EARLIER THIS MONTH it was announced that the Italian conductor and composer Ennio Morricone had died. His output of works was prolific (some of us are old enough to remember at least the music of the 1966 film The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) but for many he’s indelibly associated with the 1986 classic The Mission. The picture in the Newsletter shows the powerful scene towards the end of the film when the Jesuit priest played by Jeremy Irons stands in front of those about to be slaughtered or enslaved holding the Sacred Host in the monstrance. I hadn’t realised until recently that the famous American Jesuit Fr Dan Berrigan, about whom I have often written in the newsletter or on parish social media, was an adviser to those making the film and had a small part in it.
In recent weeks the Catholic Church has given general support to many aspects of the Black Lives Matter movement in different parts of the world, and some of us have written about it (https://catholicsocialthought.org.uk/statues-should-they-stay-or-should-they-go/). Many of the protests have rightly focussed on historical individuals associated with slavery – it is important at least to question the public honouring of such people through statues and other memorials. Slavery is actually an issue (like war and the death penalty) where our teaching has developed and become more focussed over the years, as is true of others. Although from the earliest times Christianity attracted converts from those who were slaves in the Roman Empire, which helped to weaken the institution, at many times Christians colluded with it and in the empire it lasted quite a long time after Christianity had become the established religion; and in other contexts the Church has been shamefully slow to condemn the trafficking and ownership of human beings, created in God’s image, by other human beings. The Church’s current commitment to the campaign against human trafficking and slavery, spearheaded in this country by our own Bishop Pat Lynch, symbolises how important we see the issue now – you will be aware that this is under the patronage of St Josephine Bakhita, and it is also part of the heritage of the Missionary Sisters of St Peter Claver in this parish – you may remember a special Mass we celebrated in his honour with the bishop a few years ago.
The Mission is actually about slavery, and the writing of correct and true history about slavery: when the film came out many people, even Catholics, knew little about the history of the Jesuit missions in the Amazon in the mid-18th century. I don’t need to rehearse the plot of the film, which remains as moving and powerful as it was thirty-four years ago. The Jesuits are firm in their belief (like Peter Claver a century before) that the men, women and children in the tribes are human beings with an inalienable dignity: they are brought to faith in Christ and the communities we see in the film are centred on the Gospel. They are at odds with Spanish and especially Portuguese racketeers intent on making money from trading in human beings. The cardinal in the film (played by Ray McAnally) recognises all this, but the Church is very weak and unable to stand up to the Spanish and Portuguese empires. Indeed the hostility of the Portuguese in particular to the Jesuits portrayed in the film would lead shortly afterwards to the almost complete suppression of the order for nearly sixty years (this hostility is thought to have been rooted in the strength of Free-masonry). The film shows clearly how fatal it always is for the Church to be beholden to the powerful, the rich, monarchs and rulers: we must always be the Church of the poor and the oppressed – we should know how in our own time to be on the right side of history, having got things wrong in the past. It is particularly important in this country at a time when there is so much false history being peddled by those in power.
The Church has grown in understanding of God’s will immeasurably since the 1750s: so the story of the Jesuit missions needs to be re-told, to help us now as we try to look at the world through the eyes of religious faith.
So if you have time and access to it, why not watch the film (again perhaps)? This can be a way of understanding the Church’s renewed opposition to slavery and the importance of telling history truthfully as we also stand alongside all those in the world who are victims of racism. Pray too for Bishop Pat and those who lead the Church’s witness in this, and for vocations to the religious life, particularly the Jesuits and the Sisters of St Peter Claver.