By Benedict Augustine
“’You will even be handed over by parents,
brothers, relatives, and friends,
and they will put some of you to death.
You will be hated by all because of my name,
but not a hair on your head will be destroyed.
By your perseverance you will secure your lives.’”
Perhaps the second most moving and tragic movie after The Passion of the Christ is The Mission, starring Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro. Based on a true story, it takes place in 1750 in the jungles South America, where the Jesuits heroically convert natives to the gospel and spare them indignity of the still widespread slave trade. This earns them the condemnation of both Spanish and Portuguese colonists who see their missions and successful attempts at evangelization as an obstacle to their business. As a response, the colonists threaten to remove by force the Jesuits in South America as well as those in Europe, as some other countries had done.
The film centers on the testimony of a papal legate who is sent to review the situation in the New World, and subsequently inform the Jesuits to discontinue their missionary work. While at first this task does not seem to bother him too much, it become progressively more onerous when he realizes that this decision will effectively condemn whole populations of converted Catholics to slavery or death and enrich horrible godless men who commit crimes against humanity.
The protagonist, a Jesuit who had successfully won over a recalcitrant tribe in the jungle, the Guarani, must deal with an impossible order: disband the mission and tell the natives to return to the jungles from which they came. The courage and resolution that this character shows in the face of such injustice and hypocrisy is nothing short of Christ-like. Never before had I felt such an urge to join an order and preach to the poor, such was the power of this character.
The drama of the Roman persecution at the time of Christ and the first apostles, the drama of Jews suffering under the Babylonians at the time of Daniel, the drama of the American martyrs during the time of colonization, continue to happen. The cruel and powerful subject the faithful to all sorts of abuse and injustice. They may do it in very obvious ways as in Africa or the Middle East, or they may do it much more subtle ways as in the West.
In the past, many ostensibly good people sought to compromise with evil for the sake of self-preservation. Unlike the stalwart prophet Daniel and his friends, many of the Israelites mixed in with Babylonian population and forgot that they lived in exile. Unlike Jesus’ disciples, many Christians in the early Church compromised with the enemy, either forming more palatable but less true versions of Christianity (i.e. heresies) or apostatizing altogether. The Catholic Church made many deals with European monarchs to hedge in their missionary efforts, turn a blind eye to political corruption, and abandon their faithful at critical moments. Before Protestants take this as sufficient proof of their superiority, they should keep in mind that Luther’s break from the Church unleashed religious wars that would tear apart Christendom and quickly set the stage for the complete secularization of politics and community life.
In current times, many people inside and outside the Church hope to continue this tradition of compromise. They discourage rules that might conflict with the hedonistic and selfish lifestyle pursued by so many today. They choose to vaunt the spoiled and perverse as victims of fabricated crimes, instead of the innocent who suffer actual crimes and die violent deaths by the thousands. They ask the more zealous to lay down their faith, vacate the premise, and simply live and let live, and then proceed to invite the lukewarm to take their place and take pride in their lack of conviction.
Like the legate in The Mission, many well-meaning people will tell persecuted Catholics abroad to disperse and find refuge somewhere else—as though that were somehow possible. From the safety and comfort of their homes, they will urge nonviolence and continue enabling horrible men to wreak havoc. Hoping not to ruffle any feathers, both political and religious leaders say little and try to change the subject.
Fortunately for these neglected populations, God does not compromise or seek to change the subject. He notes the compromises, the selfishness, the sacrilege; and He will let these societies and individuals fall under their own weight. Like Babylon, like Rome, like the kingdoms of Spain and Portugal, the powers today will come to an end. Despite the optimistic projections of the news, one can observe the social decline already taking place. The faithful have a choice now to repent and take care to help others; the faithless have already forfeited repentance and will convince themselvesthat decline is somehow progress.
The situation is not hopeless, but it does require conscious action on the part of Catholics. They may falter now, or they may persevere. If they can do the latter, then as Christ says, they will secure their lives while the powers around them fall away.