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Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
2 Mar 2004

Mel Gibson's Pieta

by Jonathan Tuttle

Scene from Mel Gibson's Movie 'The Passion of the Christ'

I had intended to write my next article on the critical reception of The Passion of the Christ. After all, there is much to criticize. When one reads the secular reviews of The Passion, one gets the sense that these reviews were pre-written. For instance, A New York Daily News reviewer wrote that "Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ is the most virulently anti-Semitic movie made since the German propaganda films of World War II.... The Passion of the Christ is a brutal, nasty film that demonizes Jews at an unfortunate time in history." There is little doubt in my mind that this reviewer was going to say this no matter what she saw when she actually viewed the film. And although a part of me still wants to attack these critics and their reviews, after seeing the film, I realize that there is something more important to say. There will be more time to concentrate and examine the negative comments of the critics. But with the curtain rising on Gibson's magnum opus, it would be unfair to ignore the greatness of the film itself. It is also time to offer a tribute to Gibson for what he has done.

When I was a freshman in college, my rhetoric and composition teacher insisted that a good writer should avoid using superlatives. With profound apologies to that fine lady, I submit the following. How can one avoid using superlatives to describe Mr. Gibson's stunning achievement? It would be easy enough to say that by most credible accounts, it is far and away the most stirring film of Christ ever made. Yet, even this statement fails to describe the achievement that is this film. This leads to me make the following assertion.

The Passion of the Christ is the greatest Christological artistic work since Michelangelo's Pieta.

This film is impossible to adequately review, since to even refer to this as a mere "movie" is an understatement. The viewing of The Passion of the Christ is a religious experience.

Serious Catholics have certainly read the passion narratives, biblical commentaries, and saintly revelations concerning Our Lord's trials. However, being a sensory creature, not until experiencing this production did I even begin to grasp the abject torment Our Lord suffered.

The scenes of Our Lord's passion are graphically violent, and impossible for a Catholic to watch without crying. As I watched the scenes of the detestable Romans assaulting Christ with various sickening weapons of torture, I felt as though I had been kicked in the stomach. I actually found it difficult to breathe as I watched the seemingly endless scourging at the pillar.

Yet, as dramatic as the scenes of Our Lord's suffering are, another theme arises which Gibson no doubt meant as the central thesis in his masterpiece.

The best way to explain is to say simply this: I sat down in the theater expecting to see an horrifically graphical depiction of the sorrowful mysteries in meticulous detail, and that is what I saw. However, beginning in the first few scenes of the film, a strange and wonderful thing happened: a love story broke out. This is the story of the love between Christ and His mother.

Several scenes illustrate this point, yet one stands out from the others. During Our Lord's carrying of the cross, Our Lord's assaulted body falls to the ground under the weight of the cross. When Our Lady sees him fall, she remembers Jesus falling and hurting himself when he was about four years old, with Mary running to Him to comfort Him in His pain. This time, however, she realizes that she may not comfort Him in the same way, and the torture she herself undergoes by not being able to ease His pain. Yet her presence inspires Him and provides Him strength to fulfill His Mission.

Though this film succeeds on all counts, it's greatest achievement is the way in which the relationship between Christ and His mother was so beautifully and intensely presented. Moreover, the profound love Christ has for man has never been presented so powerfully in any film.

No film has ever come close.

A Word About Gibson

Any analysis of this film would remiss if not to mention the director: Mel Gibson. Mr. Gibson has certainly been dragged through the mud in recent days. From fringe Jewish circles, he has been necklaced with the anti-Semitic charge. The Vatican's on-again, off-again shenanigans surrounding the movie must have certainly taken a toll on him. Moreover, I must have seen twenty articles that mention Mel Gibson is schismatic. In personal conversations, a number of people have stated to me their insistence that he is schismatic.

I do not know Mel Gibson well enough to know if he is schismatic—I doubt they do, either.

But all this talk brings to mind a thought that these Catholics must ponder. Could this film possibly have been made by someone who was content with the novus ordo culture? Before that question is dismissed as just another ranting of a confused traditionalist, it certainly bears closer examination.

First, there is the simple matter of language. Mr. Gibson had an heroic personal determination to keep the movie in the original language of Latin and Aramaic. He was told by almost everyone that this idea would not sell—yet he stood his ground and proved himself right. Because of this refusal to use vernacular language, the theater audience had the ability to hear the actual words that Our Lord spoke. The tragic part of this is that for most of the Catholic audience, they were hearing these actual words of Christ for the first time in their lives!

