Here’s some happy news this Christmas season, an unexpected gift for those who have seen and admired Mel Gibson’s controversial movie, “The Passion,” and wish to support it. The film has a new admirer, and he is a person of some influence. He is in fact the head of the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church.
Pope John Paul II saw the movie the weekend before last, in the Vatican, apparently in his private rooms, on a television, with a DVD, and accompanied by his closest friend, Msgr. Stanislaw Dziwisz. Afterwards and with an eloquent economy John Paul shared with Msgr. Dziwisz his verdict. Dziwisz, the following Monday, shared John Paul’s five-word response with the co-producer of The Passion, Steve McEveety.
This is what the pope said: “It is as it was.”
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Officially the Vatican has avoided formal comment on the film because its contents have been a matter of recently famous dispute and argument. The movie has been accused of being harsh toward Jews, and Mr. Gibson, the film’s director, has been accused of anti-Semitism. This summer a group of scholars associated with the U.S. Bishops Council obtained an apparently stolen copy of an early draft of the script and came forward to denounce it as scripturally incorrect and potentially injurious of Christian-Jewish relations. Mr. Gibson protested, and the bishops more or less fled the scene, but the damage was done.
Since then, church officials have tended to treat the film as if it were a car crash that happened down the street: It can complicate your life to go there, and it can get messy. Six weeks ago, at a diplomatic reception in Rome to mark the 25th anniversary of John Paul’s papacy, I spoke to an important American cardinal about the controversy and urged him to see the film and come to his own honest conclusions. He blinked anxiously behind thick glasses. No, he said, he shouldn’t, the movie is a matter of “dispute.” (The church is very odd these days in that it dodges those controversies on which it has known authority and expertise, and seems to embrace those controversies on which it seems to have nothing to add but airy non sequiturs. See the comments this week of Cardinal Renato Martino, who said it was not compassionate of U.S. forces to publicly search Saddam Hussein’s head for lice. Yes, how brutal. Why, it was like what Saddam himself would have done with a captured foe, except once he was done with him he wouldn’t have a head. But never mind.)
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John Paul II, who even with the challenges of his current illness has more good sense than many of his cardinals, knew of the controversy surrounding Mr. Gibson’s film, and wanted to see it. Producer Steve McEveety, who had flown to Rome uninvited to show the film to as many Vatican officials as he could, gave the DVD to Msgr. Dziwisz on Friday, Dec. 5. The monsignor and the pope watched it together. Where did they watch it? I asked Mr. McEveety in a telephone interview this week. “At the pope’s pad,” he laughed. In the papal apartments. “He had to watch it late in the evening,” Mr. McEveety said of John Paul. “He’s pretty well booked. But he really wanted to see it.”
Afterwards, Msgr. Dziwisz gave Mr. McEveety the pope’s reaction. The pope found it very powerful, and approved of it. Mr. McEveety was delighted. Msgr. Dziwisz added that the pope said to him, as the film neared its end, five words that he wished to pass on: “It is as it was.” The film, the Holy Father felt, tells the story the way the story happened. A week later Mr. McEveety was marveling at what he felt was the oracular quality of the statement. “Five words. Eleven letters.” (I asked the pope’s veteran press spokesman, Dr Joaquin Navarro-Valles, if he knew if the pope had said anything beyond “It is as it was.” He e-mailed back that he did not know of any further comments.)
“I was kind of relieved—it’s a scary thing,” said Mr. McEveety. “But Billy Graham saw it and was very supportive, and now JPII. The amazing thing is they’re in agreement on the film.”
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Why is this news? Not only because John Paul has, it seems, broken free of the Vatican apparatus to see the film, and not only, obviously, because of who he is, but also because of his history, the facts of his life. He is a scholar, a poet and former playwright who loves the drama and himself considered acting on and writing for the stage professionally.
And no pope has done more for Jewish-Christian relations than he. He has had a profound engagement with Jews and Judaism both since his elevation and before it. He would know cheap when he sees it, and he would know anti-Semitic, too. His approbation would not be given lightly.
Michael Novak, a scholar of this pope, summed it up for me. He said John Paul’s life has been marked by “a profound sense of the irrationality and barbarity which fell upon the Jews in World War II, which he saw and experienced, which suffused his desire thereafter to pitch his life close to the Jews. One sees it in his lifelong friendships, in his visit to the Jewish community in Rome, in his unforgettable visit to Auschwitz, and in his deeply affecting visit to Jerusalem. His prayerfulness, his reverence for those who have suffered, and his acute wish that this suffering will be lifted by the grace of God, have been visible and moving to all who have observed him.”
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“It is as it was.”
I don’t know if those words will settle the matter. But for me they do, and for many they will.
I saw a screening of “The Passion” in Washington last July with about 50 writers, editors and activists. I worried that it might seem to be anti-Semitic, that it might rouse passions in viewers in a way that would cause pain to Jews and others. I came away reassured. It is a moving film, and what it moves you to is tears, and thought. It doesn’t rouse, it seeps in and inspires introspection and consideration. It is the story of a Jew who was the Messiah; it is the story of his loving Jewish mother, his ardent Jewish followers, and his Jewish opponents, who saw him as heretical and dangerous.
He is brutally put to death by non-Jewish Roman soldiers, who are portrayed as sadistic in a businesslike way, on the acquiescence of a tired, non-Jewish cynic who then sought to wash his hands of culpability. It is a film that leaves the viewer indicting not Jews and not Romans and not cynical bureaucrats. It leaves you indicting yourself: it leaves you wondering about what your part in that agonizing drama would have been back then, and what your part is today.
I’m glad the Holy Father chose to see it; I’m glad he has spoken; I’m glad his judgment was, “It is as it was.” If this ends the controversy, or quells it, and I believe it should, that would be a beautiful gift to everyone this holiday season.