By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published March 4, 2004
Carol Braun went on a church outing to see “The Passion of the Christ” with four theaters full of members from St. Peter Chanel Church in Roswell and St. Brigid’s in Alpharetta. She left feeling “very proud, very joyful and like somebody finally got it right on the screen.”
Her whole family was “blown away by it,” she said. And Braun, who prays the Hours of the Passion with her prayer group every Lent, was “really moved” in particular by the film’s depiction of Mary and “how much she and Jesus were united in their souls and she was there being spiritually crucified.”
But the nicest surprise was the response of a relative who went but does not attend church. The woman left with a new interest in Catholicism and is planning to attend with Braun a study session on the film that began March 4 and is to be held for four weeks at St. Peter Chanel.
“She wants to come to the discussion group now, and she’s been asking me a lot of questions. It’s like the first crack in the door opening like in seven years. There’s just been this opening up of her willingness to discuss things more and of an appreciation of the Catholic faith and what our Lord did,” said Braun.
And that response is just what Keri Allen, director of evangelization for the archdiocese, is hoping and planning for.
The Office of Evangelization is urging churches around the archdiocese that are promoting “The Passion of the Christ” to hold study programs relating to the movie directed by Mel Gibson. The movie and programs affiliated with it can then be used as an evangelization tool to help others learn more about Catholicism, to bring back Catholics who have drifted away from the church or to guide other Catholics deeper into their faith.
At the Cathedral of Christ the King, Allen, also the director of adult enrichment and evangelization for the parish, said her office has developed the “Why?” study program which, directed at non-believers, answers questions the movie raises surrounding who Jesus is and his gift of salvation. It will be held at the Cathedral after Easter. And CTK is holding a training program entitled “How to Evangelize Using the Movie ‘The Passion of the Christ’” on Saturday, March 6, for persons interested in offering that and other programs and activities in their parishes, as well as holding study groups using “A Guide to the Passion,” a book which answers 100 questions about it.
Of the 100 parishes that have been sent related materials on the subject, about half have given positive responses. CTK is not trying to replace existing evangelization programs, and project leaders note ministers also may find information to adapt to existing programs. CTK is also holding a four-week study group using the guidebook beginning March 10 and will hold a Bible study linking The Passion to the Old Testament beginning March 9. On Feb. 27 CTK also held a discussion night.
“The archdioceses of Chicago and Denver have asked us for our ‘Why?’ materials which we put together. Our focus, our motivation is not on promoting the movie but on promoting the evangelization that happens after the movie. ‘Why?’ is a tool to evangelize. The movie is about (Christ’s) Passion and his passion for you,” said Allen. “People, especially unbelievers, who really don’t understand or know about the Passion of Christ will come away saying ‘why would somebody endure this?’ There’s only one answer and that is love and that’s how much he loves us and that will lead hopefully into discussion … I think Catholics will be deepened in their faith. It will open doors that have not been opened before. It’s a very powerful, personal and painful movie.”
As Allen watched the film she meditated on his suffering and mercy, praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet.
She hopes parishes and small groups within them will also use the “Guide to the Passion” and the study guide and leader’s manual developed by the Internet portal called Catholic Exchange, the official Catholic site for the movie. Lisa Wheeler, an associate editor with Catholic Exchange, said that the book, which sold 200,000 copies in the first 10 days it was made available, explores symbolism and various theological aspects of the movie, noting that some elements of the film not found in Scripture are based on the visions of German nun Venerable Anne Catherine Emmerich and Spanish nun Venerable Maria of Agreda. The book provides information related to Scripture and its historical context on the film, explaining things such as how the Sanhedrin council of Jewish leaders feared that if Jesus stirred up the people it would lead to further Roman oppression of the Jewish nation. The book also explains how the Passion is the fulfillment of the Jewish Passover. As the Passover recognizes how Jewish families before the Exodus sacrificed a lamb and sprinkled its blood on the doorpost to save the first born of every household from death, Jesus is the sacrificial lamb to save all through his death on the cross, on which his blood was sprinkled. And as the Jews then had to eat the lamb, in the same way, Catholics eat Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist.
Other sections address the case for Christ for those who haven’t heard the message, the outcome of the crucifixion and the deepening of one’s faith.
Wheeler also feels the movie is an extraordinary opportunity to evangelize, as non-Christians and fallen away Catholics will likely leave the film with questions. “The main reason why I think it’s so powerful is the movie shows a glimpse of pretty much a moment in the life of Jesus, but that moment is the climax of everything promised to us in the new covenant God makes with his people and ends with a glimpse of the future, that Jesus is alive and the whole rest of the story to look forward to,” said Wheeler. “Mel Gibson has done an extraordinary thing by focusing on one aspect of the Christian life that draws people to want to know more. He sets the stage for us to answer the call” to share the Gospel message.
