Catholicism in the East, in Print and Onscreen

A tale of two books … and two movies

2016’s Silence (above) portrays Jesuit missionaries in Japan, while real-life Father Matteo Ricci (below) evangelized China.
2016’s Silence (above) portrays Jesuit missionaries in Japan, while real-life Father Matteo Ricci (below) evangelized China. (photo: Paramount Pictures and public domain)

Although he has been called the “Graham Greene of the East” (Greene was a great British Catholic novelist), Shusaku Endo remained in relative obscurity for Western readers until recently, when Martin Scorsese adapted his Silence — the story of Jesuits who try to revive the persecuted Japanese Catholic mission while searching for Father Ferreira — for the silver screen.

While Scorsese takes some liberties with the book, its key themes — faith and apostasy amid persecution — is mostly faithful.

Silence showed a light on Asia, the world’s largest continent where, nevertheless, the Church’s footprint is most modest. Endo’s novels often grapple with the challenge of embodying Catholic values in Japanese culture, not just in the 16th century, but today. The Church’s record in East Asia is diverse: small but steady in Japan, stronger in Korea. And then, there’s China.

And there’s another historical writer, Vincent Cronin.

Cronin was the son of A.J. Cronin, another British Catholic novelist (The Keys of the Kingdom). Cronin fils focused instead on history, but some of the paternal genes rubbed off in his engaging yet polished writing style.

Among the beneficiaries of that style is the story of the Jesuit Matteo Ricci, founder of the Chinese Catholic missions. Ignatius Press has just reprinted Cronin’s 1955 work, The Wise Man From the West, which tells of the life and work of Li Ma-Tou, the Chinese name for the Italian missionary who spent more than a quarter century grafting Catholicism on to the Chinese stalk.

In Silence, the Inquisitor declares that Catholicism cannot be transplanted to the “Land of the Rising Sun” because the soil of Japan supposedly could not support it. While Father Rodrigues rightly points out that the decline of Catholicism has less to do with its adaptation to its environment than the government’s determination to weed it out, the Inquisitor’s line strikes a major point, as germane today as four centuries ago. There is a certain strain in the Asian mindset that tries to define “Asian values” separately and then oppose whatever foreign ideas it finds contrary to them.

While sometimes such value selectivity might be justified — Westerners, particularly today, also have their own blind spots about what constitutes “essential Western values” — one cannot deny that appeals to “Asian values” also can be a self-serving excuse for uncritically preserving the status quo. The answer, it seems, is carefully to distinguish the essential from the dispensable, demanding just what must be while being flexible about the rest.

Cronin shows that is just what Father Ricci did. 

After Father Ricci came to China in 1583, he never left. He’s buried there today. Cronin’s lively prose tells us just how slowly and exactingly Father Ricci built up the Chinese mission.

First, he needed to get “inside the Chinese head” by understanding the culture. That’s no small task, as I can, after two years of studying Mandarin, attest. I certainly had no illusion I was smarter than a 5-year-old, much less a Chinese fifth-grader. But Father Ricci recognized that crossing the cultural threshold was the absolute prerequisite to being received as more than an exotic, though genteel, guest passing through.

And, as Cronin chronicles, Father Ricci spent a long time not just distinguishing the essentials from the incidentals (e.g., Chinese burial rites versus customs of filial piety) or even the best Chinese streams along which to sail (he thought Confucian categories might do for China what Aristotelian ones once did for Europe, but inveighed against Daoism and Buddhism). He, like St. Paul, made himself “all things to everyone,” reinventing his persona, discovering that packaging himself as a foreigner on the lines of an Oriental priest or bon did not afford him the impact that presenting himself as a learned scholar did. Father Ricci knew that Chinese soil required special cultivation, and he took the time to prepare the soil for the seed.

He did it not by abandoning the faith, but by defending it on Chinese terms, bending where he could and firm where he had to be.

Amid such toilsome labors, the priest had no illusions: Cronin repeatedly details his frustrations at the slow growth of his mission and conversions. But he knew that was the price he might have to pay when dealing with a country whose civilization reached back before the founding of Rome. In this, Father Ricci was no different from Paul, who was ready to keep the essentials even while jettisoning much of his own beloved Jewish customs, or the early Church, which was quite ready to co-opt the feast of the Conquering Sun (Sol Invictus) with its own feast of the Conquering Son. Cronin regrets that subsequent missionaries failed to follow that course, indeed, challenging the Jesuit achievements and winning Rome’s support in the so-called “Chinese Rites” controversy. The result was a Chinese Catholicism that, while large by Western measures (remember that New York City is one-third the size of Shanghai, so “abandon all Western measures ye who enter here”) also remained on the margins. Most importantly, the relationships of tolerance Father Ricci forged with opinion makers (mandarins) and government ended. As in 16th-century Japan, there would still be faithful Christians, but hostile rulers.

“Of all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, ‘it might have been.’” Cronin’s story leaves us with those sad thoughts of American poet John Greenleaf Whittier. Had Father Ricci’s effort to enculturate Chinese Catholicism succeeded — especially among the movers and shakers — how might subsequent East Asian history been different? What might the region look like today, and what might be the situation of China’s Catholics? Silence did not necessarily have to repeat itself.

If you’re still up for a film about Asian Christianity, let me also recommend an often forgotten 1944 classic, Keys of the Kingdom (a great Hollywood film about the Church and priests, for those who’ve forgotten such movies were once made, based on the book of Cronin’s père).

Gregory Peck plays Father Francis Chisholm, a Scottish Catholic missionary who overcomes his own cultural barriers through love and honesty to live with and among the Chinese in early 20th-century China. The film also depicts the cultural baggage that some in the Church brought with them: Msgr. Angus Mealey, the chancery-climbing supervisor of the diocesan Propagation of the Faith, who arrives ready to celebrate pontifical high Mass in rural China with all the smells and bells of Chartres, and Rev.-Mother Maria-Veronica, with all her jealousies. The film also captures the larger Christian dilemmas: rivalry between Catholics and Protestants in front of a people wondering why “they may not be one” as well as superficial missionary work, where one could inflate the number of “conversions” in direct ratio to the number of bags of grain handed out to “rice Christians.”

The allusions to Father Ricci are powerful.

Get a copy: It’s worth a watch!

John M. Grondelski, Ph.D.,

is former associate dean of the

School of Theology at Seton Hall University

in South Orange, New Jersey.