Skip to comments.Mission Statement
Posted on 05/06/2002 4:42:54 PM PDT by chatham
May 6, 2002 9:55 a.m. Mission Statement Spiritual relief on video.
Catholics depressed by the sex-abuse scandal take comfort wherever they can get it these days. Whenever I'm feeling at spiritual loose ends, I rent the original film version of A Man for All Seasons, the inspiring Robert Bolt play about St. Thomas More, who went nobly to his death for refusing to betray his Catholic faith under orders of the king. It restoreth my soul.
But A Man for All Seasons neither instructs nor satisfies when the antagonist testing one's faith is not secular authority, but the Church hierarchy itself. When the king orders you to apostatize, there's not much question but that defiance is necessary. What happens, though, when the betrayers of the Church by which I mean, as the Catechism puts it, "the people of God" turn out to be men in Church authority? It's a more complicated situation.
Bolt has explored this moral dilemma too, in another true story, his luminous screenplay for The Mission, Roland Joffe's 1986 film masterpiece about Jesuit missionaries caught between obedience to the Church and fidelity to the Christian people they serve. What would Jesus have these priests do? Ultimately, it comes down to an excruciating question for Catholics, who believe the hierarchical Church possesses legitimate apostolic authority: Where is Jesus, and who speaks for Him?
(Warning: Movie-plot spoilers ahead)
Set in 18th-century colonial South America, The Mission opens with the arrival of a cardinal from Rome, sent by the pope to settle a property dispute between Spain and Portugal. Spain has abolished slavery in its colonies, but Portugal still practices it. Spain retains jurisdiction over the Catholic mission territories, where Indians evangelized and converted by Jesuits have taken refuge from slavers. The Spanish wish to relinquish this control to the Portuguese, which would mean the Christian Indians would return to slavery. The cardinal has been dispatched from Rome to inspect the missions and decide if they will remain Spanish and free, or Portuguese and enslaved.
Priests died to establish these missions. Early in the film, the Guarani tribe lashes a Jesuit missionary to a large wooden cross, and sends him over a waterfall to his death. But another Jesuit, Fr. Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), risks his life climbing the cliffs to Guarani territory, knowing that if he survives the trek, he may not survive the encounter with the Guarani. After a tense standoff, they take him in, and in time he converts the tribe, and builds a mission church.
Captain Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro) is the mortal enemy of the Guarani and Fr. Gabriel. He's a hot-tempered mercenary and a slaver who illegally hunts for human beings in the mission territory. Once he returns to the city from a slave-gathering expedition to discover that his brother has stolen his lady. In a fit of anger, Mendoza kills his brother, and is sentenced to prison, where his guilt, pride, and self-hatred harden his heart.
Fr. Gabriel visits his enemy Mendoza in prison, and offers to take him to the mission. Embittered, Mendoza accepts, and makes the long, arduous journey dragging behind him a net carrying all his armor from his mercenary days. When he reaches the top of the cliff, where the Guarani live, Mendoza is exhausted and covered with filth. He is suddenly face to face with the Indians whose relatives he has killed or enslaved. A Guarani warrior seizes Mendoza and puts a knife to his throat, and it looks as if the slaver is going to get his bloody comeuppance.
But on a word from Fr. Gabriel, the Indian takes his knife and slices the rope, throwing the heavy armor down the hill, thus freeing Mendoza from his burden. The Indians whom he had persecuted surround Mendoza, smiling and embracing him; the bedraggled former mercenary, his pride broken but his soul saved, sobs in joy and gratitude. He is a murderer, he is a mercenary, he is a slave trader and he is redeemed. I do not believe there is a more powerful illustration of amazing grace in a single scene in any movie, ever. Mendoza is so thoroughly converted that he renounces violence, and is ordained a priest, choosing to live in service to the Guarani.
In time, however, the cardinal reveals his hand: His investigation is a ruse, and the fate of the missions was determined beforehand in Europe. The missions will go to the Portuguese, and the Indians back into slavery all for the good of the Church. The Holy Father would like to improve the Church's difficult position in Portugal and Spain, says the cardinal, and besides, the survival of the Jesuit order depends on appeasing these governments. Colonial troops will soon be marching on the mission, and His Eminence orders the Jesuit missionaries to leave at once, under threat of excommunication. The cardinal reminds them that he represents the Church, which is the voice of Christ on earth.