This debate Gibson had with the naysayers was by no means a novel one. This same debate took place about forty years ago in Europe, yet in the end, the concept of retaining the actual words of Christ was an idea drowned in the waters of the Tiber.

It is a strange irony that more Latin will be spoken at the local movieplex in 126 minutes than in the last thirty years in the Catholic Church down the street. If Mel Gibson is unhappy with that oddity, my first question isn't for Mel Gibson, my first question is: "Why isn't everyone else unhappy with that?"

Second, the novus ordo culture's reluctance to center on the passion of Our Lord has been fairly evident since Vatican II. Crucifixes have been thrown out, and replaced either by nothing more than a haunting absence, or an odd form of Christ glorified. This is hardly the culture that inspires much thought about the passion.

Third, since the release of Nostra Aetate and culminating in Cardinal Keeler's Covenant and Mission document, the Church hierarchy has been so afraid of offending Jewish people that they would often rather not talk about the Passion at all. This has never been more evident than in the Vatican's doublespeak about the movie. People contend that Mel Gibson's movie is anti-Semitic. What about Cardinal Keeler's document that stated "campaigns that target Jews for conversion to Christianity are no longer theologically acceptable in the Catholic Church." (If the Catholic Church truly is the Mystical Body of Christ, and outside the Church there is no salvation, Covenant and Mission is the most anti-Semitic thing ever written, because it censures those who wish Jews to be saved.) In that eggshell-walking environment, who wants to make a movie that presents some Jewish leaders as bad guys?

Fourth, there is the matter of the novus ordo Mass itself. Years ago, Cardinal Ottaviani clearly pointed out that the sacrificial nature of the Mass itself had changed with the introduction of the novus ordo:

Let us begin with the definition of the Mass given in No. 7 of the "Institutio Generalis" at the beginning of the second chapter on the Novus Ordo: "De structura Missae":

"The Lord's Supper or Mass is a sacred meeting or assembly of the People of God, met together under the presidency of the priest, to celebrate the memorial of the Lord. Thus the promise of Christ, "where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them", is eminently true of the local community in the Church (Mt. XVIII, 20)".

The definition of the Mass is thus limited to that of the "supper", and this term is found constantly repeated (nos. 8, 48, 55d, 56). This supper is further characterized as an assembly presided over by the priest and held as a memorial of the Lord, recalling what He did on the first Maundy Thursday. None of this in the very least implies either the Real Presence, or the reality of sacrifice, or the Sacramental function of the consecrating priest, or the intrinsic value of the Eucharistic Sacrifice independently of the people's presence.

...As is only too evident, the emphasis is obsessively placed upon the supper and the memorial instead of upon the unbloody renewal of the Sacrifice of Calvary.

Keeping the Cardinal's comments in mind, a faithful Catholic may certainly object to and question the de-sacrificial re-emphasis of the new Mass.

Franco Zeffirelli's recent critical comments about the Passion of the Christ are illustrative of this point. Zefirelli recently explained:

"once I knew that Gibson had decided to make a film on the Passion of Christ I began to get worried. I knew well that the family culture in which he was raised, dominated by a father who considers the Vatican councils the tomb of Christianity..." 1

Zeffirelli (who directorially followed up Jesus of Nazareth with Endless Love) takes pride in the fact that his movie, Jesus of Nazareth, was made in accordance with the principles established by Vatican II.

No doubt it was.

To once again ask the question: Could this film possibly have been made by someone who was content with the novus ordo culture? There is no way of knowing.

All we know for sure is this: the novus ordo culture produced Jesus of Nazareth. A staunch traditionalist gave the world The Passion of the Christ.

Mr. Gibson's willingness and ability to make this movie arose from the two things for which he is now attacked—first, his voluntary withdrawal, not from the Church, but from the novus ordo culture, and second, his staunch adherence to traditional Catholicism and all that it represents.

After experiencing this film, how could anyone argue against the idea that this film was made by a man who was spiritually close to Christ?


This film will continue to have an impact on Catholics for years to come. For many, viewing the film will become an annual Lenten experience. For others, the images may be something to ponder when we are tempted. For still others, with the grace of God, this movie will certainly be a source of conversions to the Catholic Faith. This movie is a two-hour retreat, after which your life may never be quite the same. Mel Gibson deserves our profound thanks for what he has done.


1 Yahoo News, Feb 26, Zeffirelli Brands Mel Gibson's Passion Anti-Semitic; Calls Director "Bloodthirsty"
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