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Panel discusses “Passion of the Christ”

Matt Bramanti | Wednesday, March 3, 2004

Less than a week after “The Passion of the Christ” was released nationwide, Notre Dame students and faculty convened for a panel discussion entitled “Why All the Passion?” In a packed DeBartolo auditorium, theology professor Rabbi Michael Signer moderated a panel of Catholic and Jewish faculty members, who discussed the controversial Mel Gibson film.Signer prefaced the discussion by saying the movie should be deeply analyzed. “To have seen the film is far from having come to an understanding of the film,” he said. “We need to come to grips with this powerful cultural force.”Panelists included Father Jerry Neyrey, a theology professor and Jesuit priest; Peter Holland, chairman of the film, television, and theater department; Father John Steele, Morrissey rector and assistant director of campus ministry; Larry Cunningham, acting chairman of the theology department; and Frank Santoni, coordinator of ecumenical activities for campus ministry.Neyrey blasted the film’s gruesome violence as unnecessary and historically inaccurate.”Gibson has sucked all the meaning out of [the Passion],” he said. “This is excess. This is over the top.”He said the film’s focus on physical torture is misguided, and that the real suffering of Jesus was the shame he endured. Neyrey said that in the original Greek text of the Gospels, Jesus was crowned with acanthus, a weed – not with thorns.”The Gospel writer does not see it as a painful imposition upon Jesus,” Neyrey said. “It was mockery.”He also criticized the film’s lack of attention to Jesus’ ministerial life.”Little or nothing is said about imitating Jesus in discipleship,” Neyrey said.Holland said the film was remarkable because of its focus on visual images.”We go to see a film; we don’t go to hear a film,” he said. “One of the primary effects of having the movie in Aramaic and Latin is to make sure we’re just watching.”Holland, who is Jewish, also addressed the controversy surrounding the movie. Some prominent Jewish leaders have denounced the film and its director, saying “The Passion” is meant to inflame sentiment against Jews.”Did I see the film to be anti-Semitic? No,” Holland said. “Do I think the film could be used anti-Semitically? Absolutely. I worry about what power this film will have.”Signer said the film contains inaccurate representations of the high priest and other officials in the Jerusalem temple.”I think the film is anti-Judaic in that it exaggerates the divisions among the Jewish people,” he said. “Caiaphas and those who surround him look like caricatures from Der Strmer,” an anti-Jewish newspaper in Nazi Germany that gained notoriety for its cartoons of Jews.”Gibson continues to testify that he is not an anti-Semite,” Signer said. “As a Jew witnessing that film, I think his actions and his pictures speak louder than his words.”Cunningham said the concerns about anti-Semitism are overblown.”In this country, this film is not going to trigger anti-Semitism, except in those people who are predisposed to be anti-Semitic,” he said. “But [Gibson] certainly deals out some stereotypes.”Cunningham warned that the movie should not be taken as the definitive version of the Passion narrative.”This is one way of understanding the Passion, but it’s not the only way,” he said. “There are many different ways.”Steele said the film’s perspective springs from Gibson’s practice of Catholicism. “What we know about Mel is that he’s a Tridentine Catholic,” he said. “The primary theology of the Tridentine Mass is that it’s a sacrifice.”Gibson is a member of the conservative Tridentine branch of Catholicism. Followers still attend Mass in Latin and reject the reforms instituted in the 1960s by the Second Vatican Council.Steele said that by having the Roman characters speak Latin rather than Greek, Gibson is taking subtle jabs at the modern Catholic Church.”It should have been in Greek and Aramaic, but he’s engaging in an argument between Tridentine Catholics and the rest of us,” Steele said.Santoni said Catholics should intelligently discuss the movie, rather than letting it speak for itself. “It’s a great conversation starter, but make sure it’s just that,” he said. “It’s just the beginning. It is our responsibility to continue the conversation.”