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Father Thomas Rosica on Mel Gibson's "The Passion"

National Director of World Youth Day 2002 Weighs in on Film

TORONTO, FEB. 8, 2004 (Zenit) - A priest who oversaw World Youth Day 2002 and its Way of the Cross through the streets of Toronto says he was overwhelmed by Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ."

Basilian Father Thomas Rosica, head of Salt & Light Catholic Media Foundation and the first national Catholic television Network in Canada, was invited to view Gibson's movie late last year.

Father Rosica is a trained Scripture scholar and represented the Canadian bishops' conference for nearly 10 years on the National Christian-Jewish Consultation. He shared his views about "The Passion" here.

Q: You have lived, studied and taught in the Holy Land at the École Biblique and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. You headed up World Youth Day 2002 in Canada, which had as its centerpiece the historic Way of the Cross through the center of a modern city. You certainly did not watch Gibson's movie as an outsider. What do you think of it?

Father Rosica: My first reaction was overwhelming. Having followed the extensive debate about the movie for the past year, I was interested in seeing it, but never expected the invitation to be so personal.

One of my principal colleagues at Salt & Light and I were invited by the sound production company of the film to a private showing. I was very surprised to learn that the soundtrack is being produced for the movie by a sound company located several blocks from our Salt & Light Television headquarters in downtown Toronto.

I rarely leave a theater or a film screening with a strong desire to pray and be silent. That is what I felt this morning as I returned to our offices. "The Passion" is a deeply moving presentation of the final hours of Jesus' life on earth. It is by no means a film for children.

I recommend that all those in pastoral ministry, teachers and students of Scripture, and adult Christians view this film at some point. If Gibson's desire was to allow people to draw closer to Christ through this film, he has accomplished his goal.

If Gibson wished people to experience a conversion of heart to the nonviolent message of the cross, he has accomplished that as well.

Q: What stood out for you in the movie?

Father Rosica: The film has been produced with stunning cinematography, excellent acting, fidelity to the Scriptures, attentiveness to the theological meaning of the passion and death of Christ, and extraordinary artistic and religious sensitivity.

The powerful play of light and darkness across Pilate's tortured face is far more revealing than any of the words uttered. It is as though Caravaggio himself served as the artistic and lighting director of this film.

Every single scene is richly created in order to invite the viewer deeper and deeper into the mystery. I really feel that this movie is a masterpiece of religious art of the most powerful genre. As the movie progresses, those who were simply bystanders are drawn into the heart of the story.

Among many extraordinary details, I found Gibson's use of flashback masterful. As a teacher of the Passion narratives, I am always struck by the poignant scenes of the trial, and Peter's role in these Gospel accounts.

In this movie, the haunting flashback to Christ and Peter produces a special effect. The camera captures the face of Christ in profile, while Peter gazes upon us. Christ's excruciating suffering is punctuated by flashbacks to his washing the feet of his apostles in loving service. There are so many subtle ways in which the bystanders in this movie become the protagonists in an instant.

One of my great mentors and professors was the late Father Raymond Brown, S.S., who taught me the "Death of the Messiah" at the Biblicum in Rome. Brown demonstrated that, while there are some differences among the Passion accounts, they are in substantial agreement overall.

It is important to remember that Mel Gibson's film is not a documentary but a work of creative imagination. He incorporates elements from the four Passion narratives of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but remains faithful to the fundamental structure common to all four Gospel accounts.

Gibson has done nothing to remove the brutality from the Passion story. In fact he has no intention to sugarcoat the Passion story with pietism or a false spirituality. The viewer is forced to look at the raw facts and events, and witness the suffering of a just man.

The more brutal the scenes become, the more powerful are the flashback moments of Jesus teaching on the Mount of the Beatitudes, Jesus identifying himself as the Good Shepherd, Jesus offering his life in the bread and wine of the last supper.

One scene, in particular, was very moving. As Jesus falls on the Way of the Cross, there is a flashback to his falling on a Jerusalem street as a child, and his mother running out of the house to pick him up. The interplay of Mary and Jesus in this film is moving, and reaches its apex in the scene of the Pietŕ.