Father Theodore Book is planning on taking youth from St. Catherine of Siena Church, Kennesaw, where he is a parochial vicar, to see it. He spoke of the value of viewing a film focusing on the 12 hours leading up to Christ’s death, noting that it doesn’t glorify violence but suffering.
“It shows us the depth of our Lord’s love for us, the true horror of sin, the price of our redemption, the substance of the Mass as the center of our faith,” he said. Additionally, “I think the movie is a wonderful ecumenical thing as well. It’s wonderful to see people from so many different denominations and religions seeing something that presents the Catholic idea of our Lord’s Passion and Our Lady’s role.”
St. Peter Chanel and St. Brigid were two of many Catholic and Protestant churches whose members flocked in groups to view the film. They together rented and “completely sold out” four theatres for a screening. Parish priests at St. Peter Chanel said that all of the parishioners’ reactions to it that they’ve heard have been positive, and parochial vicar Father John Shramko said that he’s already hearing of people like Braun’s relative, who have become interested in the faith.
“I think it will bring a lot of conversions,” he said. “Some were coming out crying saying, ‘I didn’t know God loved me that much.’”
He also noted that non-Christians need to understand the basic concept of redemption to appreciate the film, or it will appear to them as two hours of “this guy getting beaten” and killed rather than depicting “the immensity of God’s love.”
“We have to explain to them that through the cross comes salvation, that the offering of the Lamb of God is the sacrifice that atones for all sins,” he said. “The Son loved us so much he would endure the suffering. It also shows us what we should endure (as Jesus said) pick up your cross and follow me.”
The pastor, Father Frank McNamee, believes that many have that reaction because they’ve had a more “antiseptic” sense of the crucifixion. It is “very Catholic and follows very much the Stations of the Cross. I do think it brings people into a deeper understanding of what Christ truly suffered,” he said. “I really think it was a great spiritual exercise and just a reflection on the Passion of our Lord and to see the tremendous love …Teenagers need to see it, everybody, Catholics, non-Catholics, Protestants, Jews, everybody needs to see it.”
Father McNamee, in fact, brought two Jewish rabbis to his parish viewing, including Rabbi Julie Schwartz of Temple Emanu-El in Dunwoody. Rabbi Schwartz has reservations about the film and believes that people must be educated about it, as it’s “very possible” for those not well educated in the Gospels with limited understanding to use it to foster prejudice or stereotyping of Jews.
“It was absolutely a movie intended for an educated Christian believer. As a Jewish viewer … it really did not help me to understand the Gospel any better nor Christian belief any better,” she said. “It’s very important for priests and ministers to use the story the way it’s intended and not allow it to become a vehicle to misinform and hurt people.”
She feels Gibson added elements not found in Scripture that were “not really true to the spirit of Vatican II.” She cited examples such as an inaccurate presentation of Pontius Pilot and how Gibson departs from the Bible in adding a high priest standing at the crucifixion as the official witness of the Jews.
“There was no representation of a high priest at the crucifixion. It was a Roman form of execution,” she said. “It could easily be called poor selection where he went away from the text and added in his interpretation and others’ interpretation.”
“I’m hopeful it will help Christians understand their faith and deepen and enrich their spiritual life. Obviously as a religious leader I’m supportive of anything to help people to live the life God calls them to. (But) the film requires a tremendous amount of good education around it because of the way it has been written. And as most people have expressed, it is certainly not a film for children.”
Debi Moore, secretary at St. Peter Chanel and a Lutheran, is “still processing” the film but feels it will enrich her faith in some way. “We’ve always known in our hearts Jesus died for us, but this is the essay behind the short sentence.”
Moore was concerned about how she’d react to the violence. “The intensity is what makes it more profound as you absorb it and what it means, but it was very hard to watch. I don’t think it was gratuitous violence,” she said. “It makes the words of the Creed so much more meaningful.”
St. Peter Chanel member Rhetta Ascari took her 17-year-old son Chris to the film. Chris said that as the film ended, “I was just sitting there in silence I was so stunned.”
“I think of it more as an experience as opposed to a movie. It changed my whole outlook on things and made me think about how I treat others because if that movie didn’t do anything to make us think about how we treat others nothing will. Just seeing all Jesus’ struggles, all of the pain and torture he went through for us just made me think about it, particularly when he was carrying the cross and he was falling,” he said. And as he now considers making his own sacrifice during Lent, “it will make it so much easier to do.”
For information on materials and programs, contact parishes or visit www.passionatlanta.com, www.catholicexchange.com or www.evangelization.com.