And how can they hear without someone to preach?
And how can people preach unless they are sent?
St. Paul

Like movie-going Catholics everywhere, I’m looking forward to Martin Scorsese’s Silence due out in select theaters December 23, followed by wider release in January. Based on Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel of the same name, the movie explores the historical conflicts of faith and culture that came to a head when missionaries brought the Gospel to medieval Japan.

Critics who’ve seen it are already talking “masterpiece” and Oscar nominations, and the Pope himself gave it an implicit two thumbs up after its initial Vatican premier. I have to admit, though, the trailer threw me off a little – like seeing Andrew Garfield as a missionary priest wrestling with his faith. It seems like just yesterday I saw him similarly wrestling in Hacksaw Ridge, and even then I had to mentally bracket his previous appearances in two – count ‘em, two – Spider-Man movies. And what about Adam Driver, the supreme-villain proxy of the new Star Wars sequel franchise as a persecuted Jesuit? That’ll require some serious bracketing.

Liam Neeson shows up as a Jesuit as well, but that’s OK because he already has serious cinematic Jesuit cred. His portrayal of a Jebbie in The Mission (1986) was certainly believable, although maybe his job was made easier by co-star Robert De Niro trying to pull off the same thing.

Anyway, I’m anxious to see how Scorsese and Co. bring Endō’s powerful narrative to life, especially in light of how the story formed my own neophyte vision of the missionary enterprise. I’d grown up an evangelical firmly committed to carrying out the New Testament’s Great Commission – “Go and preach the Gospel to all nations” – but I also experienced setbacks and spiritual upheaval in my own limited attempts to carry it out. Reading Silence soon after my Catholic conversion, I identified with the Jesuit protagonists who were imbued, by turns, with passion for propagating the Faith and then searing doubt as they met with fierce resistance, horrendous persecution, and impossible moral quandaries. Certainly I knew nothing of the extreme physical torments and psychological suffering that Endō’s priests endured, but the issues raised by the story, and the way they were so memorably and painfully fleshed out, provided me with a nuanced Catholic framework in which to reconsider the whole topic.

My guess is that it’s a topic that cradle Catholics don’t think about a whole bunch. For one thing, missions come up irregularly in our typical parish experience – maybe a couple times a year, when religious men and women visit from abroad and beg alms for their schools and hospitals. Their stories from exotic locales might capture our attention, but what they share about their evangelization and discipleship efforts – their successes in bringing others to the Faith, the conversions and baptisms they foster, and the growth of their local church communities – makes us uncomfortable.

Why? I think it’s because of the post-conciliar emphasis we’ve placed on tolerance and cooperation, as well as ecumenism and interfaith dialogue – and this is as it should be. The Council Fathers themselves clarified that everyone – even those who, “through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ of his Church” (LG 16) – has access to salvific grace. Plus, we’re conditioned by current global exigencies to focus on the altruistic dimension of the missionary enterprise. We hear and read so often about the vital work of Catholic international aid agencies that we might conclude that such is the sum total of contemporary missionary labors.

Yet this is not the case. “God wills the salvation of everyone through the knowledge of the truth,” the Catechism teaches us, and, while many outside the visible structure of the Church are undoubtedly “on the way of salvation,” we have an obligation to “go out to meet their desire, so as to bring them to the truth” (CCC 851). Pope Francis reinforced this idea in his World Mission Day message last May. “By virtue of the missionary mandate,” he wrote, “the Church cares for those who do not know the Gospel, because she wants everyone to be saved and to experience the Lord’s love.”

As politically incorrect as it might seem, missionary work is still primarily about bringing Christ to those who don’t know him – through deeds, yes, but also explicit words – and then inviting them to accept him. We’re all commissioned, by virtue of our baptism, to be involved in this enterprise in one way or another – most of us by staying home and offering support, but others by actually going.

And “going” is the operative word here – it’s the whole point. The missionary is a cross-cultural emissary of the Gospel, an ambassador representing the Body of Christ in a place it has not been established, and it’s why missionary stories make for such great drama. Men and women uprooting themselves and going somewhere they’re sent is itself exhilarating, but this is especially the case when they’re toting an outlandish message of radical divine condescension to those who might (and often do) reject it. Such apostles, whether medieval or modern, face precipitous challenges, not the least being the blowback they face – both internal and external – when they seem to fail.

I’m reminded of this every fall when I bring my nursing students to Sanctuary at St. Paul’s, a South Bend assisted living and skilled nursing facility. In one of the corridors we walk down daily, there’s a gallery of images illustrating the institution’s long association with the Sisters of the Holy Cross, and there’s one in particular that I find riveting.

It depicts five women religious in full habit – three Maryknollers and two Holy Cross sisters, Olivette Whalen and Caecilius Roth. The latter two had been on their way to their order’s mission in Bengal, India, when their ship stopped over in the Philippines to resupply. Srs. Olivette and Caecilius took the opportunity to see the sights, and they were ashore when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor – a full 75 years ago this week.

Stranded in Manila after their ship abruptly departed, the Holy Cross sisters took refuge with their Maryknoll counterparts. Eventually these five religious as well as hundreds of other Catholic ex-patriates, both lay and religious, were interned by the Japanese. Some endured torture as accused spies, while all faced grueling living conditions, malnutrition, and disease. Srs. Olivette and Caecilius, along with other religious men and women, were confined to the Los Baños prison-camp. There they made the best of things, celebrating the sacraments, tending to the sick, and supporting one another as they awaited liberation or whatever other fate lay ahead.

As time went on, the Japanese authorities grew less and less accommodating of their captives’ Christianity, and conditions in the camp deteriorated. Then, just as the Japanese were preparing to execute their internees, U.S. paratroopers were spotted drifting over the compound. In a dramatic turn of events, the camp was liberated by the Allied forces. After three long years of captivity, the Holy Cross sisters started their journey home to the states.

Thrilling stuff, to be sure, but Srs. Olivette and Caecilius never did make it to Bengal like they’d hoped, planned, and prayed. Instead, Sister Olivette went on to establish a mission in Brazil, and then eventually took up administrative duties as Superior General of her order in Notre Dame, Indiana.

But did the two Holy Cross sisters count their interrupted Indian sojourn a failure? By no means. “Many converts were baptized as the months passed,” Ann Carey records of the sisters’ makeshift prison-mission, “and the clergy and Religious were instrumental in encouraging the faith as well as public morale.”

Often our apparent failures are vehicles for God’s triumphs – something Martin Scorsese clearly had in mind in his treatment of Endō’s Silence. “The right way to live has to do with selflessness,” he told the New York Times. “But how does one act that out? I don’t think you practice it consciously. It has to be something that develops in you — maybe through a lot of mistakes.” Yes, missionary work is about proclaiming, planting, and, hopefully, persuading, but ultimately it’s about selfless presence – even when things don’t work out the way we anticipated. “My grace is sufficient for you,” the Lord told St. Paul, “for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Missionaries who flounder and fail know this better than anyone, but only because they chose to go.