Inside the Vatican's "Man of the Year": Mel Gibson


Inside the Vatican magazine has chosen Mel Gibson as its "Man of the Year" for 2003


VATICAN CITY, January 16, 2004 -- Mel Gibson, director of the controversial film "The Passion of the Christ" which will open in theaters on February 25, has been chosen as Inside the Vatican's "Man of the Year" for 2003, the magazine's editor, Robert Moynihan, said today.

"Some may raise their eyebrows at the choice of Mel Gibson as our 2003 Man of the Year," Moynihan said. "Our choice is not a canonization; we are not proclaiming Mr. Gibson 'St. Mel'. We live in an age of information and imagery — an age when the media has unprecedented influence, and an age when film is perhaps the medium 'par excellence' for disseminating ideas, for teaching and preaching. In such an age, a man who decides, as Mr. Gibson decided in 2002, to take a large chunk of his personal fortune and risk his entire professional career on a film about Jesus Christ, is a rarity.

"And, in such an age, when such a man decides to make such a film, not in order to present an imaginary Christ, but to present a Christ in accordance with the Gospels, such a man is engaged in 'evangelization' in the literal sense of the word: he is spreading the Gospel truth about Jesus.

"And when such a man perseveres despite enormous criticism and repeated attacks against his motives and his character, he becomes admirable.

"And when such a film becomes — as those who have seen it have testified — the most moving film of its genre ever made, we sense we are in the presence of something truly extraordinary.

"In our secular age, the commitment made by Mr. Gibson during 2003 to complete his film, 'The Passion of The Christ' — to paint, as it were, his own 'Sistine Chapel' in cinematic form — bears witness to something that transcends Mel Gibson himself.

"And it is that 'something transcendent' which we honor in naming Mel Gibson our 'Man of the Year.'"

The magazine named nine other people among its "Top 10" people of 2003:

(2) the Holy See’s chief spokesman on behalf of the family: Cardinal Alfonso Lopez-Trujillo

(3) a widow from Guatemala: Rosalina Tuyuc, representive of all who lost loved ones during the civil wars of the past century

(4) a Benedictine nun who was the first woman to kiss Elvis Presley on screen and gave up her film career for love of Christ: Mother Dolores Hart

(5) an Italian professor who has dedicated his life to making peace: Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Sant'Egidio Community

(6) a Catholic Palestinian who stands firm against terrorism but calls equally firmly for justice: Michel Sabbah, the Latin-rite Patriarch of Jerusalem

(7) a Russian Orthodox bishop who is laboring to help Europe remember its Christian identity: Hilarion Alfeyev

(8) an American bishop who has defended family farmers and called on Catholic politicians to be coherent: Raymond Burke, new archbishop of St. Louis, Missouri (USA)

(9) a British Catholic medievalist who died half a century ago, but whose Christian allegory of the triumph of good over evil, "The Lord of the Rings," returned in 2003 as a magical film: J.R.R. Tolkien

(10) The entire order founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta: the Missionaries of Charity, because in their faces Mother Teresa lives on.

"We chose the Missionaries of Charity collectively at #10... knowing 'the last shall be first,' " Moynihan said, adding: "Sorry, Mel..."

The January issue of "Inside the Vatican" includes a 30-page dossier on all aspects of the controversy over Mel Gibson's film.

Understanding the Passion of the Christ



1) What was the meaning of the evil baby that Satan was holding?

That image of Satan holding an ugly child is an anti-Madonna image.  The child represents the future persecutions of the body of Christ, the Church.  The child is ugly because evil is a deformation of good.  The child is stroking the face of Satan because evil perverts what is good.  The stroking symbolizes the love of evil, much like a child would love its mother, but in a perverted way.


Remember this image happens when Jesus is being scourged.  His body is being wounded.  His body is being persecuted.  It is an image used by Mel Gibson to show Satan flaunting his future plan of persecution of the Church in the face of the sacrifice of the Lord.

2) Why is this movie so violent?

