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Boy, Was I Wrong About “The Passion of the Christ”

Boy Was I Wrong About The Passion of the Christ ICON FILMS


Mark Shea - published on 04/11/14

And I’m glad I was, because it kept my family from starving and living in our car.

On Palm Sunday night, April 13, the UP-TV network will air the commercial television debut of The Passion of the Christ to mark the 10-year anniversary of the historic film’s theatrical release.

The debut brings back memories of a fascinating time both in the cultural history of the Church, but also for me personally since I was, due to my work in Catholic media, perpetually two degrees of separation from the film and a number of the personalities involved, as well as very interested in the impact of the film on the larger culture.

In 2004, I was working as a writer for  We were a sputtering website in those days, having launched in the late 90s at the height of the dotcom boom, we had experienced the bursting of the dotcom bubble with as much trauma as anybody.  Our staff had been cut down from 60something to almost nothing.  I was one of the few survivors, mainly because I was creating a huge amount of the content.

CE hired a new president, Tom Allen, who set about reviving our fortunes.  One of the things Tom was involved with outside CE was this strange new project that (to be honest) I assumed had no future: a film in dead languages focusing entirely on the Passion of Jesus Christ.  The only thing that gave me pause about the certainty of its doom was the director:  Mel Gibson, who was a box office powerhouse.  But even then I didn’t pause much because, come on: an entire script in Latin and Hebrew about a man being tortured to death? Even Gibson had joked somewhere that he thought he had succeeded in creating the ultimate anti-date movie: too violent for women and too religious for men.

Tom was brought on board by Gibson to help find investors for the film (you can see his name close to the end of the credits).  To be brief, he succeeded.  So periodically I would hear from him how the film was going.  Tom wasn’t present at the shoot, but he spent a lot of time in Gibson’s office working on budget stuff. That was one of my two-degrees-of-separation connections.

In addition, as a Catholic media type, I had lots of friends who–throughout 2003–would periodically email me to excitedly announce that they had been invited to a private screening of a rough cut of the film.  As time went on, it got to be a joke and it felt like everybody–including my barber and the guy who always offers to put pepper on your Caesar salad (what’s up with that anyway?)–had been invited to their own personal showing of the film, with Gibson serving popcorn to all, tucking them in, and then doing their dishes before quietly leaving their house that night.

Not that I was envious of them and their stupid luck or anything.

At any rate, as 2003 moved into 2004 and the launch of the film in February approached, Tom was contacted by Matt Pinto at Ascension Press with an idea for a book called A Guide to the Passion: 100 Questions About The Passion of the Christ.  The idea was for Ascension and CE to jointly create and publish a short companion to the film, partly to help viewers understand the story and its meaning from a Catholic perspective, and partly to help people with no familiarity with the gospel, yet who found themselves attracted to Jesus, have some idea what to do next.

Tom was intrigued by the idea.  As he drove around his home town of San Diego, he thought, "Every Baptist and his brother is going to have some evangelistic outreach coordinated with the release of the film.  What are we Catholics doing?  Well, nothing.  We’re Catholics.  We don’t evangelize."

This struck Tom as a massive wasted opportunity, so he went to Gibson with the idea and Gibson gave it his blessing.  Tom drafted a pile of questions and answers in January 2004 and then started recruiting a couple of other people on the project.  Matt Pinto created some questions and answers, and Drs. Marcellino D’Ambrosio and Paul Thigpen made contributions as well.

So it was that on a Friday evening two weeks before the launch of the film I was just about to log off from work when an email landed in my inbox from Tom.  It was the draft of A Guide to the Passion.  Attached was a note asking me to look it over and polish it up, add some Q & A of my own (particularly regarding the biblical background of the story), add a section on arguments for the deity of Jesus, and have it back to Tom by Monday.

Two thoughts crossed my mind:

1. Who is going to see this movie?  A film in dead languages focusing entirely on the brutal torture and gruesome death of Jesus.  Who in our culture would care about a film full of Catholic and Marian imagery I presumed would be opaque and off-putting to Protestants and secularists?  My assumption was that this film would wind up in a few art houses where nobody would go see it: a sort of relic or curio of a fine filmmaker’s private interest in Catholic matters.

