense of heroism emerges when he first meets the Christian community with his Jesuit companion Garupe and orders the Christians to alert other villages: “I felt as quickly as possible word should be sent out that once again a priest, crucifix in hand, had come to this desolate and abandoned land.” Rodrigues imagines himself looking like Christ in the Borgo San Sepulchro painting: a figure of strength and encouragement. His use of the singular “priest” is disturbing because Garupe is standing right next to him, unacknowledged. Rodrigues is swept up in his own visions of finally achieving his dream: being the Christ figure of Japan. Everyone else, including Garupe, revolves around him.
Interwoven with his heroic narrative is Rodrigues’s fascination with the Judas story that fuels his “strong, weak” narrative. Rodrigues reflects: “Men are born in two categories: the strong and the weak, the saints and the commonplace, the heroes and those who respect them.” Here is the thesis of his narrative with his troubling verb “born” that sounds like a man is born locked into a category. The priest’s thesis is confirmed a line later when a fearful Japanese believer, Kichijiro, betrays him to the authorities. In that moment, Kichijiro becomes the priest’s Judas, confirming both his role and Rodrigues as a Christ figure.
A Chance to Change the Narrative
The opportunity to be the hero comes through the temptation of Rodrigues’s apostate teacher Ferreira. The Japanese authorities have blamed Rodrigues for a series of martyrdoms, which now include Garupe’s death, saying, “Look! Look! For you blood is flowing.” The deaths become Rodrigues’s fault. Now five Christians hang upside down in a pit, doomed to death unless Rodrigues apostatizes. Rodrigues faces the same choice as Judas: Will he betray Christ?
In a surprising twist, the climactic moment associates Rodrigues’s betrayal with Peter, not Judas: “The priest placed his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.” Rodrigues knows that the cock announces his betrayal just as it had for Peter when he uttered his third denial. This passage underscores the grace and redemption missing from Rodrigues’s narrative by reminding us that Judas was not the only apostle to betray Christ. The difference lies in that Judas then despairs and hangs himself, while Peter repents and returns to Christ. Likewise, Christ offers Rodrigues the chance to change his narrative, to surrender his role as hero, and to accept that he, like Peter, is weak and needs to be healed.
Instead, Rodrigues condemns himself to becoming Judas because he does not trust God to redeem him. Rodrigues feels that he cannot go back to face the God whom he betrayed – so he does not. Instead, he surrenders completely to the Japanese after trampling the fumie: helping them discover Christian items hidden aboard incoming European ships, and even taking a wife. Rather than ask for God’s grace, Rodrigues believes that he determined his own destiny the moment he stepped on Christ’s image. Like Judas, the priest despairs. By trapping himself in his narrative, he commits spiritual suicide.
Rodrigues’s fall shook me as a reader. It made me realize that too often I also have built up a narrative, deciding how I would relate to others and where they would fit in my life. When the narrative didn’t play out as planned, I would swing the other way and lock myself into whatever logic I had constructed. I found Rodrigues so relatable that I began to wonder if I would make the same choices if I were in his place.
Thankfully, reflection has shown me what Rodrigues missed: I am not the center of my own drama; it’s not about me. That’s not what it means to be Catholic. Being Catholic means understanding that every man is made in the image and likeness of God with his own God-given purpose to fulfill, even if we don’t know what that may be. Catholicism has a place for each man with his own background; that is what makes Catholicism the symphony that fascinated Endo. It takes in the brokenness and wounds of the human heart, revealing the potential for grace in every person – the potential that Rodrigues failed to see.