by James A. Clapp

I will argue with anybody that the most theatrical of religious orders is the Society of Jesus—the Jesuits.  Nobody else comes even close, and Hollywood seems to, agree. Elsewhere I have written about them:

The Jesuits are those black-robed “godslingers”—not cloistered monks trying to pray a better world into being, or parish priests readying for bingo night—but worldly men of action who follow St. Francis Xavier’s motto Ignem Mittere in Terram, willing to commit metaphysical arson, to “set the world on fire” in service of Ignatius Loyola’s loftier anthem, Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.

The “Jebbies” always had balls (though not necessarily after meeting up with Mohawks and Hurons).  They were the sort who would point to that part of the bleachers where they were going to hit a home run.  They had not been daunted by Hindus in Goa, Buddhists in Canton, or animists in Quebec, or even some really weird aboriginals in the Amazon, like the Tupi-Guarani (loose trans., “crazy motherfuckers”).  If you want a prayer-chain, then supplicate a nun or a monk; if you want to extend the roads that lead to Rome, dispatch the Jesuits.  Men like Jogues, Goupil and Brébeuf, would saunter into Huron country in winter and consider it an achievement if they came back with most of their appendages and maybe a few “soul scalps” hanging from the belts of their raggedy black soutaines.  Men like Manuel de Norbrega, or Antonio Ruiz de Montoya, would brave venomous snakes and poison-tipped arrows in South American rain forests, foraging for souls and fomenting rebellion against even Catholic overlords. These were guys like Matteo Ricci, cleverly ingratiating himself to the Emperor of China with western philosophy and technology.  Then there were the likes Francis Xavier who had the balls to found a church that threatened the sovereignty of the Japanese Shogun and got twenty-six Jebbies and converts crucified on a hill in Nagasaki.

Not all Jesuits dallied with martyrdom.*  Some were confessors, counselors and confidants of royalty and the politically powerful.  They would have laughed at the notion of the separation of church and state. From the confessional they influenced finance and policy and conflated the “greater glory of God” with the greater gilding of their clients. Cimetière du Père-Lachaise (Father Lachaise Cemetery) in Paris is named after the Jesuit Father Francois de la Chaise, King Louis XIV’s confessor.**

Small wonder that there were, and still are, those who despised and feared these black-attired legionnaires of the Church.  Interestingly, although there have always been Protestants who saw the Jesuits as enemies, it was often their co-religionists, fellow Catholics, who regarded Jesuits with extreme suspicion and opprobrium.  The Society of Jesus was fierce and effective competition for the other legions of the church, Dominicans, Benedictines, Franciscans, Piarists, and other orders.  Jesuits not only formed attachments with secular authority, but also seemed to have special access to the corridors of the Vatican.

The Society of Jesus also competed with other religious orders (as well as the Protestants) through their missions, as they did with the Spanish orders in New Spain and the Franciscans in the Orient.  Although they were often the first to venture into new territory in search of souls and commercial opportunities, they were sometimes beat out by other orders.  For example, the Franciscans were in Western China well before the Jesuits.  They were in Mongolia in the early 14th C, but apparently their connections there ended in 1368. That figures; the Franciscans were the Church’s “Mild Bunch.”  Their founder, St. Francis is often represented being kind to animals. When they got to China, where the people eat any beast they can chop up and throw in a wok, the Franciscans left, probably gagging.  It was the Jesuits, arriving with Matteo Ricci, who made the most effective inroads into China. These factors were certainly responsible for envy from the other religious orders, but perhaps the primary basis for this envy was the Jesuit educational system.

“Give us a boy until age seven and we well show you the man.”  So confident in bending the will of young men to theirs; so goes the Jesuit boast.  There is more than a grain of truth to it.   It is sometimes surprisingly easy for one “Jesuit product” to spot another, even if they are from different times and places.  By the time Jesuits decided to open a high school in my town there were already Jesuit high schools, colleges and seminaries all over the world.  There must be hundreds of schools named after Xavier and Loyola, and not just in the West, but in places like Nagasaki, Macao, Bombay, and on numerous Southern Pacific islands.  I don’t know whether their effect is always the same on the young men who study with the Jesuits, but they do seem to imbue their charges, at whatever ages they get them, with a sense of ambition, purpose and service.

