Contradictory reactions to “The Passion” by Bishops of Italy and France

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The Committee on Communications of the Bishops Conference of France published yesterday a statement critical of “The Passion of the Christ,” in open contrast with the “pastoral analysis” of the Italian bishops, who said the movie was “appropriate for provoking thought on the person of Jesus.”

The Mel Gibson movie was released in France on Wednesday, March 31, a week ahead of the April 7 debut in Italy.

In its statement, the Committee on Communications of the Bishops Conference of France said “the sincerity of the film’s creator is not in question, and it could be that the film motivates men and women to find out who Jesus is.”  Nevertheless, the statement says, “the face of Christ is not as apparent [in the movie] as are our modern obsessions: the anguish of evil, fascination with violence, and the search for the guilty.”

The statement claims that the decision to “portray images of the last hours of the life of Christ, with intentional historical reconstruction,” has “consequences.”

“The choice to isolate the Passion from the life and preaching of Christ,” the statement adds, “does not allow consideration of the complex motives which little by little inspired the multitudes to follow Jesus, and ignited the controversy surrounding his person, his intentions, and his mystery.”

The French bishops say in addition that “independently of knowing whether or not the movie is intentionally anti-Semitic, it could be used to stir up anti-Semitic opinions.”  “This violence (in the film), which overwhelms the viewer, ends up erasing the meaning of the passion and the essence of the person and the message of Christ: love carried to perfection by the voluntary surrender of himself,” says the document, which concludes with a question.  “Is it not ironic that a movie about Jesus can’t be shown to children?”

The comments by the Italian bishops, on the other hand, are notably more extensive and positive, underscoring that “Gibson’s perspective is not in the tradition of the classic iconography of the Romance period (of which ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ by Franco Zeffirelli is the best example) but rather follows decidedly the portrayal of the disfigured face of Jesus which is evoked in the iconographic works of the 15th and 16th centuries.”

According to the commentary by the Italian Bishops Conference, “the narration (of the film) proceeds according to the traditional stations of the cross, from the encounter with Veronica to the falls of Jesus under the weight of the cross.” 

In this sense, contrary to the opinions of the French bishops, the bishops of Italy underscore that “The Passion of the Christ,” “employs a clever use of ‘flashbacks’ to the infancy of Jesus, and more frequently, focusing very effectively on the Last Supper, suggesting a unified reading of the historical event of Jesus, and in particular, a unified look at the very mystery of salvation.”  “In fact,” continues the commentary, “the relationship of Jesus to Mary is portrayed with superior gracefulness, culminating in the image of the pieta after the descent from the cross.”

The Italian bishops’ commentary also emphasizes that the depiction of violence toward Jesus requires that we recall that the redemption of mankind was achieved “not by the quantity of suffering Jesus endured,” but by his “free choice to undertake it.”

The bishops recommend that pastors and religious educators provide some type of guidance so that the experience of the film will be as rewarding as possible.

“The movie belongs in the realm of cultural and aesthetic entertainment and conveys a strong religious conviction.  It can therefore constitute an occasion for thought-provoking questions about the about the meaning of the person of Jesus and his life and mission, which will require a more catechetical and ecclesial context in order to be adequately embraced,” the statement concludes.

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