The priests refuse to obey, and choose to make their doomed stand with the Indians, deciding that faithfulness to Christ demands their own crucifixion, so to speak. Modern audiences, especially non-Catholic ones, may not appreciate the courage involved in that decision, and too little is made of it by the screenplay. It is no small thing for any believing Catholic to disobey the direct order of a cardinal, particularly if that Catholic is a priest vowed to obedience. Yet it is so clear to Fr. Gabriel and Fr. Mendoza and to the modern audience that obedience to Jesus requires repudiating the institutional Church, even unto excommunication and death, that the issue is not discussed.
I must have seen The Mission at least ten times, but until this recent viewing, in light of the current Church scandal, I didn't discern the film's flaw in not more fully addressing the question of deference to the cardinal. It's easy for us viewers to flatter ourselves by assuming that we would stand up to the corrupt hierarchy, who consigned helpless Indian Catholics to slavery to protect the political interests of the institutional Church.
In our day, though, many Catholics in America are struggling, discerning what to do when the hierarchy, acting on what they believed were the best interests of the Church to avoid scandal, is revealed to have left Catholic children and families open to sexual predators in the priesthood. Since the scandal broke open in January, an increasing number of ordinary Catholics have been willing to break with their ecclesiastical leadership on this question, but it has taken years to arrive at this point.
Anyway, the fact of the Jesuits' defiance is not as interesting as is the separate and opposed ways Gabriel and Mendoza, who are both Christ figures, take on the persecution. Fr. Gabriel is a pacifist; he refuses to bear arms against the colonial troops, telling Fr. Mendoza that to do so would be a betrayal of everything he lives for (and we have seen amply displayed that Gabriel is no coward). Mendoza makes the agonized decision to renounce his vow of obedience, and take up the sword again in armed resistance. In the end, both die: Mendoza and the Guarani tribesman go down fighting in self-defense, while Gabriel and his followers are shot down praying and singing hymns in a Eucharistic procession. Like Sir Thomas More, they died for their faith at the hands of impious authority; unlike Sir now Saint Thomas More, the impious authority was descended from the Apostles, which magnifies the tragedy inexpressibly.
Which response was most Christ-like? Both Christ as passive sufferer, and Christ as active resister are worthy of affirmation within the Christian tradition. My sympathies have always been with Fr. Mendoza and his fighters, whose cause is certainly just. But in recent years I've come to see that Fr. Gabriel's prayerful ascension to his personal Calvary is not pious folly, but evidence of a rarer kind of holiness and bravery. The Church the people of God, priests and laity alike have need of both its Mendozas and its Gabriels.
What we do not need, and can no longer afford, are Catholics who wish to defer automatically to the bishops' judgment in the matter of the child sex-abuse scandal. In dioceses and parishes across America today, individual Catholics are being forced to choose how they will respond to this crisis of moral leadership in the Church. The American bishops have, through their worldly calculations, put the Catholic people in the painful position of resisting their shepherds, in whom an increasing number no longer have much faith. I hear from Catholic readers all over the country who are now taking an active role in defending their parishes and their children and indeed the Catholic faith itself from the debased clericalist culture that allowed such harm to come to children. I hear from others who feel powerless to do anything more than pray, pray, pray; yet like Fr. Gabriel, he also serves who only kneels to pray).
Both sides share, however, the conviction that enough is enough, that there are times, as depicted in The Mission, when valid religious authority makes illegitimate and un-Christian demands of the faithful, and must be resisted by the faithful, come what may. The Mission is a comfort because it conveys the righteousness, even the obligation, of Catholic resistance to abuse of religious authority, and that this resistance may be the cost of Christian discipleship.
It is a dangerous and volatile state for Catholics to be in, God knows, believing as we do in a hierarchical and authoritative Church. But that is the world into which our bishops have delivered us. Thus have they made it.
But there is hope in the film's final scene. When news of the massacre reaches the cardinal's ears, he is sickened by what has happened. The cardinal's sorrowful demeanor gives reason to believe that the willingness of the Jesuits to be martyred rather than betray their people and their God has shocked the cardinal into the beginnings of moral awareness and conversion. Perhaps the "white martyrdom," which is to say, the bloodless martyrdom, of so many good priests and lay people in the months to come will have the same effect in renewing the Catholic Church. It has before, it may again.
There are two more thoughts on this:
1. Why does Dreher not make mention of the formerly-held belief that pedophelia could be healed? Does Dreher not make allowances for the mistakes by psychiatrists?
2. Catholics, true Catholics, will not lose their faith, but will demand that those who harm children be excommunicated.