The Jesuits are men of action, not contemplation; they get things done, sometimes setting them “on fire.”  This is no doubt why they have made enemies over the centuries, even at times angering the Church that they serve. They have been prohibited, expelled, and executed, but they have prevailed, and their influence carries forward in the men (and women) they have taught. They are not shy about telling you that and, if you want to be part of their process, you have to subscribe to their rules.

I knew almost none of this history when I willingly, eagerly, put myself under the influence of these black robed men, I only believed that they were a chance to something bigger and greater than my neighborhood, my family, my ethnicity, even myself.

Or, one might just go see one of movies in which they are featured

The central figure in Shogun (1975) is not a Jesuit. Navigator John Blackthorne (Richard Chamberlin) isn’t even a Catholic; he’s a Protestant.  After his Dutch trading ship and its surviving crew are washed ashore by a violent storm at Anjiro on the east coast of Japan, the ship’s Englishman, is taken prisoner by samurai. There he becomes associated with Portuguese traders and Jesuit priests, must adapt to the alien Japanese culture in order to survive. Being an Englishman, Blackthorne is at both religious and political odds with his enemy, the Portuguese, and the Jesuits, who have already made inroads to the Japanese, learning their language, customs and mores.  This is typical of the Jesuit ingratiation into Oriental societies, and the Jesuits in this movie are clever and calculating operatives at the upper levels of Japanese class structure acting as a vanguard for Portuguese trading interests rather than as mendicant missionaries ministering to common folk.  Well dressed and fed and sporting trimmed Van Dyke beards they receive a sinister portrayal.

The Jesuit foothold in Japan put the Protestant Blackthorne at a political disadvantage, as he is considered a heretic. In this situation, the Christian Jesuits could be as dangerous as the infidel Japanese. But this same situation also brings him to the attention of the influential Lord Toranaga, who mistrusts the Catholicism spreading in Japan. Toranaga was in competition with other samurai warlords of similar high-born rank, among them Catholic converts, for the very powerful position of Shōgun, the military governor of Japan.

Actually, this was the political situation in Japan around the end of the 16th Century.  In 1597 Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the daimyo, became concerned that there was too much Christian insurgency (there might have been as many as 300,000 by this time) into archipelago and staged the crucifixion of 26 priests and converts on a hill in Nagasaki.  It slowed conversions for several years, but the Japanese had made their Faustian compact with the West.  Asia had too many “souls” up for grabs.

So did the “new world” that was discovered when Europeans were seeking a westward direction to the Orient. The Mission (1986) is set in the 1740s, after the Portuguese and the Spanish already had their colonial claws in North and South America. The story involves Spanish Jesuit priest Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) who enters the northeastern Argentina and western Paraguayan jungle to build a mission station and convert the indigenous Guaraní to Christianity.  The Guaraní are not initially inclined to conversion or to visits by strange, smelly white people in general, demonstrated by an opening scene where they tie a priest to a wooden cross for a ride over Iguazu Falls, a looming waterfall they live above. But this does not daunt Father Gabriel who climbs to the top of the falls.  The Jesuit team leader plays his oboe, which charms the Guaraní, who allow him to gain a mission in their community.  The Jebbies are as talented as they are audacious and clever.

Robert De Niro plays mercenary and slaver Rodrigo Mendoza, who makes his living kidnapping natives such as from the Guarani community and selling them to nearby plantations, including the plantation of the Spanish Governor.  After returning from another acquisition trip Mendoza discovers his fiancée  has become romantically involved with his younger half-brother Felipe (Aidan Quinn).  Upon finding them in bed together Roderigo kills Felipe in a duel. Although he is acquitted of the killing by the governor, Roderigo becomes depressed. Father Gabriel visits and challenges Mendoza to undertake a penance, and Mendoza accompanies the Jesuits on their return journey, dragging a heavy bundle containing his armor and sword. The natives recognize Roderigo, but forgive the slaver and he becomes a committed helper at the mission, ultimately taking vows as a Jesuit.

