The Passion of the Christ

The Very Rev. David M. O'Connell
President, The Catholic University of America
Wednesday, February 25, 2004; 11:00 AM

"The Passion of the Christ" opens nationwide on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 25. In the film, director Mel Gibson traces the final 12 hours in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, graphically depicting the beatings he received for blasphemy and ultimately his crucifixion. The film is rated R for "sequences of graphic violence" and has been criticized for being anti-Semitic.

"Despite the criticisms raised in some corners, Mel Gibson's 'The Passion of the Christ' has put Jesus of Nazareth front and center in the minds of a culture that seems to run counter to everything Jesus represents," said The Very Rev. David M. O'Connell in an interview with washingtonpost.com.

O'Connell, president of The Catholic University of America, was online Wednesday, Feb. 25 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his impressions of the film and the controversy surrounding it.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


washingtonpost.com: Father O'Connell, thank you for being with us today, Ash Wednesday. It's also the opening day for "The Passion of the Christ." You've seen the movie. Is it appropriate for the film to open this religious holiday? Is it mixing commerce with religion?

Father David M. O'Connell: It is obviously intentional. But Ash Wednesday is not really a religious "holiday" ... it is a liturgical commemoration that begins the season of lent, a time when we focus on our own sinfulness and on Christ's redeeming sacrifice. In that respect, putting "the passion" of Christ before our minds seems rather appropriate.


Washington, D.C.: Fr. O'Connell, do you fear that this film's aggressive marketing and merchandizing campaign (the sale of sermons and replica crucifixion nails) will alienate non-Christians and create negative blowback for christians, evangelicals in particular?

Father David M. O'Connell: One of the first things we need to keep in mind, with all the hype, is that this is "a movie." And while it is, at least as Gibson relates, a movie with a purpose and a message, it still takes advantage of all the elements that movies employ to draw an audience. I do not fear a negative backlash, once people actually have the chance to view the film.


Washington, D.C.: Related to this movie, do you know if Mel Gibson is a Catholic? In this regard, I understand that he helped fund and build, and now attends, a church in California that is not associated with or recognized by any Catholic diocese. I also understand that mass at this church is conducted in Latin and in a fashion that does not recognize the changes proscribed by Vatican II. Is someone who practices his or her faith in this fashion still considered to be a Catholic?

Father David M. O'Connell: Gibson identifies himself as a Roman Catholic. He does, as some Catholics do, further describe as a traditionalist. While he has a preference for the pre-Vatican II, Latin Mass, he has not severed his ties with the Roman Catholic Church or its official teaching office. The Church does permit the use of the pre-Vatican II or "Tridentine" form of the Mass.


Harrisburg, Pa.: As this movie is in the Aramic language that was spoken during the worldly life of Christ, do you find this adds to the attempt of authenticity (realizing no portrayal will be totally accurate), does this detract from the viewer's appreciation of the film, or do you find the story so universal that it does not make much of a difference?

Father David M. O'Connell: It depends upon the viewer. "Subtitles" do not bother or distract me. And even when I am completely unfamiliar with a language, a story can capture my attention. I find this to be the case in viewing/hearing opera. Most people today are familiar with the story of Jesus, enough that the language does not really make much difference.


Alexandria, Va.: Seeing that Mel Gibson has stated that the bible is a "literal history" publicly, would you agree with that statement?

Father David M. O'Connell: No, I do not. I find it hard to justify a purely literal interpretation of scriptural texts. There has been enough scholarship done in the study of the bible and its linguistic and textual presentation to argue against a simply literal interpretation. Our biblical scholars here at The Catholic University of America would support that assertion, I am sure.


Clinton, Md.: Hi Father, Do you think Judus, Pilate, the Sanheddrin and Roman soldiers had free choice and will? I am a cradle Catholic and I remember since my days in CCD that I was taught that Jesus went willing to the cross and it was the will of God.

Father David M. O'Connell: Good morning. Thanks for your question. I do believe that all human beings are gifted and graced with free will. That is what enables us to decide to choose the good and avoid evil when presented with that choice in life. Free will is one of the things that distinguishes human beings from animals and other forms of life.


