The Silence Jesuits and their contemporaries

In many instances, Jesuit influence is essential to understanding the history of Asian societies.

Many viewers of Mar­tin Scorsese’s magnificent film Silence may come away with a deeply pessimistic opinion of early modern Catholic missions in Asia. For all their heroism and sacrifice, we surely think, those missionaries—especially the Jesuits—were pursuing a nearly im­possible goal in seeking to bring a distinctly European form of the faith to ancient and profoundly alien Asian cultures. How could they hope to comprehend those other worlds, still less make an impact? We might find ourselves muttering Rudyard Kipling’s words about East and West, how “never the twain shall meet.”

Certainly, some Jesuit missionaries met dreadful fates, but others were astonishingly successful, and in precisely those areas of intercultural contact that we might expect to have been most difficult. The Jesuits were, above all, phenomenal linguists, and those skills made them in­valuable to courts and governments around the world, even those who had little time for their religious message. In some remarkable cases, the missionaries shaped or even re-created the languages and literatures of the societies in which they operated. At many points, Jesuit influence is essential to understanding the history of Asian societies.

Alongside the martyrs of Japan who are the focus of Silence, we might recall their exact Jesuit contemporary Alexandre de Rhodes (1591–1660). Born in France, he spent much of his career in the land we call Vietnam, which was then a proud imperial power, with many wealthy aristocratic families. After the collapse of the missions to Japan, the Jesuit order made Indochina its next primary target, and de Rhodes was among the leaders of that effort. He plunged wholeheartedly into learning Viet­namese language, history, and culture, although run-ins with local lords repeatedly forced him into exile. Narrowly escaping a death sentence, he found himself unable to return to Vietnam. He died a little short of his seventieth year, while beginning a whole new missionary career—in Persia!