The Mother of the Lord is inviting each of us to share her grief and behold her Son. It is what we tried to do on the Way of the Cross in the heart of the city during World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto. This scene was an incredibly powerful moment for us as well. In fact, those who discouraged us from such a public presentation of the Stations of Cross during World Youth Day 2002 were not from outside the Church!

After that magnificent presentation on Toronto's University Avenue in July, 2002, among the thousands of letters and messages we received were those from people of other faiths who simply said: "If only we could do something like this for our own young people and teach them about the core of our faith."

Q: To what do you attribute all the opposition to Gibson's film?

Father Rosica: Ignorance, an obsession with being politically correct, a poor understanding of true interfaith relations, and an unwillingness to come to grips with the cold facts and ambiguous nature of Jesus' trial and execution.

I must also admit that Christians and Jews who fail to deal with the Scriptures in a mature way, and simply promote a false irenicism and ignorance of history, do not help to build bridges and repair the real damage of anti-Semitism which is alive once again in the world.

The old adage that "those who don't know speak, and those who know don't speak" can certainly be applied to all the ink spilled over this film. I have heard heated debates among people who have no idea what the film is about.

Q: As one who has been deeply involved in Jewish-Christian dialogue for many years, do you think that the film is anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish?

Father Rosica: No, it is not at all anti-Semitic nor anti-Jewish. The film neither exaggerates nor downplays the role of Jewish authorities and legal proceedings in the condemnation of Jesus.

Without a doubt the figure of Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest is a villain. But it is very important to realize that Caiaphas in the Scriptures represented the regime of the time and not the Jewish people.

The film should serve as a springboard into deepening our knowledge of the Scriptures, our love of Jesus Christ, our understanding of the historic reconciliation of Christians and Jews, especially since Vatican II and under the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, and an analysis of the true causes of anti-Semitism, and its reappearance in the world today.

It think it is very unfortunate that many voices within the Church, not to speak of those from outside the Church, have already condemned the film before even seeing it on the grounds that it is anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish. If the movie does anything, it compels even the most distant and dispassionate viewer to deepen his or her understanding of the story of the Jesus' passion and death.

Jews and Romans of that time were involved in the condemnation, trial and execution of Jesus. That is a fact of history. Anyone who tries to rewrite history or rewrite the Gospel stories of Jesus' suffering and death is unfaithful to history and very dishonest in applying lessons of the past to contemporary situations.

Isn't the real issue arising from this film that many political and even religious authorities throughout history have persecuted individuals with revolutionary ideas?

The Gospel passion narratives recount how the sins of all these people at the time of Jesus conspired to bring about the passion and death of Christ, and thereby suggest the fundamental truth that we are all to blame. Their sins and our sins bring Christ to the cross, and he bears them willingly.

And we must learn from what happened to Jesus and ask ourselves not only about the identity of those who tried, condemned and killed him long ago, but also what killed Jesus -- and what vicious circles of violence, brutality and hatred continue to crucify him today in his brothers and sisters of the human family.

I read somewhere that Maia Morgenstern, the Jewish actress who masterfully plays the part of Mary, said that "The Passion" opposes oppression and violence. "It is about letting people speak openly about what they think and believe. It denounces the madness of violence and cruelty, which if unchecked can spread like a disease."

Q: What were your sentiments as you left the screening room of "The Passion"? You saw it on the eve of Christmas ...

Father Rosica: At the end of such a provocative movie, and on the eve of the birth of the Prince of Peace, I am left with some questions.

In Gibson's "Passion," the "great high priest" is Jesus, the Child of Bethlehem who becomes the "Ecce Homo" of Jerusalem, not at all one distant from us and our condition, but one who sympathizes with us and suffers with us, for he has experienced our weakness and pain, even our temptations.

I must ask myself if am I a priestly person like he was? Do I live for others and spend my life for others? Is the world any less violent, hostile and brutal, and any more patient, kind and just, because of me? Do I stand on the side of truth? Or am I afraid to reveal my faith in Jesus and my fidelity to the Gospel?

"The Passion" compels me to reflect on the cost of discipleship.

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