The violence you see Jim Caviezel endures as Jesus is really a reflection of the violence that sin does to our souls.  Violence is the  effect of sin on our souls.  It destroys and disfigures us.  It maims us.  It makes us look inhuman, ugly and hideous before the Father. The violence  also represents the price of our redemption.  Since Jesus took on our sin, He was made sin for us according to St. Paul, He took on the punishment of that sin.  ["For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know  sin,
so that we might become the righteousness of God in him." 2 Corinthians 5:21]  This is the purpose of the violence in the film, to get people to realize the price that is paid by the body of Christ when people commit sin and the price paid by the Savior to set us free.

3) There was a discussion about the Agony in the Garden scene.

Fr. Sean brought up the idea that the reason Jesus suffered in the Garden was because that is the moment He took on sin for us.  St. Paul says that God the Father made Jesus "to be sin."  This is the moment when it happens in the Garden.  Since Jesus is the Son of God and God is pure love, taking on the sin of the world, yours and mine, the sin of a Hitler, a Stalin, a Genghis Kahn, etc., was an excruciating experience for Him.   At that moment, pure Love was forced to coexist with the evil effect of sin in the agony Jesus experienced in the Garden of Gethsemane.

4) In the Garden of Gethsemane, what is the snake a reference to?

Genesis 3:15 - "And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel."  Notice that Jesus suffers immensely while Satan adds to His burden but then Jesus makes a decision to do the Father's will and with that resolve he stomps on the snake to kill it.

5) There are plenty of Mass references in this picture.

When Jesus is being stripped, the movie flashes back to the Last Supper when the bread is brought to the table and uncovered.  When Jesus is being elevated on the cross after being nailed to it, we see a flashback to the Last Supper when Jesus raises the bread and says, This is my body...  The apostle John is shown as the one who remembers these flashbacks and who makes the connection between the Bread of Life on the cross and the Breaking of the Bread at the Last Supper.

6) When is the first time we see Mary?

Just as Jesus is arrested and put into chains.  She wakes up saying "Why is this night different than any other?"  And Mary Magdalene responds that this is the night that they were set free from slavery.  Where do these lines come from?   They are the words that the youngest says to the oldest at a Jewish Passover/Seder supper ritual.  In this case, the oldest was saying them to the youngest because this was THE night that would set in motion the plan of salvation to set us free from sin.   The new Passover had begun with Jesus as the Lamb.  Maia Morgenstern, a Jewess herself, had the idea to use these lines in the scene and when she explained them  to Mel, he agreed they had to be included in the picture to tie everything together.

7) When is the first time we see a maggot?

In the Garden of Gethsemane when you see one crawling in and out of the nostril of Satan.  It is a very quick scene.  When do we see a maggot again?  When Judas finds himself sitting next to a maggot infested mule.  The maggot represents death and corruption.

8) In this picture Pontius Pilate was portrayed sympathetically.  Why so?

Mel wanted him to represent the struggle of every man when faced with moral choices.  It was obvious to Pilate that Jesus was an innocent man.  It was obvious to Pilate that Barabbas was corrupt.  (It was no accident that his makeup made Barabbas look even more evil and deranged.)  To Pilate the right choice was obvious but he did not make it because of his  own fears and the pressure from an unruly crowd he wanted to appease.  Mel's message was that every time we choose sin, the choice is always obvious like the choice between Barabbas and Jesus.   Of course there are times when the temptation that approaches us is very beautiful in appearance, but down deep inside, we know what the choice should be and very often we do exactly what Pilate did and afterwards try to wash our hands to relieve our guilt.

9) Why was there a scene when Jesus falls over the bridge only to find Judas at the bottom?

Judas has just denied Jesus in the Garden.  At this moment, Judas represents every man who when faced with the truth denies it.  In this scene, he represents every man who runs away from the truth and Mel Gibson wanted to remind the audience that you cannot run away and hide from the truth because the truth will always find you.  In this case, Jesus has been arrested, is beaten and falls from the bridge while hanging in chains right in front of Judas.   The Truth found Judas even though he had denied Him and tried to hide from Him.

10) Notice that in the picture whenever Satan is shown, he is always in the background moving behind the scenes.

Notice he is always in the background whenever there is intensity and anger in the foreground directed towards Jesus.  This is symbolic of his actions motivating the aggression and intensity of persecution against the Body of Christ, the Church, and also is symbolic of his responsibility behind all evil motivations.

11) When Jesus is before Pilate, He notices a dove in the sky above Him.

