Every Catholic gentleman should set aside time to read fiction. For those of us with expanding families and busy careers this can become a considerable challenge. Often we feel called to devote what little leisure or study time we can muster to more informative non-fiction works of history, theology, politics or philosophy. Indeed, there is a healthy drive to acquire useful knowledge and reading fiction can almost feel like a guilty pleasure or waste of time. This is a dangerous mindset.

This Lenten season I encourage Maccabean men to pick up a novel by Shusaku Endo. I don’t remember how I stumbled upon the man’s work several years ago, but I’ve been an ardent reader ever since.  Endo was Japan’s most prominent Catholic writer of the 20th century. His works offer profound insights into Christian suffering, the silence of God, the ever-present temptation to cowardice, and the struggle for masculine self-mastery. Such themes are particularly relevant to Catholic men today, as the forces of relativism, secularism and scientism continue to marginalize communities of faith.

Many Western Catholics are unaware of Japan’s fascinating Catholic history. Portuguese and Spanish Jesuits brought the faith to Japan in the 16th century. Many Japanese communities embraced the sacraments and a thriving Catholic culture quickly took root. Unfortunately, Japanese shoguns and Buddhist religious authorities later began to fear European colonialism and Catholicism was officially outlawed in 1639. Hundreds of Japanese Catholics and European priests endured horrific tortures and martyrdoms during the 16th and 17th centuries. In one infamous early persecution, 26 Christians were publicly crucified in Nagasaki. They would later be canonized by Pope Pius IX in 1862. The Church was ultimately forced underground and a small Catholic remnant passed down the faith via oral tradition, lay leadership, and sheer will for over 200 years. 

Shusaku Endo immerses the reader in this world of persecuted Japanese Christianity. The best work to begin your journey with Endo is Silence. Based on true historical events, Silence is an existential thriller that recounts the experiences of two Portuguese Jesuits in Japan. The priests travel to Japan during a time of particularly intense persecution, hoping to minister to the suffering Christian minority. They also hope to discredit rumors they’ve heard that their superior – a priest whom both men had formed deep admiration for during seminary – had apostatized and begun collaborating with Japanese authorities.

Upon arrival, the Jesuits are overwhelmed by the generosity and desperation of the peasants they’ve come to help. Immediately they feel the weight of the world on their shoulders, as desperate families beg them to hear their confessions, baptize their children and minister to their numerous villages. Inevitably, the pair is apprehended by authorities and put through the ultimate crucible. Suspected Christians in Japan were given a simple ultimatum: step (or spit) on an icon of Jesus or the Virgin Mary and live, or refuse and be tortured unto death. As our Christian brothers in Syria demonstrate, this kind of depravity is no longer confined to the pages of historical novels. All of us should meditate on the possibility of such a future for ourselves. The internal struggle of the story’s protagonist, Fr. Rodrigues, masterfully pulls the reader into this very meditation. 

The climax of Endo’s novel will simultaneously shock, inspire, and even perplex you – but it will leave you a man changed for the better, as it places your own Lenten struggles into much needed perspective. After reading Silence you’ll be hungry for more Endo. Pick up The Samurai and a collection of short stories called Stained Glass Elegies. Also, keep your eyes open for acclaimed film director Martin Scorsese’s motion picture rendition of Silence. It is scheduled for release this year.