Bethesda, Md.: We are told repeatedly that Mr. Gibson's film is not anti-Semitic. The answer to the question "who killed Christ?" is: We all did -- all of humanity. My question: How is that message conveyed IN THE MOVIE?
That is, how are complex theological ideas like "substitutionary atonement" explained in a movie that has almost no dialogue?

Father David M. O'Connell: It is less important, in my mind, that a movie convey the notion you describe than that the Church and its thoughtful, careful preaching and teaching present and explain it. That having been said, the scriptural texts themselves, studied and examined over the years, make it pretty clear that "through Adams's sin, all have died" and that through the sacrifice of the new Adam --- Jesus --- all have access to redemption.


Washington, D.C.: Perhaps this is a small point, but I'd appreciate your explanation of why Christ is referred to as "the" Christ.


Father David M. O'Connell: Jesus is popularly referred to as "Jesus Christ" as though that were his last name. Christ is a "title" that in Greek and other scriptural languages is rendered with the descriptor "the." "Christos" in Greek is translated "the Annointed" ... a reference to his messiahship. Another example from history, "Alexander the Great," etc.


Washington, D.C.: Father -- a little bit off topic, perhaps, but in an earlier answer you said in part:

"The Church does permit the use of the pre-Vatican II or "Tridentine" form of the Mass."

Could my local parish here in the D.C. suburbs switch over fully to the Tridentine Mass without any objection from the Archdiocese?

Father David M. O'Connell: I did answer that question earlier. The Church does permit the use of the "Tridentine" form of the Mass and makes an "indult" or permission accessible to those priest celebrants who earnestly and in good faith request it.


Wheaton, Md.: Father, Newsweek recently published an article describing the deviations of the movie from Church teaching and historical reality. Do you agree with Newsweek's assessment?

Father David M. O'Connell: I haven't read the Newsweek article. But having seen the movie, I can understand the comment to which you refer. The movie is not Church teaching, however, nor is it a specifically historical presentation. It is based upon the scriptures and the visions of a 19th century German mystic who saw the crucifixion in all its gruesome reality.


Silver Spring, Md.: Sir, I know it is "a movie," you know it is "a movie," but guess what -- the people seeing it take it as "THE TRUTH." I have heard on television many say, "that is how it was." It amazes me, but this "movie" is being taken as if magically a video camera was transported back 2000 years! Therein lies one grave danger of this "movie."

Father David M. O'Connell: That is always going to be the danger of any movie, any TV show, any novel (e.g., the Da Vinci Code) ... some people accept whatever they see or read as truth. That's why we have Churches and sermons and catechetics and schools and universities and life-long learning programs: to help people seek and find truth.


Kansas City, Mo.: Father O'Connell, did you find that this movie fully "captured" the essence of Christ even though (from my understanding) it doesn't show his nature in relating to people much prior to the Christ? And given that do you find this movie to be a good witnessing tool?

Father David M. O'Connell: One criticism I have about the movie is that "it begins at the end." Although it intentionally presents the last 12 hours of Jesus' life, the viewer never really gets to know (and love/admire) the main character. We are almost immediately confronted with the brutal reality of his betrayal and torturous death. One's immediate reaction is pity and horror at the scenes portrayed. I don't think any movie could fully capture the "essence" of Christ. We encounter him in faith and that is where both his existence and essence touch our hearts and minds and move us "to follow him."


Fairfax, Va.: Good morning, Father. Thank you for joining us. Earlier in this discussion, you said we shouldn't worry about "The Passion" creating "blowback" because it is, after all, "just a movie." For centuries, medieval passion plays led to all sorts of violence, usually against Jews, and they were just, well, theatrical performances.
Why do you believe a movie could not be so combustible, given the fact those plays clearly were?

Father David M. O'Connell: I would hope that human society has come a long way since medieval times. However, as the scholastic maxim cautions, "whatever is received is received according to the mode of the one receiving it." If there is hatred already in someone's heart, it may not take much to trigger it.


Laurel, Md.: My son's youth ministry group is planning to see the movie next week, but I am concerned about the extreme violence depicted upon our Lord. He is 15 years old and somewhat sensitive. Is it a good idea for him to view the film?

