Suicide bombers, Christian martyrs and Silence


A composite image of Thomas More and Edmund Campion SJ  facing each other

The Martin Scorcese film Silence now on general release. It highlights a time in the Church’s life in Japan when many Christians were martyred for their Christian faith. Jesuit priests and Catholic men and women were tortured in the hope that they would deny their faith in Christ and in His Body, the Church. It might seem very remote from our own time and experience and yet, today, we hear extraordinary stories of Christians in the Middle East, of Jesuits and Christian men and women, continuing to give their lives for Christ and His Body, the Church. 

Recently, I was at Stonyhurst College, celebrating the life and martyrdom of St Edmund Campion SJ, patron of the British Province of the Jesuits. I was struck by his extraordinary faith and courage but especially by his great eloquence. He knew how to speak. He, like so many with him, for example, St Nicholas Owen SJ, the Jesuit brother responsible for building most of the priests’ holes around the country and, therefore, a gold mine of information of where priests and their protectors could be found, knew, also, how to be silent. 

These wonderful examples put me in mind of another Jesuit whose experience of witnessing to the truth was not so faultless, Fr Walter Ciszek SJ. Captured by the Russian army during the Second World War, he was convicted of being a “Vatican spy” and spent twenty three years in Soviet prisons and labour camps. After months of interrogation and solitary confinement, he was brought to sign papers admitting he was a Vatican spy.

As I signed the pages, largely without reading them, I began to burn with shame and guilt. I was totally broken, totally humiliated. It was a moment of agony I'll never forget as long as I live. I was full of fear, yet tormented by conscience. After signing the first hundred pages, I stopped even the pretence of reading the rest. I just wanted to finish signing them as quickly as possible and get out of the interrogator's office. My aversion to the whole thing was overwhelming; I condemned myself before anybody else could do the same. I was despicable in my own eyes, no less than I must appear to others. My will had failed; I had proved to be nowhere near the man I thought I was. I had yielded, in that one sickening split second, to fear, to threats, to the thought of death. When the last page was finished I literally wanted to run from the interrogator's office. (He Leadeth Me, pp. 66 – 67, Ignatius Press, 1973)

Not only was he sick with himself but he was also outraged with God, at God’s silence. He knew the passage where Jesus promises to come to the help of those in this very situation:

Beware of men: they will hand you over to Sanhedrins and scourge you in
their synagogues. You will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake,
to bear witness before them and the pagans. But when they hand you over, do
not worry about how to speak or what to say; what you are to say will be given to
you when the time comes; because it is not you who will be speaking; the Spirit
of your Father will be speaking in you. (Matthew 10: 17 -21)

Where was God, now? Why was God silent?

Silence is full of so many possible meanings. In King Lear, when Cordelia is asked how much she loves her father, her silence is interpreted as a lack of love, “nothing will come of nothing,” and, yet, as Cordelia says herself, “my love’s more richer than my tongue”. (Act 1, scene 1) In the play, A Man for All Seasons, St Thomas More states that his silence regarding King Henry VIII’s claim to be supreme head of the Church in England, is to be understood as consent, as the law states, ‘qui tacet consentire’. Cromwell responds by asking if there is “a man in this court, is there a man in this country, who does not know Sir Thomas More's opinion of this title? … Because this silence betokened, nay, this silence was not silence at all, but most eloquent denial!” Jesus, too, when asked by Pontius Pilate whether He is the King of the Jews remains silent. ‘Pilate then said to him, "Do you not hear how many charges they have brought against you?" But to the governor's complete amazement, he offered no reply to any of the charges.” (Matthew 27: 13 -14) What does this silence mean?

When Fr Ciszek returned to his prison cell and began to reflect on his humiliation and God’s seeming silence, he noted, ‘slowly, reluctantly, under the gentle proddings of grace,

I faced the truth that was at the root of my problem and my shame. The answer was a single word: I. … Had I not even set the terms upon which the Holy Spirit was to intervene on my behalf? Had I not expected Him to prompt me to give an answer I had already predetermined was the answer I would give? When I failed to feel His promptings along the lines I expected – indeed, that I demanded – I was frustrated and disappointed. It was then I felt He had abandoned me, and I proceeded to try and do on my own what I had already determined was the thing that must be done. I had not really left myself open to the Spirit. I had, in fact, long ago decided what I expected to hear from the Spirit and when I did not hear precisely that, I had felt betrayed. Whatever else the Spirit might have been telling me at that hour, I could not hear. I was so intent on hearing one message, the message I wanted to hear, that I was not really listening at all.’ (He Leadeth Me, pp. 68-9, Ignatius Press, 1973)

Silence, therefore, is not only full of possible meaning, it also creates space, space for an encounter. Pope Francis remarks that: 

The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too.’ (The Joy of the Gospel, paragraph 2)

Pope Francis seems to be suggesting that there is a correlation between our capacity to create space for silence, to listen, to hear the voice of God, and our capacity to create space for others. The more we can allow for silence in our lives, the more we can create space for others, to listen to them and to hear the voice of God.

It is sometimes said that suicide bombers are like Christian martyrs: people dying for their faith. It was Cardinal Lustiger, when he was Archbishop of Paris, who pointed out the fundamental difference. He noted that suicide bombers take their lives so as to kill their enemy, whereas Christian martyrs give their lives for the life of their persecutors. Indeed, their silent offering speaks more eloquently than any words. When St Thomas More’s daughter, Meg, is trying to convince her father not to give away his life, he replies; “since we see that avarice, anger, pride and stupidity commonly profit far beyond charity, modesty, justice and thought, perhaps we must stand fast a little, even at the risk of being heroes.” Meg responds: “But in reason! Haven't you done as much as God can reasonably want?” Her father replies, “Well, finally it isn't a matter of reason. Finally, it's a matter of love.”

Simon Bishop SJ