It represents a reminder of the vertical dimension, the relationship between man and God.  We as human beings are often caught up in the horizontal dimension (relationships with men and worldly affairs) and forget there is a vertical dimension.  The vertical dimension represents the spiritual life, the relationship of a soul with the Father.  The vertical dimension is what is more important and the dove is a reminder to Jesus that the vertical dimension is in control despite the appearance of the situation.

12) Why do Mary and Mary Magdalene clean up the blood on the cobble stones after Jesus is scourged?

It is because it is Jewish tradition to save the blood.  Life is in  the blood.  Blood had to be collected.  This is also representative of the cleaning of the vessels at Mass when a priest is done with the consecration and giving out the Eucharist.   The blood was precious and Jesus' blood particularly is precious.  Notice that they also collected the instruments that made Him bleed at the very end of the film when you see the crown of thorns, the nails and the hammer at the foot of the cross as they take down the body of Jesus.

13) There is a scene at the crucifixion where Mary Magdalene is the only one who sees a miracle happen.

It is a very quick scene and it happens when she is on her knees (notice that the only ones on their knees are Mary, John and the Magdalene at the crucifixion).  Jesus has been nailed to the cross and the Romans are turning it over.  You expect Jesus to smash His face into the ground  when the cross falls over but it does not happen.  Instead what you see is the Magdalene looking up to see that the cross is floating above the ground.  She is the only one to see that Jesus is floating a few inches above the ground the entire time that they are hammering the nails on the back of the cross to secure them.  It is a representation of God still in control of the whole crucifixion process.

14) Every time that Jesus meets His mother Mary along His Passion He is strengthened and has new resolve.

This is especially noticeable after Jesus is scourged the first time.  The Romans have beat him over 70 times and He has collapsed.  He sees Mary and finds the strength to stand up much to the dismay and surprise of the Roman soldiers who then decide to use a more vicious whip with metal tips.

This scene represents the idea that Mary is living proof to Jesus that the sacrifice He is about to make for mankind is not in vain.  The film shows that Jesus comes to a decision to continue on the path to Calvary each time they look at each other.   Some say it reinforces the idea of Mary as co-redemptrix.

15) Simon of Cyrene

Represents every man who is faced with the cross and does not want to carry it.  He also represents those who do not want to help others carry their crosses.  Yet, in this film he also represents the person who is forced to carry the cross and then becomes so engaged with Christ that he wants a deeper relationship with Him.   The arms of Jesus and Simon the Cyrene are intertwined as they carry the cross together and that image represents the efforts of each soul carrying its cross with the help of the Savior.

That final look that Simon gives Jesus after he has finished helping Him, represents the longing of every soul to have a deeper relationship with the Lord after coming face to face with Him.   It was through carrying the cross that Simon came to have a desire to have an intimate relationship with Jesus much like that of the soul who longs to know Christ better in the midst of suffering.

16) Notice in the Garden of Gethsemane scene when Judas denies Jesus that the Lord never takes His eyes off of him when he denies Him.


The Lord never takes His eyes off of Judas even when Judas runs away.  That is representative of the Lord's own relationship with us.  Jesus never takes His eyes off of us when we deny Him or turn away from Him.

Inside the Vatican Sees Gibson's Film


The power and the glory of Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ"


ROME, February 15, 2004 -- I received a phone call from my colleague, Delia Gallagher, at about noontime yesterday: "They are screening Mel Gibson's film at Cinecitta this afternoon, and we're invited."  We took the metro from "Ottaviano", near the Vatican, to Cinecitta, Rome's "Hollywood"; it's a straight shot, no changes. We stood in front of the entrance, bought a sandwich and a candy bar at a kiosk. A cold February wind blew.

Father Thomas Williams, an American priest and Dean of Theology for the Legionary of Christ seminary in Rome, came up out of the metro with two other Americans in tow. We greeted each other and walked into Cinecitta ("Cinema City").  Vittorio Messori, arguably Italy's leading Catholic journalist, was there to view the film and write a review for Italy's leading daily, Corriere della Sera.  Father Augustine Di Noia, an American official at the Vatican's chief doctrinal office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was there.  And so was the wife of Judas... the wife of the Italian actor who plays Judas in the film. There were about 12 of us in all in the screening room.

