By Most Reverend Archbishop John Francis Donoghue | Published February 19, 2004
To the Catholics of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, And to All People of Good Faith
Dear Friends in Christ,
On Wednesday February 25th, we will celebrate Ash Wednesday, and the beginning of the Lenten Season for the year of our Lord, 2004. As good Catholics do every year, we will undertake during the ensuing forty days, special acts of penance, including, as our Lord has taught us, prayer, fasting, and the giving of alms. We do these things to clear our minds, and to dispose our souls to accept more readily, the gift that Jesus Christ, the Son of God has made us – His life and His death – His suffering, and His redemption of all mankind.
This year, there is a special event which can help to make this Lent unlike any before, and perhaps, change us permanently, in the way we visualize and attempt to share in the great love our Lord has shown us. This event is the release of the film, The Passion, conceived, produced and directed by Mel Gibson.
Last summer Mel Gibson brought his film to Atlanta, and shared it with a small number of local religious leaders. At that time, I was able to talk at length with Mr. Gibson privately, and I am completely convinced that his motive in making this film was entirely religious, and that it manifests what I consider to be his sincere faith and devotion. I am also impressed by the willingness with which he faced the monumental challenges of accurately depicting the Gospel events surrounding the Passion of our Lord, as well as his courage in answering the opposition which such a depiction has and will continue to provoke.
Mel Gibson’s understanding has been enlightened by the understanding of the Church. Specifically, in his depiction of the capture, the trial and the condemnation of Jesus Christ, no one bears the blame exclusively – neither the Jews, nor the Romans, nor the Herodians. Our Lord’s sufferings and death are the result of one thing, and one thing only – the presence of evil in the world as a result of sin, the weakness of men and women when overcome by the temptations of Satan. All people bear the blame for our Lord’s suffering and death – all people should feel sorrow or contrition that Christ’s innocence is the only worthy sacrifice to atone for our sinfulness. These are hard lessons for us to bear at the best of times, for we are so proud; and these are almost impossible lessons for our modern culture, which seems devoted to the complete denial of sin and evil. Mel Gibson’s desire is to show that sin and evil do exist, that Satan is real, and that only by humbly participating in the merits gained by our Lord, only by seeing, by feeling and by sharing in His suffering and death do we gain the grace, the gift, of being made worthy again to share the company of God. This is a gift that Jesus Christ made to all men and women – His gift does not consider race or creed – His gift embraces all who embrace Him. The blame for His death is upon the heads of all the children of Adam and Eve. And if there is one who can be said to condemn Him, then it is the one whom Jesus called “a murderer from the beginning” – Satan.
I believe that all people should see this film. And as your bishop, I would urge all Catholics of the Archdiocese of Atlanta to see this film. But do not expect to view it objectively or without being changed. It will not leave you the same person you were before – you will never again not be able to picture the scope of our Lord’s suffering, and the terrible price He paid in order to save us. And consequently, you will never again be able to think of yourself as being innocent, or only relatively involved in the events of His Passion. That is a result of the true artistry that Mel Gibson has brought to the production, along with the work of an amazing cast, and cinematography that elevates this film to a place among the greatest ever made. But most importantly, it is a result of Mel Gibson’s faithful adherence to the words and the spirit of the Gospel.
One important caution must be given. This movie is not for children, and by that, I specifically mean children who have not yet achieved an age to understand the graphic violence that can be done by humans to other humans, and to themselves. It would be unwise for me to try and decide what age that might be – and it is a responsibility that I consider to be the inviolate privilege of mothers and fathers. To be safe, I would suggest that no children under high school age should see this film, unless their parents have seen it first, and give their consent. In any case, young people will need to rely upon the counsel of older men and women, as well as priests, and educators of the Church, in order to absorb the impact of this film.
Dear friends, the lesson of The Passion is terrible – and beautiful – to behold, but the truth of accepting and making this lesson a part of our own lives, is to gain deeper faith in the ultimate outcome of Christ’s purpose in coming among mankind – His victory over death – our death – “…to give his life as a ransom for many.” May this magnificent film, a gift from God, help us to learn what we need to know, and may our Lenten and Easter celebrations this year, bring us an abundance of contrition, repentance, and new-found hope in the power of Jesus Christ to save us, and give us eternal life.
Most Reverend John F. Donoghue
Archbishop of Atlanta