By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published March 24, 2005
When Father John Bartunek talks about the movie “The Passion of the Christ,” he compares it to the awe he felt on first beholding the beauty of Italy’s churches. And like great art and architecture, he says, the experience is more meaningful when a guide provides details of the artist’s intentions, cultural intricacies and the religious context.
The Legionary of Christ priest was in Atlanta speaking about his new book entitled “Inside the Passion.” He wrote it to break open the scenes in the film and explain why particular artistic choices were made, providing biblical, theological and historical insights into the power of the film.
His purpose is to give viewers—both those who love and those who are perplexed by the film—a more comprehensive understanding, enabling them to deepen their own faith, to evangelize, and discuss the film more articulately with others, whether in deep theological discussion or light cocktail party conversation. He worked on the book with the cooperation of the film’s director, Mel Gibson. It is currently number one on the best-seller list of the Catholic Book Publishers Association.
“I consider the movie a great work of art,” Father Bartunek said in a talk March 14 at Holy Spirit Preparatory School. “I had a very intense, really life-changing experience working on this great work of art with Mel.”
“If we become experts in it, we can extend the influence of the film like ripples in a pond; we can make it reach to others. This (film) is going to come up in conversation over and over again and the more we know about it, the more we’ll be able to take advantage of these opportunities to talk to people and to use them as an opportunity to speak about Christ … We can become agents of the film to channel God to work to rekindle faith and hope in people’s lives,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I decided to write the book, to give people a chance to go deeper so that they can not only enrich their own hearts but enrich others.”
The film, seen by over 121 million people, is the highest grossing R-rated movie in history, making over $600 million at the box office. A less violent version is now being released, he said. Intended to reach those who didn’t watch the original version because of the accurate, although violent, depiction of the sufferings of Christ, the new version still retains most of the emotional impact, he said.
The priest first got involved in the project as a seminarian when Jim Caviezel, the actor portraying Jesus, was invited to his seminary. When Father Bartunek and another seminarian began discussing the film with the actor, he invited them to visit the set in Rome. The seminarian never had an official role but was eager to watch everything he could. He later discussed the film extensively with Gibson, exploring why certain artistic elements are present and why scenes were filmed a certain way. He also attended private screenings of the film for groups ranging from pastors of mega-churches to college students.
“I knew it was going to be a film that moved hearts. I said, ‘Mel, it’s so interesting getting into this. We need to write a book so that people can get the most out of it,’” he said. “When you visit basilicas in Rome, huge glorious basilicas . . . it’s impressive, but it remains at that level of experience unless you have (knowledge of) what is symbolized behind these statues, what is the intent of the artist. When you know that, you go deeper and it actually unlocks spiritual truths.”
Published by Ascension Press, it is the only authorized book on the film and includes a forward by Gibson. A native of suburban Cleveland, Father Bartunek was not raised in a religious home but became an evangelical Christian during high school. Attending the pope’s midnight Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica and experiencing his holy, prayerful spirit inspired him to begin a journey that led him to Catholicism. He was ordained a priest two years ago and is now studying for an advanced degree in moral theology in Rome.
He opened his talk recounting Gibson’s conversion story that led to his conception for the film. Gibson was one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, making at least $20 million a film, and idolized by many but was “absolutely miserable.” He was eating breakfast one day with his dad when he asked him if he thought some situations were beyond hope. His father replied no “because Christ has died and has risen.” This was the beginning of new hope and faith in Gibson’s life. He began to reclaim his Catholic faith and found comfort as he meditated on Christ’s immense suffering to save mankind. While on the set of “What Women Want” he began envisioning a film on the Passion, as a way to use his immense power to bring Christ back into Hollywood. Gibson prayed the rosary every day while filming in Rome and stopped by a chapel every night and prayed it again.
“The thing that began to change him was the reality of how much Christ suffered . . . every whip of the scourge is a manifestation of Christ’s love,” said the priest. “It was a labor of faith and love all the way through.”
Father Bartunek believes people were opposed to and uncomfortable with the violence because it reveals the immense suffering and injustice endured by Jesus and doesn’t numb people to its consequences. It shows Jesus patiently enduring torture and humiliation as he was arrested, forgiving his persecutors without fighting back.
“It was Christ who was merciful and forgiving, which is really hard for us to be, and that’s what we’re really uncomfortable with,” Father Bartunek said.
He asserted that the film is not anti-Semitic but simply true to the Gospel story and that Gibson was particularly mindful of the issue when he made it a point to show Jesus’ Jewish roots, and to leave out a subtitle of the line regarding Jesus’ trial, “let his blood be on us and on our children,” which could be wrongly interpreted as a curse on the Jewish people. The Last Supper scene reflects the connection with Judaism as it shows how it is a Jewish Passover Seder meal in which Christ alters the meaning and elements. That criticism subsided as soon as the movie actually opened, he noted.
“It wasn’t anti-Semitic. The Gospel isn’t anti-Semitic,” he continued. “Mel wanted to emphasize its relationship with Judaism and its fulfillment in Christ.”
The priest believes the Holy Spirit was active throughout the film’s production, recalling many faith stories. For example, he said, the actor who played Judas made it clear to all that he was an atheist, and by the end of the film had returned to Christ, had his child baptized and sanctified his marriage in the church.
Caviezel, who had to be on the set by 3:30 a.m. for his make-up application, went to daily Mass and received the Eucharist before he went before the camera, Father Bartunek said. He said that the actor believed that the role was an apostolate to image Christ for others.
“He always prayed, ‘Lord, let them see You and not me,’ and he’d always pray for the conversion of all the people on the film,” he continued. “We can image Christ to the world around us if we have Him, the Eucharist, in us. This is the year of the Eucharist. We’ll be like the movie and be a channel of God’s grace and extend His influence.”
The speaker encouraged the audience to use whatever gifts they have to glorify and serve God.
“The movie is about God’s fidelity, God’s faithfulness. He wanted to serve us. He loved us and nothing we could do could change that,” Father Bartunek concluded. “The movie is … also about our fidelity because the whole point of being a Christian is about assimilating Christ’s fidelity and living it out in our lives—being faithful in our relationships, faithful to one’s spouse, to one’s children, to one’s parents, faithful to God’s will, to the teachings of the church, to one’s own conscience. We’re constantly faced with temptations and Christ teaches us. He wants this fidelity to be our fidelity and that’s why when we see ‘The Passion’ we are inspired, we’re given hope.”
Following the talk, Father Bartunek signed his books as attendees chatted about the talk. Alene Joiner, a member of St. Peter Chanel Church, Roswell, liked his summation on fidelity.
“I loved the thing he told us about Jim Caviezel praying every day ‘Lord let them see You not me’ … I just love how he brought that back to what we’re supposed to be doing as Christians, how we’re supposed to be apostles and like Christ and be a channel of God’s grace,” she said.
Maria Zuniga, a senior at the University of Georgia, said one can get new insights into the film with each viewing. She didn’t mind the violence. “It deepened my relationship with Him and made me appreciate His suffering. If He suffered that much in love, what can I go do for Him?”
Holy Spirit junior Joe Cassandra agreed the film can lead to conversations on the Catholic faith and can challenge viewers to examine their lives.
“When you think of Christ on the cross, you don’t really think of the many (events) that led up to that. You don’t know what He went through. He was a man and went through tremendous suffering. Seeing it on the screen it makes you think about what is my purpose in life,” he said.