When Silence, Martin Scorsese’s epic film adaptation of the 1960s Japanese historical novel of the same title, hit theaters in late 2016, I was a master’s student at a mainline Protestant school of theology attached to a prominent private university. I was also in the process of entering the Catholic Church. I have a longstanding interest in Japan, my bachelor’s degree is in Japanese literature, and I was making a point of studying East Asian Christian history and thought; most of the people studying it along with me were excited about the movie and had nothing but good things to say about the book (which I would end up reading in the subsequent semester along with other Asian Christian classics like the graphic novel Boxers & Saints and Richard E. Kim’s Korean War novel The Martyred). Meanwhile, the chaplain and most of the students at the university’s primarily white Newman Center were deeply uncomfortable with the story, the climax of which seems to offer a moral justification or at least excuse for the act of apostatizing under torture. American priests I have talked to since then have often been similarly critical.

I often think of the polarized reactions to Silence when I read about Pope Francis’s focus on “going to the peripheries,” particularly when this takes the form of visiting countries with small Catholic minorities or creating cardinals from sees or even countries that have rarely or never had cardinals before. Pope Francis’s most recent consistory in June 2018 did not see any cardinals created from countries that have never had them before, but it did see (by my count) five countries regain representation in the College of Cardinals after having previously lost it, of which three are in Asia. The stories of Catholicism in Iraq, home to Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, and in Pakistan, home to Cardinal Joseph Coutts, have elements that have become all too familiar to those invested in Catholic news over the past three years: persecution by Islamist governments or non-state actors, demographic decline and “brain drain” in the context of this persecution, serious difficulties attracting the attention and care of policymakers in the developed world. The story of Catholicism in Japan, home to Cardinal Manyo Maeda, is somewhat different, and I believe it can tell us somewhat more about what “going to the peripheries” might mean in the Western countries where Pope Francis has encountered the most intense political criticism from within the Church.

Catholicism has been present in Japan since the mid-sixteenth century, when it was introduced to the country by St. Francis Xavier (along with other missionaries and not a few local converts). However, Japanese Catholicism lacked consistent oversight from the wider Catholic world for over two hundred years due to the isolationist and anti-Christian policies of the Tokugawa family of shoguns, hereditary military dictators who superficially ruled in the name of the in fact politically passive Emperors. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Japanese Catholics, passing down their faith by oral tradition in the near-complete absence of priests and competently translated Bibles, developed a number of wildly unorthodox theological ideas and devotional practices, some of which persist to this day in rural areas despite Japan having had an intact Catholic hierarchy once again since the overthrow of the shogunate in the 1860s. It’s in this setting, characterized by violent government persecution and almost total alienation from the rest of the global Church, that the apostasy at the climax of Silence, which is that of a Portuguese priest who has entered into this topsy-turvy Catholic world logistically unprepared and spiritually unready, takes place.

In Japan today, Catholicism is a small minority, with probably fewer than half a million invested practitioners in a country of over 120 million people. Japanese Catholics have to deal with the indifference or in some cases contempt of their non-Catholic countrymen, especially today in a political climate of resurgent Japanese nationalism and distrust of foreign ideas. Vocations are difficult to discern in a country with few well-established religious orders and a small Catholic marriage pool. Moreover, the Japanese Catholic political tradition is wildly different from that found in the West—as a small minority in a society that places a premium on homogeneity, the political interests of the Japanese Church consist mainly in resisting right-wing nationalism and fighting for separation of church (or shrine) and state rather than in battles like challenging Japan’s strong pro-choice consensus.

How often are we told similar stories about people who feel alienated from the Church in the West? It’s hard to keep up Catholic religious practice in rapidly secularizing Western countries; many people find themselves, almost by accident, in situations in which received approaches to vocation, work, or family life are unavailing. (For older Catholics this often takes the form of the notorious “irregular situation” with respect to divorce and remarriage; for younger Catholics, the past several decades’ changes in the social scripts with which people relate to one another and to the world have left many of us neither called to consecrated life nor suited for marriage despite being more or less functional adults.) And, of course, many Catholics, possibly even most Catholics in North America and Western Europe, have political priorities very different from those that we are taught to associate with “Catholic politics” and sometimes even at explicit variance with the Church’s social teaching or moral doctrine. We, too, have our peripheries, sometimes within our societies, often within our own hearts.

It would be presumptuous of me as a white American who has only spent a few months in Japan to insist on direct and explicit connections between these “peripheral” aspects of Japanese Catholic life and these aspects of the “peripheral” Catholic experience in Christianity’s traditional regions of strength. Nevertheless, the through-line is there in Pope Francis’s teaching and example if one looks for it. Christus vivit, the recent apostolic exhortation to and for young people, has a section headed “living in a world in crisis.” In this section, the Pope talks about the experiences of young people in war zones or suffering at the hands of sex traffickers, religious persecutors, and even their own peers; however, he also talks about paradigmatic “First World problems” such as online radicalization, disrupted relationships between parents and children, and even what my feminist friends simply call “makeup culture.” If experiences so radically different can be brought together into a broader theology of crisis, how much more so can the feelings of alienation I have described above?

Moreover, it is not only with reference to worldwide Catholicism that the Church in countries like Japan is on the periphery. It is also peripheral relative to its own culture, the culture of the country in which it finds itself. Catholicism in Japan is the same sort of exotic curiosity that Buddhism was for a long time in the West. It’s possible, though still not certain, that the Church all over the world might in the future find itself in some such position; that, due to secularization in traditionally Christian countries and the clergy’s loss of moral credibility due to the abuse crisis, some day soon Catholicism will become marginal, peripheral, a curiosity, even in places like Boston or Montreal or Rome itself. (Then-Father Josef Ratzinger’s now-famous prophecy that “the Church will become small” has been discussed on Where Peter Is here.) In the move to the peripheries combined with his call for “shepherds with the smell of sheep,” Pope Francis shows a way forward in a future in which the Church as a whole is most comfortable at the margins, where it can minister to publicans and sinners.


