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ROME NOTES: Viewing the Finished "Passion"; Any U.S. Saints?

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Brutal, but Not Gratuitous

By Delia Gallagher

ROME, FEB 19, 2004 (Zenit) - I must admit, I was not chomping at the bit to see Mel Gibson's film, "The Passion of the Christ."

For one, I had heard it was violent, and I cannot stomach violence. Then, I already knew the story and its ending; and all of the pre-release polemics, far from inciting my curiosity, made me feel already fed-up with the film.

But then the call came: an invitation to a private pre-release screening of the final version. Well, we all know, calls must be answered. And that is how I ended up, on Valentine's Day, at the movies with Jesus.

So: it is very violent. It was almost too much to bear. My overriding impression was: What horror! I forced myself to keep my eyes on the screen as the Roman soldiers' steel-hooked whips ripped into the flesh of a writhing Jesus, handcuffed to a marble block, leaving him after perhaps a half-hour of nonstop scourging, a mess of slashes oozing scarlet blood and yellow pus; chunks of his skin spattered on the white granite floor and on the faces of his drunken and mad torturers. All this before he had even been condemned to death.

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A listless Jesus, hair matted with blood and one eye fully shut from the beatings, is then covered with a red haircloth digging into the fresh wounds, a crown of spiked thorns crammed into his bloodied head and taken before Pilate and the crowd for the famous "Crucify him!" scene.

Jesus is so completely physically reduced at this point that if one didn't know the story, one would expect him to die right there. The coming crucifixion, one thinks, will almost be a relief.

Is the violence exaggerated? Probably so. Is it a defensible use of artistic license? Yes, I think.

Any Catholic who has sat through years of annual memorials of the Stations of the Cross and three-hour-long Good Friday services with readings from the passion, will surely never have meditated on the suffering of Jesus in quite this way. The violence may be excessive but it is not gratuitous.

The figure of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, brings an emotional gravitas to the terrible violence and was the chief reason, I think, for the tears of those around me. For while it is difficult to completely identify with the suffering of Jesus, it is less of a stretch to understand the overwhelming pain of his Mother, who watches her son from beginning to end being whipped, tortured and nailed to a cross.

One understands why Mary is such a revered figure in Catholicism: not so much for her "fiat" when told she would bear the Son of God -- that was the easy part -- but her "fiat" in witnessing his suffering and crucifixion.

Any mother, indeed anyone who has ever loved, will know the wild pain of watching as a loved one suffers, unable to do anything, and the willingness to be put in his place, if only he could be spared.

The actress Maia Morgenstern, who plays Mary, is perfectly cast. She is not a delicate, innocent beauty, but an earthy and strong woman.

In one of the most poignant scenes of the film, after Jesus is scourged by the Romans, and the crowds disperse, Mary is seen alone with Mary Magdalene (played by Italian beauty Monica Bellucci), wiping up the blood-splattered pavement with white cloths.

It is a futile act; so strange in the context, yet that is exactly what a mother does: cleans up the mess in the midst of her despair. Theologians will also note here Mary's appreciation for Jesus' precious blood, but the purely human element is striking in its own right.

As to the accusations about the film's alleged anti-Semitism, I side with those who say that perhaps Jews and Christians will view this movie through different lenses. I, for one, did not notice any overtly anti-Jewish exaggeration of the original Gospel sources.

That the Gospels themselves may contain anti-Jewish elements is a debate that must be argued with the historical-religious context in mind and only the beginning of a longer debate about Christians' contribution to the history of anti-Semitism.

That Jews may fear a reprisal of anti-Semitic sentiment because of the film, is a concern that should be taken seriously. My guess, though, is that those fears will prove to be unfounded.

I have seen a checklist of "motifs-to-look-out-for" compiled by two Jewish professors from a U.S. university and circulated widely in anticipation of the movie, based on earlier script versions they had read. The checklist asks, for instance, if the Jewish men in the movie are portrayed as being scruffy, while the Romans are clean-shaven. I found myself answering "no" to this and most of the "possible motifs."

