Saint Ignatius High School

The Question That Selects Saints and Traitors

When life and death are on the line, will I hold my resolve, will I stay true? Many a great story revolves around the question of whether a person knows, believes in and follows Jesus Christ. Our response in dire times reveals everything about us.
Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion
At the Procession with Palms: Gospel According to St. Mark 11:1-10 or St. John 12:12-16
First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-7
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 22:8-9, 17-20, 23-24
Second Reading: St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 2:6-11
Gospel: According to St. Mark 14:1-15:47
“Even though all should have their faith shaken, mine will not be.”  With these words St. Peter reveals that not-so-fine line between bravado and courage.  Jesus, in an attempt not so much to embarrass Peter, but to bring him back to earth, states, “Amen, I say to you, this very night before the cock crows twice you will deny me three times.”
Peter, refusing to leave that world where he is a legend in his own mind, takes the words of Jesus as more of a challenge than a warning, and adamantly declares, “Even though I should have to die with you, I will not deny you.”  Well, at least St. Peter was half right – he did eventually die on a cross in imitation of his Master.
Taking Peter as a sort of “Everyman” character we can ponder what we might have said and done in that same situation.  To do this in a classroom, as I have done, is in many ways to perform an experiment in a vacuum.  No one knows how she or he will react in a life or death situation until that situation arises, and so any definitive statement about “what I would do” is actually a declaration that “I have no idea what I’m talking about.”
Yet, this is not only a question to ruminate over, it is the question: When life and death are on the line, will I hold my resolve, will I stay true?  Many a great story revolves around this question, and those characters who chose to stick to their beliefs in such situations are people who are recognized as heroes and martyrs and saints.  Those who do not stand by their beliefs have throughout history been called cowards and traitors. 
Yet, in more modern times there has been an ambiguity attached to such people, as seen in Silence, the novel written in 1966 by Japanese Catholic author Shusaku Endo and put on the big screen in 2016 by Martin Scorsese.  In the story, 17th Century Japanese Catholics are being arrested, tortured and martyred – including by crucifixion.  In order to save their lives, all they need to do is show proof of their denunciation of Christ by stepping on a fumi-e, a plate with an image of Jesus on it.
Endo, described as the Graham Greene of Japan, paints a beautifully complex, yet disturbing, picture of the situation at its climax when Fr. Rodrigues, a Portuguese Jesuit missionary, is given the opportunity to free a group of Catholic lay people who had been arrested and tortured.  All Fr. Rodrigues has to do is step on a fumi-e in exchange for their freedom.
He is trapped in the most horrible of dilemmas.  To refuse to step on the image, and therefore to stand with Christ, will condemn his flock of native Catholics to torture and death.  But, on the other hand, if he steps on the fumi-e, and therefore denies Christ, then he will enable them to be set free.  A brave stand against the government appears to be almost unspeakably self-centered, while apostasy seems to afford a much more virtuous path.
Very few people in the history of our Faith have ever faced the life-and-death situations that confronted St. Peter and Fr. Rodrigues, yet much wisdom can be drawn from their stories – wisdom that can have very practical consequences even for those of us Catholics who have no perceived imminent threat to the practice of our Faith. 
Our lives are filled with situations great and small where we can either stand with Christ or stand on Him.  Especially now, as we begin Holy Week, let us pray that God will guide us around and past any fumi-e that, like a land-mine, might be planted on that road that leads to Calvary and beyond Calvary to the Kingdom.