If you had any sort of experience with progressive Catholicism in the past three decades, you’re probably familiar with The Mission, the 1986 Roland Joffé film that recently celebrated its thirtieth anniversary. With an original screenplay by the legendary Robert Bolt (Man for All Seasons, Lawrence of Arabia), the film presents Jeremy Irons and Robert DeNiro as Jesuit missionaries, the first a pacifist musician named Gabriel, the second a repentant slaver named Rodrigo. They live with the Guarani Indians, speaking their language while teaching them to sing religious hymns and play the violin. But then the mission is transferred to the Portuguese, making the Guarani once again prey to slavers: the moral dilemma begins. The church orders the Jesuits to abandon the mission, dividing them as to tactics. No one will leave, but Gabriel’s faction refuses to do harm even as Rodrigo rediscovers his sword, leading many of the Guarani in a counterattack. All are killed, except a small group of children we see in the final scene, naked, rowing down the river towards a slight possibility of hope.
Today, most people remember The Mission for Ennio Morricone’s iconic soundtrack, yet there’s more to the movie than its music. The Mission was released the same year as the U.S. Bishops’ pastoral letter “Economic Justice for All” and three years after their equally assertive “The Challenge of Peace.” These two letters formed an unapologetic opposition to Reagan-era conservative politics and the growing sense that the Republican Party was the best fit for serious Christians. It was out of disillusionment with the bishops’ perceived move to the left that the Catholic neoconservative movement was born, most famously at magazines like Crisis (1982) and First Things (1990). Latin America was important too. Liberation Theology had worked its way north, influencing lay Catholics (if not their bishops) to link Marxist critique with Christian theology. U.S. Catholics motivated by their Christian commitments, including priests, went to protests in solidarity with Latin American struggles for justice. Like any liberal Catholic kid in the ’90s, I heard all about the famous El Salvador martyrs: the four U.S. churchwomen slain in 1980 and the six Jesuits at the University of Central America alongside assassinated along with their housekeeper and her daughter in 1989. And, most importantly, I learned about Oscar Romero, the bishop of El Salvador shot down while saying Mass, also in 1980. This was the stuff in the air: Latin America, social justice, Jesuits so committed to the poor they’re not afraid of a little trouble. The Mission felt like it figured everything out.
And then there was Dan Berrigan, the famous Jesuit pacifist, who has a bit part in the film. He plays a Jesuit with just one line (“No,” he says, appropriately enough). I didn’t recognize him when I first saw the movie, but if you watch it knowing who he is, it’s amazing how many scenes he’s in, usually next to a very young Liam Neeson. Berrigan also had a significant role in advising the film about the Jesuits and about pacifism. I met him a few times, and we talked, of course, about the movie. He told me that it was his suggestion that created one of the film’s most famous scenes. Originally, Gabriel’s faction was to be killed while celebrating Mass in a church. Yet it was Berrigan’s idea that Gabriel lead his congregation into the bullets. It’s night time, dark except for candle light and gunfire: a thin priest in a cassock holds forward his monstrance, walking slowly alongside the women and children of his congregation, all of them barely flinching as they die.