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Issue Date:  February 20, 2004

"The Passion" Study Guide

“The Passion of the Christ” is a powerful film certain to leave viewers, young and old alike, with questions. High-profile controversies have guaranteed that large audiences will see the film, and many people will want a chance to talk. Whether one likes “The Passion” or disapproves of it is not the point. The movie’s prominence creates a teaching moment and an opportunity for reflection on a central tenet of the Christian faith.

With realities such as globalization making us increasingly aware of other cultures and religions, questions loom on the horizon regarding the universal influence of Jesus the Christ. New insights are not only welcomed, but have been encouraged throughout history. The Christian community is a breathing, living organism, a pilgrim people sustained by a rich tradition of collective wisdom.

The situations depicted in this recreation of the passion of Jesus, then, can not tell the entire story, for it continues to unfold within and around us. However, the scenes force us to reconsider the meaning of our own baptism and how we ourselves would tell the story and the interpretation we would give each event.

This brief guide is intended to help teachers, youth group leaders, Bible study leaders and parents organize discussions of “The Passion.” It also contains a brief list of supplementary materials.

A good starting point in preparation for the conversation is to read one or more of the actual passages from the Bible: Matthew 26:1-28:20; Mark 14:1-16:20; Luke 22:1-24:53; John 13:1-20:31.

-- Photos/CNS/2003 Icon Distribution Inc.

Discussion Topic #1: The Passion

The heart of the film is the suffering of Jesus, from his arrest in the garden through his death on the cross. The discussion should allow viewers to voice their reaction to the violence they have witnessed, and then reflect upon its meaning for us today.

1. How did you react to these scenes of intense violence -- for example, the flogging of Jesus by the Roman centurions? Did the violence ever seem excessive or sensationalistic? What did you feel for Jesus watching his suffering? What does Jesus’ suffering say to us about violence and suffering in our world today?

2. What do you imagine Jesus is thinking and feeling during these events? Do you think Jesus experienced an absence of God during his suffering on the cross? Or is Jesus’ cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” a sign of hope for all who suffer?

3. The church believes that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. Where did you see Jesus’ humanity in “The Passion”? Where did you see his divinity? Did you think one dominated the other, or was the presentation balanced?

4. At certain key moments in the suffering of Christ, such as the opening scene in the garden, during the flogging, and at the crucifixion, we see a personification of evil – the devil. Why do you think the moviemakers did this?

5. If God is all-loving, why would he allow his Son to suffer in such a horrific manner? Do you think God can stop suffering in the world? Do you think God suffers with us?

6. Through the centuries, great theologians have come up with different explanations for what the suffering and death of Christ accomplished. Watching the film, what message did you get about why Jesus suffered and died?

7. During the crucifixion sequence, we see a flashback in which Jesus recalls key moments from the Last Supper. What point do you think the moviemakers were trying to make here?

8. Do you feel that in some way we are all responsible for Jesus’ suffering after having watched this film?

9. Did the film make you want to pray? If so, what did you want to say, or to share?

Discussion Topic #2: Images of the Jews

Because of the public controversy over anti-Semitism, the issue of the depiction of the Jews must inevitably be part of the discussion. One aim should be to help people distinguish between their personal reaction, and an empathetic capacity to understand how others might react.

1. How did you feel the Jewish people were presented in “The Passion?” Did you find the presentation offensive or biased?

2. Does the movie blame “the Jews” for the death of Jesus? Does it make the Romans look better than the Jews?

3. Regardless of how you reacted personally, can you understand why some people might be concerned with the images of Jews in “The Passion”?

4. Are you aware of how the suffering and death of Jesus has been used by some Christians over the centuries to justify mistreatment of Jews? Does that mean that moviemakers should take special care in the way these images are presented?

5. Read over the “Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion,” issued by the U.S. bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs in 1988: How does “The Passion” rate according to these criteria? If it does not follow the criteria in some ways, would the film have been better or worse if it had followed them?

6. What does the Catholic church teach about its relationship with Judaism? (See especially the U.S. bishops’ 1975 “Statement on Catholic/Jewish Relations” in The Bible, the Jews and the Death of Jesus.)

7.What do you personally know about Judaism? Does the film make you want to know more?

Discussion Topic #3: Mary

Mary is one of the central figures in “The Passion,” and hence the film offers an opportunity to help viewers understand what the church teaches about the mother of Jesus.

