The publication of the bishops’ document just before Lent will be followed closely--on Ash Wednesday, in fact--by the release of a controversial movie "The Passion of the Christ," produced and directed by the actor Mel Gibson, in over 2,000 theaters across the United States This may be a coincidence--the bishops do not customarily time their publication dates to film releases--but it is an extraordinary one.
The simultaneous appearance of the document on the Jews and the movie about Christ’s Passion is fortuitous, for the film vividly portrays his suffering and death in the Jewish milieu in which they occurred. The words, the scenes, the atmosphere involving the Jews of Jerusalem constitute emotional and potentially flammable material that could fuel misunderstanding and resentment.
Jewish leaders have already complained that the movie tends to confirm mistaken views of Jewish involvement in the death of Jesus and add new impetus to a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere. Defenders of the film, which has been shown to many religious groups in the United States prior to its official release, insist that it is an accurate if gritty portrayal of Christ’s Passion and death, presented without fear or favor. "The Passion" may thus become one of the most debated, defended and vilified movies in many years.
The film has already given rise to one of the most economical and eloquent movie reviews of all time: "It is as it was." Originally attributed to Pope John Paul II after he had seen "The Passion of the Christ" in the Vatican, the quote was later denied by the pope’s secretary. Clearly, the Vatican does not want to seem to favor a film with such potential for disrupting closer ties between Catholics and Jews. It might be wise for Catholics (and others) who intend to see the movie to be alert to the church’s authentic teaching on the Jews and Christ’s death presented on the accompanying pages before entering the darkness of the movie theater.