This is where the Jesuits become embroiled in the political and territorial rivalry between the Spanish and the Portuguese, both Catholic countries, but differing in the matter of slavery, which is allowed by Portugal for their colonists.  The Jesuits do not want their new converts enslaved, as so find themselves in the middle of a reapportionment of South American territories by a Papal emissary.  The Guarani are not interested in becoming slaves either, but it turns out that the recalcitrant Jesuits and their converts end up being attacked by a joint force of Spanish and Portuguese.  Fr. Gabriel does not approve of a violent response, but Fr. Mendoza and Fr. Fielding (Liam Neeson) decide to fight.  Eventually they lose, as does Fr. Gabriel and the mission is wiped out, although a few children escape.

As history has shown the Catholic Church became a central feature of the European colonial enterprise in South and North America.  The Jesuits were not always on the noble side of that enterprise as their first allegiance was to the Vatican, a prime beneficiary of the imperialism of Catholic Europe.

Bruce Beresford’s splendid Black Robe (1991) is set in New France in 1634, in the period of conflicts known as the Beaver Wars.  Again, the Jesuit quest is for native souls, and this region is as dangerous a territory as the jungles of South America, as prefigured in a scene in which the young French Jesuit priest Father LaForgue (Lothaire Bluthout) visits a former Jesuit missionary saying mass and who, it is revealed, has few fingers remaining on his hands.

Jesuit missionaries had been trying to encourage the local Algonquins to embrace Christianity, but without much success. Samuel de Champlain, founder of the settlement at Quebec, sends LaForgue to find a distant Catholic mission in a Huron village.  The journey is replete with adventures, but what most impressed me was the humiliation that the young Jesuit had to suffer.  In one scene he finds it necessary to defecate over the side of a canoe, which takes place in full view of the laughing Indians.  Later, in a lodge house he must endure viewing the sexual doings of Indians sleeping beside him.

These psychological privations were, of course, nothing compared to the physical sufferings.  In another of my books I recounted what had happened to one of the Jesuit New France martyrs, Fr. Issac Jogues, when the Indians he was attempting to convert turned on him and his companions.

         Jogues and his companions were stripped naked and forced to run a gauntlet in which they were beaten with stiff rods. Then they were taken into the long house where Jogues and a French companion were tied up.  Jogues’s fingernails were pulled out and several of his fingers gnawed off. A converted Huron girl who was with them was then forced, upon threat that they would execute the priest, to saw off the Jogues’ thumb. The Jesuit was holding his thumb in his other hand when his companion said that he had better throw it away or the Iroquois would force him to eat it. Women and children then came forth to jab them with sharp sticks and abused their most tender parts. All of this Jogues endured stoically while he exhorted his companions to accept their sufferings with the knowledge of an insured heavenly union with Jesus Christ.

The account of Jogues’ eventual death at the hands if the Indians is even more horrific, a protracted affair remarkable for the ingenuity of Native American torture.

But LaForgue’s predicament in Black Robe is exacerbated not just by his estrangement from their language, customs, and shamanistic beliefs, but also by the warfare among tribes such as the Mohawks and Algonquins, within the same Native American “nation.”  At one point his party is captured by Mohawks, are forced to run a gauntlet and are scheduled for torture and death the following day.  Only a sexual seduction of a guard by Annuka (Sandrine Holt) allows some to escape.  But others of the party are not so fortunate, proving that the Indians are just as merciless with their own kind as with the Europeans.

At the end of the movie, as the weather grows colder, Annuka and Daniel guide LaForgue to the outskirts of the destination Huron settlement, but leave him to enter it alone. LaForgue finds all but one (a dying Jesuit) of the French inhabitants dead, murdered by the Hurons who blamed them for a smallpox epidemic. The leader of the last survivors tells LaForgue that the Hurons are dying, but asks the Jesuit to save them by baptizing them. The Hurons accept conversion.

An intertitle explains that fifteen years later, the Huron were massacred by the Iroquois, and the French mission was destroye

Silence is a 2016 historical period drama film directed by Martin Scorsese.  Set in Nagasaki, Japan, the film was shot entirely in Taiwan. Two 17th-century Jesuit priests who travel from Portugal to Edo-era Japan to locate their missing mentor and spread Catholic Christianity. At the time Christians were being persecuted during the Tokugawa shogunate. It is the 1630’s and, after several decades of Christianity being accepted in Japan, some Japanese Christians were involved in a rebellion and as a result Christianity was outlawed and forced into hiding. Japanese rulers sought to purge their land of Christian influence. Jesuit missionaries who traveled to Japan were aware of the dangers but welcomed the prospect of martyrdom. But there were more difficult challenges to their faith presented to them by the Japanese rulers–challenges that ultimately caused some of them to renounce their faith. Silence focuses on this challenge and the “silence” of their God who seems unwilling to intervene.