Image: “Maria-Kannon” (a statue of the Buddhist figure Kannon-bosatsu made a stand-in for Mary in crypto-Christian devotions). Source: Wikimedia Commons.


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Nathan Turowsky went to elementary school in Vermont, high school in New Jersey, and college in Massachusetts, where he now lives. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in social services.

Going to the Peripheries

10 Responses

  1. Lisa Turowsky says:

    This is wonderfully written and though-provoking. Thank you for your effort.

  2. Marie says:

    Thank you for the history, and for the connection to living on the peripherals in the secularized west. I would also love to hear your perspective of the anti Francis wave from both a millennial and convert’s perspective.

  3. Anne Lastman says:

    Nathan thank you for your piece, however, regarding the peripheries isn’t the Holy Father doing what Jesus asked “go out into the world and preach the Gospel to all nations baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and remember I am with you till the end of time”. This is HH Pope Francis is doing. Even if there were a dozen Catholics it’s important that he visits them because they do live in the peripheries. They’ve heard the word, they kept the word, which means that the Holy Spirit is at work there through the peripheries. And if so then Peter must visit to strengthen the brethren.
    This is the only Pope who has done this.
    And I am reminded of the other words of Jesus “I am with you till the end of time”………

    • Nathan Turowsky says:

      Hi Anne,

      I absolutely agree with you; I think it’s wonderful that the Holy Father is visiting the small, insecure Christian communities in places like Myanmar and the United Arab Emirates. I’m sorry if anything in my piece implied otherwise!

  4. jong says:

    Pope Benedict XVI prediction on the small church was already embraced by Pope Francis saying “How I wish the church becomes poor and for the poor”.
    Jesus the Head of the Church embraced the persecutions, passions, crucifixion and even death as His “Way of the Cross” for a glorious resurrection.
    The Church its “Mystical Body” must also painfully embraced the same path for Her own glorious resurrection.(CCC675)
    But, Pope BXVI also stated that most of the majestic churches and church material treasures will be lost, indicates either it will be confiscated, destroyed or any other forms that will make the church materially poor.
    The consolation is, the poor church will become a pious church composed only of few loyal bishops, priest, religious, consecrated and lay faithfuls fully united to the Pope.
    From this small poor church which is a humbled and repentant church will rise the Triumph of the Immaculate Heart, this small pious church is what St.Montfort called the “Apostles of the Last Times”.
    The weapon of this church in these end times is the Holy Rosary reciting the Luminous Mystery.
    “Light vs. darkness” (John1:5)

  5. carn says:

    Reminds me of a funny rebuke someone used once at my expense.

    I asked in some forum whether or not there would be something illegitimate about going to some islamic country and preach there the Gospel in public, even if it meant certain death; the discussion somehow turned on the aspect whether that would be bravery or foolishness.

    Regarding which someone said something like: If one wants to preach the Gospel, where there is unbelief, in a show of bravery one should visit the “Zentralkomitee der deutschen Katholiken” and preach them the Gospel, as they are more in need than some Muslims.

    Showing that one might often not see at first, where the peripheries are which one should go to to preach the Gospel.

    They are not being considered to be very strict in minding Church teaching; e.g.: “In May 2015 the Central Committee of German Catholics voted in favour of blessing of same-sex unions in Christian churches.”)

  6. Pete Vickery says:

    Nice article Nathan. I would be interested if you have ever heard of Fr Gereon Goldmann. There is a biography of his life (The Shadow of His Wings). He was a German seminarian who defied the Nazis during WWII despite being in the military (even personally defying Heinrich Himmler and standing up for the faith to his face) was given a special dispensation by Pope Pius XII to be ordained as a priest, survived being a POW, etc … . His life and survival was an absolute miracle of love. He became a missionary to Japan in 1954 because he felt God was leading him there and spent the remainder of his life there until his death in 1994. He built hospitals and homes for orphans as well as accomplishing many other charitable endeavors in Japan, despite the fact he was a Christian. In 1965 he was honored by Emperor Hirohito with the Order of Good Deeds which is the highest award given by the State in Japan for social work. You may already know all this, but if you don’t I highly recommend reading this book on his life. I would point to him and Pope Benedict as the two greatest German Christians of the 20th century who should make any German proud of their heritage. Even if someone has no special interest in Japanese Christianity I would recommend this book. I only found out about Father Goldmann from my son who is much closer to God than I am (He recommended it to me after reading it himself). I was interested because my Dad was a WWII vet who converted to Catholicism and had had many close brushes with death during the war. My Dad also had a beautiful encounter with a German POW and managed to put him at ease by telling him in broken German that the POW was brother in Christ. My Dad would have been involved in the invasion of Japan but it was cancelled due to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He went ashore anyway and walked through Hiroshima three weeks after the atomic blast. He said the ashes were still smoking and the devastation was ungodly. Anyway I enjoyed your article and hope to read more of your insights in the future.

    • Nathan Turowsky says:

      Hi Pete,

      I haven’t heard of Father Goldmann but he sounds like a fascinating figure. Thanks for telling me about him, and about your dad’s experiences; my grandfather was a WWII veteran as well and while I never really talked to him about it in detail it was always something that was present in my understanding of him.

  7. Peter Aiello says:

    The abuse crisis is due to the loss of moral credibility due to a theological crisis. Christianity has abandoned the priorities of the New Testament. Inner peace and strength come from the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).

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