A Guide to "The Passion of the Christ"

Matthew Pinto on a Resource to Explain the Movie and Its Message

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WEST CHESTER, Pennsylvania, FEB. 23, 2004 (Zenit.org).- When Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" opens on Ash Wednesday, Catholic author and publisher Matthew Pinto thinks that moviegoers will have a lot of questions.



That's why Pinto, president of Ascension Press, and Catholic Exchange have provided a Catholic companion to the film, "A Guide to the Passion: 100 Questions About 'The Passion of the Christ.'"

Pinto shared with ZENIT how the book will help Catholics and non-Catholics understand the Eucharistic and Marian significance shown in the movie, know the case for Christ, learn about the Church Jesus instituted and respond accordingly in their faith lives.

Q: What compelled Ascension Press and Catholic Exchange to publish this guide?

Pinto: I had the opportunity to see one of the pre-screenings of the movie. While watching the film, it occurred to me that millions of people -- Catholics and others -- were going to have questions about the movie and the theological issues it raised.

On my drive home from the theater I called Tom Allen, the editor and president of Catholic Exchange who was also involved in the marketing and distribution of "The Passion" and the coordination of some of the advance screenings of the film.

Realizing that few in the Catholic world were doing much to promote the film, we knew we had to do something significant -- something that would provide dioceses, parishes and individuals with ready-made tools to help their evangelization and catechetical efforts.

Q: Why is a particularly Catholic guidebook important in order to understand the movie?

Pinto: A Catholic guide is necessary because the Gospels are completely Catholic, as is the movie. Even still, many will not see or understand the more sublime teachings that the director and writers are putting forth through this epic film.

A secular viewer, for instance, will probably not understand that the image of the serpent's head being crushed is a reference to Genesis 3:15. Likewise, the heavily Eucharistic and Marian emphasis of the film is something that a well-catechized Catholic will easily see, but many uncatechized Catholics and many Protestants will not deeply grasp.

As stated in the introduction to the book, understanding the profound Marian and Eucharistic imagery and theology really requires a deep understanding of Catholicism.

Our Protestant brothers and sisters, who are to be commended for their evangelical fervor and creativity in promoting this film, are generally not schooled in these issues. Neither, for that matter, are many Catholics. So a guide underscoring the uniquely Catholic sensibility of the film was absolutely needed.

Q: What specific points of the movie and its content does the guide cover?

Pinto: "A Guide to the Passion" covers almost all of the major aspects of the movie, offering a scene-by-scene commentary on the theological and artistic aspects of the film.

Its 100 questions and answers start out with Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane and culminate with the crucifixion and resurrection. The remaining three sections show the very strong arguments for the deity of Jesus, outline the history of the Catholic Church and give the reader resources for continuing a faith journey toward the Catholic Church.

Q: Does the guide anticipate Protestant skepticism about the Eucharistic elements?

Pinto: We simply explain the connection between the sacrifice of Calvary and the sacrifice of the Mass.

The director uses a crosscutting technique in the movie that draws a parallel between the Last Supper and the crucifixion, and we explore this connection in the book.

Catholic theology tells us that the crucifixion is the fulfillment of the Passover -- the symbolic lamb of the Passover reaches its completion in the Lamb of God being offered for all of humanity on the cross. We believe the book will foster understanding and allay skepticism.

Q: Is the guide specifically for Catholics, or can anyone follow it?

Pinto: People of all faiths -- or no faith at all -- will appreciate both the questions and answers within the book.

Unlike a Christian "tract" that may be given out to a moviegoer, this resource will not only inspire, but will also satisfy the desire for compelling, intellectual answers. Best of all, it's presented in a breezy style that people can readily understand.

Q: In what contexts can this guide be used?

Pinto: It can be used for personal devotion as well as in small or large group study. We expect many parishes and dioceses to use this book as an adult faith formation or a "small group discussion" resource.

It can also be an inoffensive means of evangelization. People will be intrigued by the nature of the piece -- as well as its questions and thorough answers.

Q: What response have you gotten from parishes and the faithful?

Pinto: We were confident that the response would be strong, but it has been far stronger than we expected. People love it. Someone proposed to me that this book is likely the fastest selling book in Catholic history -- with advance sales of nearly 140,000 in two weeks -- thanks to the power of the Internet and the timeliness of the book in relation to this major Catholic cultural event.

Most encouraging are the responses we've received from dioceses and parishes that recognize the film as a great opportunity to bring the faithful to a higher level of understanding of the extraordinary act that God has done on our behalf. We are already in contact or working with several dozen dioceses.

Q: What effect do you think this movie will have on the culture's understanding of Christianity?

Pinto: I believe that all but the most hardened hearts will be impacted in some way by this movie. I think individuals throughout the world will instantly have a greater respect for and understanding of Christ.

I believe millions -- literally -- will ask themselves the question, "What do I believe about Jesus?" And since that question is inextricably linked to the central question Jesus proposes to us -- "Who do you say I am?" -- I believe that the film presents one of the greatest watershed evangelization opportunities of our generation.

Perhaps for the first time in their adult lives, people will seriously confront the question of whether Jesus is the Son of God. They will wonder to themselves in the silence of their hearts whether faith matters should have a higher priority in their lives -- or, in the case of many lapsed Christians, whether they should return to it.

I think that Christianity as a whole will be respected more. People will see that some of their preconceived notions about Christianity are more based on prejudice than on fact. Mostly, people will recognize the stark contrast between this film and the sea of media sewage we've all been swimming in for so long.

This film is a sign of contradiction. For months after viewing it, people will think more about Christ. When they hear the name "Jesus," they will not move on to the next distraction too quickly. And grace will begin to work on their hearts.

Q: What is the most important thing that you want readers to take away from your book?

Pinto: I want them to understand that Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah and God who became man to suffer for our sins and rise again. That he is alive right now and not a mere footnote in human history. That the passion itself was the gravest of injustices, but necessary to pay the price for man's sins. That Christ's sacrifice for us was monumental, and that our reflection on his passion is something that is eminently worth our time.

When I viewed the movie, I didn't want to ever sin again. And, although that reality probably only lasted for about an hour, the desire is still there. My hope is that everyone will see that all of us are the reason why Christ suffered and died, and that we are also beneficiaries of his resurrection from the dead.

Ultimately, "The Passion of the Christ" is a movie that should offer us hope. It represents the greatest love story ever told: the love that an infinite God has for his most glorious and treasured creation -- each and every one of us.