Arriving in Japan at the village of Tomogi, the Jesuits are dismayed to find local Christian populations driven underground and are shocked when a samurai called the “Inquisitor” binds some of the Christians to wooden crosses by the ocean shore, where the tide eventually drowns them. Their bodies are then cremated on a funeral pyre to disallow Christian burial.

The Jesuits split up in their quest for Ferreira and much of the movie deals with challenges to their faith.  The Japanese authorities seem consumed with testing that faith with trials to get them to recant, apparently feeling that if the priests could be forced to apostatize through suffering, threat of death, or the deaths of their converts.

Garupe leaves for Hirado Island; Rodrigues goes to Gotō Island, the last place Ferreira lived, but finds it destroyed. He wanders and eventually reunites with Kichijiro, who betrays him into the hands of the samurai and is taken to Nagasaki, where he is imprisoned with many Japanese converts. At a tribunal, he is told Catholic doctrine is anathema to Japan.  He later is released after being told to step on a fumi-e (a crudely carved crucifix), an act symbolizing rejection of the faith. Later, Rodrigues is brought to the shore and in the far distance sees an emaciated Garupe and three other prisoners approaching on the shoreline under guard. The three other prisoners are taken out on a small boat and are about to be drowned from the boat one-by-one as an inducement to get Garupe to renounce his faith. Garupe refuse to apostatize and is drowned next to the other three prisoners.

Rodrigues is eventually taken to meet Ferreira. Ferreira admits he committed apostasy under torture, and that, after sixteen years in the country he believes Christianity is futile in Japan. Rodrigues disagrees his former mentor, but Ferreira is unbending.

Years later, after Ferreira has died, Rodrigues has renounced his own priesthood and in an encounter again with Kichijiro refuses him absolution.   When dies many years later, Rodrigues is placed in a large round wooden casket, and is cremated. In his hand is the tiny crudely-made crucifix that was given to him when he first came to Japan.

The Jesuits never did get s strong foothold in Japan as they did in colonies of Christian European countries, although some physical residue remains in the hill of the Twenty-Six Martyrs in Nagasaki and Sophia University (Est. 1913), a private Jesuit university Tokyo.

Movies are drama, and drama is conflict. Drawing from historical accounts the incursions of Western Christianity into indigenous cultures provides some of the most dramatic examples of the fact that religion is not entirely about metaphysics, but also about political and economic power.  It is a form of social control that rivals or conjoins with secular authority.

Religious conversion, geographical conquest, and colonialism and economic exploitation, were all of a piece, and there is not much need to repeat that story here, except to say that the Jesuits in t “New France,” South America or r he Orient were the Roman Catholic vanguard for this process.* The public-relations version of this was that (often literally) self-sacrificing Jesuits were engaging these wretched “unsaved” people to rescue their souls for Christ. But it was much more than that and, even as once the medium came into existence, aesource of stories for some damned interesting motion pictures.

©2017, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 1.26.2018)

*They could also have a rather cavalier attitude toward the lives of their converts. One of the famous Jesuit martyrs of New France, father Charles Garnier, refers in his writings to a sick young Huron girl he baptized. When he first approached her she thought baptism would be a “cure” for what ailed her. When Garnier explained it was something different, she refused the sacrament. He returned the next day when she was worse off and the girl relented. He baptized her and she died, the Jesuit referring to it as a “miracle.” This mother Theresa effect, where a “soul” is claimed for Christ to the arrogant satisfaction of the evangelist takes into no consideration at all that rather than a few drops of water and a sign of the cross the girl might have been better served by medical ministrations.

**Consorting with the powerful via the sacrament of Penance has not gone out of practice with the Jesuits.  It was recently revealed that for many years the confessor of  the thirty-seven year President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, is a Jesuit priest.




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