1. What image of Mary did you get from the film?

2. From the brief images in the film, what role do you imagine Mary played among the early disciples of Jesus?

3. We see several flashback sequences involving Mary and Jesus. Why do you think the moviemakers did this?

4. The church believes that Mary is a role model for every Christian. What qualities of Mary do you think came through most clearly in the movie? How can they offer a model for Christian life?

5. The Catholic church has sometimes been criticized for placing too much emphasis on Mary. From what you saw in the film, what is an appropriate attitude that Christians should have towards Mary?

Discussion Topic #4: The Disciples

The disciples of Jesus don’t figure prominently in “The Passion,” but because they are prototypes for the Christians of every generation, viewers should be encouraged to talk about them.

1.What image of Peter did you get from “The Passion”? Did the image of Peter in the film affect the way you think about the pope and his role in the church?

2. What about the “beloved disciple”? What image do you have of him?

3. Is there a difference between the male and female followers of Jesus in “The Passion”? What would you say that it is?

4. Discuss the depiction of Judas in “The Passion.” What does the film suggest his motive was to betray Jesus? What did you think about his reactions after the arrest of Jesus?

5. Since all Christians are disciples of Jesus, what can we learn about discipleship from “The Passion”? What does it mean to follow Jesus?

Discussion Topic #5: Private Revelation

Several scenes in “The Passion” are based not on the Gospels but on non-scriptural sources such as the writings of Sr. Anne Catherine Emmerich, a 19th-century German visionary and stigmatic. Part of the educational task is therefore to sort out the scriptural and non-scriptural elements.

1. Can you identify scenes in “The Passion” that do not come from the New Testament? (Examples: Jesus is wrapped in chains in the garden, and at one point thrown off a bridge; Jesus is bruised and bloody before any Gospel says anyone has struck him; Mary wipes up the blood of Jesus with towels given to her by Pilate’s wife; a crow plucks out the eye of one of the thieves crucified with Jesus.)

2. What did such scenes add to the movie? Having read the New Testament accounts, how did this extra material change the story? Did you find these extra scenes to be helpful?

3. Did these extra scenes affect the way the Jews are portrayed?

4. “Revelation” means God’s self-communication to us. The most recognized forms of revelation are the Bible and church tradition. What other forms of revelation are there? How is God revealed to us in our everyday lives?

Discussion Topic #6: Jesus’ Resurrection

The passion of Jesus is inseparable from the resurrection of Jesus. The first cannot be properly understood or interpreted without the latter. Mel Gibson’s film focuses primarily on the passion, while giving only brief attention to the resurrection.

1. If you had the opportunity to sit in the director’s chair, how might you end the film?

2. Have you experienced the mystery of death and resurrection in your own life? Would you be willing to die for another? It is said that it is only through death that we are raised to new life. What do you think this means?

3. Do you think people would be as interested in a film about Jesus’ resurrection? Why or why not?

4. Do you think the passion or the resurrection is more important?

5. What do you think the poor and the sick would say about this film? Would you encourage them to see it?

  • The Bible, the Jews and the Death of Jesus: A Collection of Catholic Documents, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Contains important Vatican documents, documents of the Second Vatican Council, papal statements, documents from the U.S. bishops, and catechetical texts. These texts are especially important for talking about images of Jews in the film.
  • The Death of the Messiah, by Fr. Raymond Brown. A scholarly treatment of the passion narratives from a Catholic point of view, Brown’s book is demanding reading, but accessible to the non-specialist.
  • Who Killed Jesus? Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus, by John Dominic Crossan (Harper San Francisco, 1995).
  • Jesus Before Christianity, by Albert Nolan (Orbis, 1976 and 2001).
  • Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology, Elizabeth Johnson, Crossroads,1990).
  • The Catechism of the Catholic Church, especially #571-630, on the suffering and death of Christ; #963-975, on Mary; #1352-1372 on the Eucharist; and #67 on private revelation.
  • Facts, Faith, and Film-Making: Jesus’ Passion and Its Portrayal. A Study Guide for Viewers and Reviewers, by the Christian Scholars Group on Christian-Jewish Relations:
  • Much public debate about “The Passion” has focused on Mel Gibson’s allegedly traditionalist brand of Catholicism. People are sure to be curious. Suggestion: Have participants read Chapter 4 of Michael Cuneo’s Smoke of Satan before this discussion. The chapter offers an overview of “Catholic separatists,” including traditionalists who share some of the theological views expressed by Mel Gibson.
  • Other productions of the passion and resurrection story such as “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Godspell” and “Jesus of Montreal.”

National Catholic Reporter, February 20, 2004

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