"The film arrived this morning from America," Father Williams said. "This is the first showing in Italy, and one of the first showings in the world, of the final edited version. It's film now, not digital. What we will see is the film which will open in America in 10 days."  The lights dimmed. The film began.

I wept.

I wept for the implacable inevitability of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, the ruin of his body, which, yes, is presented as the temple of God, but which reminded me of my own body, of my sons' bodies -- how many times I have bandaged their little, and not-so-little, cuts! -- of the bodies of soldiers and civilians being blown apart in Iraq... and in Israel... of the bodies of millions in the past century... of the bodies of those who suffered and died in the concentration camps...

It is a violent film.

So violent that I wanted to turn away.

So violent that I wanted to say, "Mel, you went too far..."

But it is a violent world.

It is a violent world where the dignity of human beings is violated and ground down in a way that all of us see, and most of us grow accustomed to, though we ought not to...

The overwhelming sense I took from Gibson's film was of man's senseless brutality toward man.

Toward this one man.

Toward this carpenter from Nazareth, this Jesus.

Toward all men.

This film is a brutal depiction of brutal behavior which asks all of us -- Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, all of us -- to cease such behavior, because it is cruel, because it is heartless, because it is against God's will for us not to have hearts...

In this sense, the film is not and cannot be anti-Semitic. 

There is no subtitle in the film in which the Jewish high priest, Caiaphas, or anyone else, says "Let his blood be upon us and upon our children."


Mary, the mother of Jesus, is splendid.   It is her sorrow that made me weep.  She reminded me of my wife, watching over our sons.  She reminded me of all mothers, who see their sons falling out of their hands into the hands of the world, the hands of men.  Her face is iconic, almost expressionless.  Her face is the most expressive I have ever seen.  She stares into the camera, into our own eyes, and her sorrow for her son fills us with sorrow.

But there is something else. She is... not serene, serentiy would be too strong a word. She is... not accepting, no not exactly accepting, she is not "accepting" her son's brutal beating and crucifixion. She is partaking... sharing... "co-bearing." Perhaps that's the best word: she is bearing together with Jesus, her son, every blow, every humiliation.

It is extraordinary to see, perhaps the most extraordinary thing in the movie.

The Devil.

A face appears. Who is that? We don't know. It seems a person, some character not named. Expressionless. Wait... is that evil in the expression? Or am I mistaken... No, there is no expression, no flicker of eyes or tensing of lips, no expression at all. So there is no evil, nothing sinister. It's okay. Then, sudenly... through the mists in the garden of Gethsemane, this haunting, haunted face begins to tempt and accuse Jesus, and so we realize it IS the devil. A shiver of recognition.  The devil has no horns, but is horrific.  No actions... but is the motive force of pure evil behind all the acts of cruelty that spill out onto the screen, into our faces.

A brilliant performance.

During the struggle in the garden to arrest Jesus, his eye is struck. From that moment until the end of the film -- except in flashbacks -- one eye is black and shut.

I hated that. I wanted to see his whole face more, both his eyes. I think: "I wish Mel had waited until the middle of the film to strike Jesus' eye..."   And then I think: "What a foolish thing to wish..."

In this final version of the film, there are a couple of "flashbacks" added that were not in previous versions.   That's good.

I wanted more flashbacks.  During the scourging, I longed for a flashback, anything to bring us back to a time when things were good, when Jesus was living with his parents, or when he was preaching.   But Mel has decided to leave us only a couple of glimpses of those happier times.  And one such moment, when Jesus splashes water on his mother, then gives her a kiss, is the happiest moment in the film.


In some earlier screenings, there was no music at all. In some, the musical score was still provisonal.   In this final version, it is powerful, at times hypnotic, riveting.   The intermixture of choral and instrumental is at times majestic.

Once, i wanted to stop my ears, as Jesus falls on the Via Dolorosa, and the whips of the soldiers lash him, and the music comes out in a staccato, like machine guns, like monkeys pounding coconuts on tree-trunks in the jungle.  I wanted it all to stop...

The languages.

The use of Latin -- yes, I could understand the Latin dialogue, or at least a bit of it -- and of Aramaic, distinguishes this film from all previous films about Jesus.   I thought it worked.