Another question of the checklist is: "Is it fair to say that the film is so violent in expressing Jesus' torture that the theater audience will be likely to feel outrage at those who perpetrated such a horrendous crime?"

Well, I can only respond for the 12 people in the theater audience who saw the film with me (three of whom were not Christian): One is so spent by the end, that the reaction, far from outrage, is total silence.

It is a violence that moves one to tears, not anger; and invites one to reflect not on the Jews, but on Jesus.

* * *

Paths to Sainthood

The cardinals in Rome will meet today in an extraordinary consistory to set the date for the canonizations of six new saints, including Gianna Beretta Molla, the mother who saved her unborn child at the cost of her own life.

I met with Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, the head of the Congregation for Sainthood Causes, to find out more about the upcoming events. Attention turned to Charles I of Austria (1887-1922), who likely will be beatified this year.

In 1911, Charles married the Princess Zita of the Bourbons of Parma and had eight children. He ascended to the throne of Austria-Hungary in 1916 at age 29.

Charles tried to bring peace to his troubled region during the First World War, even offering large regions of his territories (such as Alsace-Lorraine) to appease the Allied parties. He and his family were exiled to the island of Madeira in 1921, where Charles became ill and died.

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Charles I attended daily Mass, and some of his letters and pleas for peace are now published. Debate already surrounds the possible canonization of a man who led his country in war.

"One can say whatever one wants about him," said Cardinal Saraiva Martins, "but there is no doubt, from the point of view of his person, he was a holy man."

"An emperor, or a president, can be a saint and perhaps cannot always act as he would like," the cardinal told me. "One must distinguish with great disinterest the holiness of the person as person, and then the circumstances in which he does things.

"I know that it could cause polemics, but one must judge history with disinterest and honesty and not ideologically -- we ruin history this way."

I asked the cardinal why there never seems to be an American up for canonization.

"A good question," he laughed. "The answer is very simple. In countries with an ancient Catholic tradition, sainthood is a part of the very culture; and it is the culture itself which imprints the human, Christian values in which holiness flourishes."

So holiness doesn't flourish in the United States, I ask?

"No, no," he responds. "It certainly flourishes, I have no doubt. But the United States, like England, is a country with a majority Protestant influence. The mentality is different. It is obvious that in those countries, compared to countries that are 99% Catholic, the mentality will be different."

Requests for canonizations begin at the local level, the cardinal reminded me, and there are fewer requests coming from English-speaking countries.

"The bishops must take the initiative," he said. "I understand that the bishops in the United States have much to do, and so I suggest that each of them have one or several competent assistants who can attend to these causes -- to examine whether in their churches there are possible cases for beatification and who can assist in the process of bringing these causes to the attention of the Holy See."

"For the Pope these causes are among the first in the Church," Cardinal Saraiva Martins said. "Without holiness, the Church has no reason to be!"

The process of bringing a cause for beatification, and eventual canonization, to the Holy See is not simple. It requires months of investigation and interviews and piles of research and documents -- more administration than your already-stretched local diocese might be able to handle.

The Congregation for Sainthood Causes, recognizing this, offers a four-month course, open to priests, nuns, laymen and laywomen, to explain how a cause is put together.

"To help the needs of these bishops, this dicastery, for 18 years, has offered this course for postulators, for specialists, so that they can be of use to the bishops when they return to their dioceses. More than 1,000 priests, nuns, laymen and women have participated," said Cardinal Saraiva Martins.

Given the negative news from English-speaking dioceses in the last few years, a few examples of sainthood might be in order.

(For more information, contact Father Marcelo E. Mendez, OFM, docent secretary-general, Congregation for Sainthood Causes, 00120 Vatican City. Telephone: (39) 06-6988-4241)


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