2. Who, therefore, is going to read this book?  Basically nobody, thought I.

But duty is duty and Tom was my boss.  So if he wanted to spend his time on this boutique project that nobody was going to care about, it was not my business to tell him his business.  It was my business to make the book a good one.  So I plowed through the project on Saturday, greatly assisted by the fact that I had already written arguments for the deity of Jesus in another book and so could just copy that material and adapt it.  It is, after all, not plagiarism when you steal from yourself.

My first hint that I might not be the infallible judge of pop culture came a week or so later when I discovered, to my astonishment, that A Guide to the Passion pre-orders had already soared to unthinkable-for-Catholic-publishing heights of 75,000 copies.  That’s pretty respectable even for secular books.  And it already amounted to the biggest project I had been (and have ever been) involved in.  Eventually, the book sold over a million copies and went to #6 on the New York Times bestseller list.  It also, by the way, saved Catholic Exchange’s financial bacon for a couple of years and kept our family from starving and living in our car.  I love being wrong all the time.

Meanwhile, the release of the film was both culturally and financially explosive.  Counter to everything I expected (as a Catholic more or less used to being told by both secular and Evangelical American authorities that America is not really all that into Catholic stuff), the film shot to the top of the box office and pulled in so much money that it is now the seventh grossing film of all time.  Moral:  I’m s
tupid.  Don’t listen to me about what movies will be a hit.

The film itself generated enormous controversy, of course, hitting all kinds of cultural and aesthetic buttons.  Some of this was due to the sheer violence of the film, some of it was due to the (I think unfair) charge of anti-semitism against it.  And a lot of it was due to the fact that many people simply had no background for seeing the very clear theology inherent in it.  In many ways, it was Mel Gibson’s meditation on the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary and the Stations of the Cross.  It was marinated in imagery that, to a Catholic, was as clear and beautiful as (to a non-Catholic) it was opaque and mysterious.

For instance, I remember reading one critic remarking the Gibson had apparently randomly inserted peaceful moments from earlier in the life of Christ into the narrative, simply to give the viewer a reprieve from the violence. But in fact, every frame of that film is there for a theological and artistic reason.  So, for instance, as Jesus arrives at Golgotha, we suddenly cut to the Last Supper and Jesus unwrapping the cloth holding the bread he will consecrate as the first Eucharist.  The scene then cuts back to Jesus being stripped of his clothes.  He is nailed to the cross–and as he is lifted up on it the scene cuts back to Jesus at the Last Supper elevating the bread, giving thanks, and saying "This is my body".  In short, Gibson is using a cinematic vocabulary, here and throughout the film, to say what Catholics say in every Mass.  For the same reason, he shows Mary–Jesus’ greatest disciple–kiss the bloody feet of Jesus and come away with the Precious Blood on her lips: it’s the filmic way of saying "This is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant."

The gospels have been described by one 19th century German theologian as "passion narratives with long introductions".  The good news that Christians had to tell–indeed the only news they had to tell–was not that that Jesus was a moralist, or a miracle worker, or prolife, or told some nifty stories.  It was that he was God incarnate who had suffered and died for our sins and then been raised to life on the third day, now to rule and reign over the universe till the last enemy, death, was put under his feet and he returned on the Last Day to judge the living and the dead.  All the stories, saying, parables, and miracles in the gospels are just commentary on and preparation for that.  Everything the Church has ever done since then has looked back to that 72 hour period in the life of its Hero.  Gibson’s daring choice (in a culture as theologically illiterate as ours) was to confront modernity with the Passion Narrative with no introduction and as little supporting material from the rest of the gospels as he could.  To let the shocking story of Christ Jesus scourged, crowned with thorns, crucified and risen speak for itself with the enormous crushing power it still retains.

The result seems to have paid off.  Jesus still confronts us with the challenge "Who do you say I am?" after 2000 years. And thanks to this great film’s debut on television, a wider audience than ever will experience the power of that challenge.

Mark P. Sheais the author of several books, including By What Authority: An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition (Ignatius) and Salt and Light: The Commandments, the Beatitudes, and a Joyful Life (Franciscan Media). He blogs prolifically at Catholic and Enjoying It!.

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