Father David M. O'Connell: It is a brutal movie to watch. I presume the youth ministry group has leadership that will give the context for the film beforehand and that will keep an eye on the group as they watch it in the case that it is upsetting to any of the youngsters.


Front Royal, Va.: What one thing would you like to see come from this movie being seen by millions of people around the world?

Father David M. O'Connell: That the sufferings of Jesus were real, that his sacrifice was deep and comprehensive, that his agony and death were born out of love for humankind and that they offer us all a chance at redemption by joining our own sufferings to his one, perfect sacrifice.


Washington, D.C.: Has the Catholic Church taken an official stance on the movie?

Father David M. O'Connell: Not to my knowledge.


Laurel, Md.: Father O'Connell,

Have you actually seen the movie? Would you recommend it?

Father David M. O'Connell: I did see it. And I do think it is worth seeing but the audience should be appropriate and prepared for its graphic brutality. The movie's stated intention is to strip away the artistic and antiseptic portrayals of Jesus' crucifixion in order to give the audience a chance to understand its horrific reality.


Suffolk, Va.: Can you tell us more about "the visions of a 19th century German mystic who saw the crucifixion in all its gruesome reality"? I'm not familiar with what that is.

Father David M. O'Connell: There is a good description of the visions of Venerable Anna Catherine Emmerich in today's "Style" section of the Post. You may want to search her out by name using the internet for some fuller information. I first became familiar with her as a young seminarian when I encountered a Shrine in Bucks County named for her. It was sponsored by a traditionalist Catholic group. I did some reading about her and Gibson obviously relies on her for many of his "details."


Silver Spring, Md.: To follow up, Gibson presents his movie as "the truth." So I ask you -- do YOU accept the movie as "the truth?" Is that what you will be telling your congregants Sunday, or in study sessions, or in conversation?

Father David M. O'Connell: I accept Jesus (the) Christ as the Truth and that's what I'll tell anyone who asks. If the movie leads to a deeper search for the truth, it will have served a good and worthwhile purpose. My role as a priest, a preacher, however, is not to sell movie tickets. It is to "preach Jesus and him crucified" and "risen from the dead."


Washington, D.C.: Why do you think that there is so much of an uproar that this movie, funded mostly out of Mel Gibson's own pocket, might have a trace of anti-Semitism when there are so many blatantly anti-Catholic movies promoted by the movie industry (e.g., Dogma, Stigmata)?

Father David M. O'Connell: That's a hard one to answer. In my own memory, I don't recall so much attention given to other films that portray even "more" of the story of Jesus than this one. The reasons elude me. Gibson and his conservatism may, in fact, be somewhat of a lightning rod for some.


washingtonpost.com: Less Than The Gospel Truth (Post, Feb. 25)


Alexandria, Va.: People have described Mel Gibson as a traditionalist Catholic who does not accept Vatican II.

How can one be a traditionalist Catholic and not accept the authority of the Pope on religious doctrine? Is not such a person an anti-traditionalist?

Father David M. O'Connell: I don't know that your characterization is entirely accurate.


Silver Spring, Md.: Thank you for addressing these issue head-on, Father. Are you hopeful that the media attention to the Passion will bring about open, honest, and respectful dialogue between Christians and other religions? I am not referring to "I say... Your say", but sincere DIALOGUE? Are you aware of any such public discussions in the local area?
Thank you.

Father David M. O'Connell: I am not aware of any public discussions but there are certainly many private conversations going on. If such dialogue does occur on a wider scale, that would be a good thing.


Washington, D.C.: Do you think that the Christian message is something that can be successfully transmitted over film media?

Father David M. O'Connell: It can be a help but it can't do the whole job. It can also be a hindrance.


Alexandria, Va.: If Jesus was born a Jew when did he become Catholic?

Father David M. O'Connell: Jesus lived and died and rose from the dead, a member of the Jewish religion.


Father David M. O'Connell: I have to leave for 12:15 Mass here at Catholic University. Thank you very much for your questions. I will remember you in my prayers today. I hope that God may touch your hearts and open them to his wisdom and love.


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