THE Church triumphant.
The phrase above would not be out of place in the sea of believers gathered at the Basilica Minore del Sto. Niño, specially during the feast of the Holy Child.
The waving of devotees’ hands raised during the gozos of the novena, the dancing of the “sinulog” by candle vendors for patrons’ petitions, the waves of red- and green-suited images of the Infant Jesus carried by devotees during processions—these images coalesce behind another expression: the spectacle of faith.
One memory stands out. While awaiting my turn in a queue before the replica encased in a glass receptacle at the Basilica, I paused when I saw that part of the marble floor was depressed where countless devotees had paused before paying the traditional “halok (kiss)” of the image.
Was it a flaw in the construction? Or a sign of the foreign faith that conquered our shores and has lost little of its power in the vicissitudes of the centuries?
In Shusaku Endo’s novel, “Silence,” the indelible image is repeated with a difference: “(the) ‘fumie’ rubbed flat and shining by the hundreds of feet that ached with pain… while they trampled on someone whom their hearts loved.”
Endo’s novel is set during the “Christian century” of Japanese history. In 1579, some 150,000 Christians bore witness to the Jesuits’ vision of a Christian nation in the north of Asia.
Yet “Japan can be a land of schizophrenic change,” observed William Johnston, translator of “Silence”. By 1597, the winds of change withdrew the favor of the Shogun, who heeded the intrigues sown by the English and the Dutch against the Portuguese Jesuits.
In 1614, the edict came to “crush” and expunge this foreign faith. Christians were hunted and tortured to apostasize.
One practice was to hang upside down a Christian in a pit where he was buried up to his knees in feces and other filth. Cuts made behind the ears ensured that the blood would drip, keeping the person alive until ready to give the sign for apostasy.
For these crypto-Christians, abandoning the faith required trampling on the face of Santa Maria or Christ placed on a “fumie (wooden plaque).” Despite this simple act of renunciation, many secret Christians chose to agonize and die than betray the faith.
The book’s title alludes to the torment that haunts all hell on earth, from the killing fields of ethnic cleansing to the secret torture of sexual abuse: why is God silent in the face of suffering?
The “terrible doubt” rising from the “silence of God” assails the Jesuit missionary, Sebastian Rodrigues.
More terrible than doubt is our inability to hear the silence in the spectacle that has become our faith.