Saturday, December 11, 2004

Ten months after Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” reached blockbuster status, an interfaith group of Catholics and Jews is still finding fault with the film, calling it a “notorious” reminder of Europe’s anti-Semitic past.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the U.S. Catholic-Jewish Consultation Committee recently called the film a “modern version of the notorious medieval Passion Plays which so often over the centuries have triggered riots against the Jews of Europe.”

The statement, posted on USCCB’s Web site (, was part of an ongoing discussion about the effect of “The Passion” on ecumenical relations between the two groups, represented by two dozen priests, bishops, rabbis and other officials.

The R-rated movie released Feb. 25, which has earned $625 million to date worldwide, is a graphic account of the last 12 hours of the life of Jesus Christ, with a glimpse of the Resurrection at the film’s end. Mr. Gibson, who co-wrote, produced and directed the movie, is a conservative Roman Catholic.

The film was among several topics discussed at an ecumenical meeting last month by both groups. They released a statement Nov. 29 to clarify and offer some conclusions to the movie’s effect worldwide.

The committee noted the lack of incidents, but still linked the film to passion plays, which were tableaux performed throughout medieval Europe to dramatize Christ’s death for illiterate viewers on the week before Easter.

Passion plays have been linked with pogroms against medieval Jews and the Nov. 29 statement is the first time the USCCB has uncritically adopted that term to apply to Mr. Gibson’s film.

Eugene Fisher, the associate director for the USCCB’s Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, downplayed the association. He said it was a follow-up from the committee’s April 20 statement that said “The Passion” is a “work of artistic beauty” for some Christians while “for other Christians and most Jews it recalls the passion plays of the past.”

“In a sense, the film takes the form of a passion play,” Mr. Fisher said. “It tells the story of Jesus’ death. The point of the dialogue is that’s what the Jews thought; that is what the Jewish participants were saying.

“The Catholics agreed this was an understandable reaction on their part.”

But a Jewish committee member said its Catholic participants disliked the film.

“The Catholics were equally distressed at the film and the violent presentation of what was happening,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Wohlberg of the District-based Adas Israel Congregation.

“Catholics at Catholic University also regarded the movie as an anti-Catholic, anti-papal presentation because the Catholic Church had already interpreted these events” of the Crucifixion, he said. The Rev. John Crossin, a Catholic University professor who participated in the Nov. 3 meeting, did not return a call for comment.

One sore point among Jews, the rabbi said, was Mr. Gibson’s reliance on scenes from “The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ,” a 19th-century account of the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life written by German visionary Anna Catherine Emmerich. It has been criticized by some Jewish and Christian groups as blaming Jews for the death of Christ.

Even more problematic was that in October the Catholic Church beatified Emmerich as a first step toward eventual sainthood.

However, since the beatification process relied on the would-be saint’s virtues and not her writings, it “could not be used in any sense to verify particular assertions or descriptions contained” in the book, according to the USCCB statement.

Mr. Gibson’s spokesman, Alan Nierob, did not return a call for comment on the statement, but the Petersburg, Ill.-based group Roman Catholic Faithful called it “ecclesiastical drivel.”

When Mr. Gibson “risks his personal fortune and reputation because our Lord is despised by the world, you miserable serpents not only do not support him, but join with those who condemn his courageous and beautiful effort,” the group said.

“‘The Passion of the Christ’ has done more to uplift the human heart, to bring souls to Christ, to increase holiness, and to glorify our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, than all the USCCB committees, subcommittees, documents, pastorals, letters, faxes and speeches put together.”

“The Passion” is now angling for a place in the Oscar Award lineup for best picture, director, actor and cinematography, and is among the Top Five 2004 films for the People’s Choice Awards for Favorite Movie Drama.

Although dogged by charges of anti-Semitism during its prerelease days, there has been no proven anti-Semitic incidents tied to the film since its release.

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