In fact, it began to seem so natural to me that 2,000 years seemed to condense, like an accordian, and Jerusalem of the time of Christ began to seem a bit like Rome today, or New York, or Moscow. It didn't seem so far.

It is said that people who speak Arabic and Hebrew may be able to follow some of the Aramaic dialogue (indeed, some believe the film may have an unexpected impact among Jews and Muslims precisely for this reason); I could not.  But I thought it was brilliantly done. Others may find errors in pronunciation or vocabulary, but for me it was convincing, and powerful.   This was a choice Gibson made and stuck to against all sorts of criticism ("the film will be a flop if you do it in Latin and Aramaic; are you crazy?"). I think he was right; it is one of the most extraordinary and powerful aspects of this film.


Before the film began, the Italian producer, who was also present at our screening, said that, though he was a Catholic, he had never really understood the Catholic Mass until he saw this film.

There is no doubt that there is a "eucharistic" dimension to this film, which makes it more profoundly "religious" or Christian -- but also Jewish, as I will explain in a minute -- than any other film about Christ's passion.   Gibson accomplishes this by setting the moment of the raiaing of the cross, the moment of the crucifixion, in which the body of Jesus is finally broken, against a flashback in which he is about the break the bread at the Last Supper, which was a Passover seder. The meaning is clear: the bread broken at the Passover meal, which Jesus says "is my body" is the body which is being crucified.

This is of course the central action of every Catholic Mass -- the Last Supper is commemorated, and the death of Christ on the cross is "mystically" (that is, truly but not in a physical way visible to us here and now) both recalled and re-enacted. The theology of this is of course a matter of dispute, especially between Protestants and Catholics, but also between traditional and progressive Catholics.  Gibson, in my view, has expressed in this film the theology of his own traditional Catholic belief: that what happened 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem, at the Last Supper and on the cross, happens today, mystically, at a Catholic Mass.

The film is "eucharistic" -- a depiction of the religious sacrifice which constitutes, in Catholic belief, the initiation of a new world, redeemed from sin, a world of eternal life.  It is in this sense that the film is also very Jewish -- which will seem a surprising statement to some who have followed the polemics over this film.

The film is informed by and infused with the Jewish concept of sacrificial atonement -- the "sacrificial goat" or "scapegoat" was of course part of Jewish religious practice during the time of the Temple sacrifices.  This is why Gibson chooses to introduce the final phase of the film with a "divine tear" -- a teardrop shed by God.   The little sphere of water fills the screen and falls to earth at the moment of Jesus' death.

The End and the Beginning

A great wind roars, the soldiers, who are breaking the leg bones of the two thieves, so that their bodies sag and they die of suffocation, flee -- after one pierces Jesus in the side with his spear to make sure he is truly dead, and water from his lungs gushes out, mixed with a stream of blood, though never breaking his legs -- and in the Temple, the veil over the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctuary, is rent.

Certainly there is a polemic here with Judaism, or with one form of or stage in Judaism, which some might say is the sole form.
But there is no "anti-Semtiism." Theologians, and simple believers, will have to grapple with the relationship between Jesus -- who is thoroughly Jewish, and surrounded by Jewish followers -- and Judaism, but there is no question of denying the very Jewish tradition which produced Jesus. It is the soil out of which Jesus -- and this film -- grows.

The resurrection.

One hates to give away the ending of a film, but in this case the ending is widely known.   Christ rises.  His risen body is no longer ruined, though his hands still bear the marks of the nails that were pounded through them so ferociously (by Gibson himself, by the way -- Gibson's only appearance in the film is as the man hammering the nails into Christ's hands).

I read Gibson's ending, as Christ strides forth, as the beginning of the 2,000 years that have since passed. I see it from the Catholic perspective, as the beginning of the Church, a "mystical" human society, animated by a risen spirit, this Christ who was crucified, at the center of history, giving meaning to history -- but not ending history.

And the polemics over this film are part of that still unfolding history.  In a few days, barring a cataclysm, the film will be in theaters, and millions will see it.  And millions will weep.   But that weeping will not be channeled into hatred of any group or groups; rather, it will be channeled into a renewed commitment to the central message of the man who is depicted suffering in this film: "Love one another."

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