How the Passion of Christ helped me to become Catholic
September , 2004
For the Toronto Sun
I realized long ago that there is nothing brave or noble about refusing to change one's mind, no art or grace in being pointlessly stubborn. To alter an opinion because of fear of consequences is something different, but I don't believe that even my harshest critics could accuse me of cowardice. I've never been influenced by threats and insults.
I originally wrote about The Passion of the Christ the week it opened in theatres. I stated how excited I had been before I saw the film and how disappointed I was afterwards. Many supported me in my views, many opposed me. Sadly, the majority of the latter were abusive. It was a sobering experience.
Months later, I have watched Mel Gibson's version of the death of Jesus Christ on the newly released DVD. I still believe that this work should have been different in various ways. Yet now I have seen, or allowed myself to see, what lies at the very core of The Passion. The Eucharist.
The epicentre, the quintessence of the Christian faith, was no symbolic act but a literal instruction. "Take this, all of you, and eat it: this is my body which will be given up for you." And "Take this, all of you, and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all men so that sins may be forgiven."
What had been a barrier has now become a bridge. A connection between a broken, smashed and needy creature like me and his perfect and glorious creator. The great paradox of God. In so simple a matter as a wafer is the most wonderful gift in all the world. Given at a very great price indeed.
The interspersing of scenes from The Last Supper and the institution of the Mass with the immense and intense suffering of Christ was irksome to me when I first saw the movie. Now these flashes of truth serve as chapters of explanation, each one shining a unique light on the events that surround them.
Let us use the metaphor of the swimmer. I was thrashing about in a frightening sea, making the water splash into the air around me. Much motion, little progress. Not swimming but drowning. It was only when I relaxed and allowed the waves to take control that I felt safe again.
Yes, I relaxed. "Do this in memory of me. Do this in memory of me." I swam, and the ocean lifted me up and made me feel warm and strong and full. Here was truth, in front of me for so long but seemingly out of reach.
I am not saying that a movie alone was responsible for this, but I am saying that it was part of a greater and perhaps inevitable process. To watch it now is like watching an entirely different film, one that seems a companion rather than a foe.
As I watched again, another reality embraced me, like the arms of a loving mother around an eager if sometimes foolish child. It was that Mary is not merely a background figure in a magnificent drama, but the divine conduit for salvation. In other words, she is sublime and perfect and with us forever. The mother of us all.
Through her eyes, I saw the life and death of Jesus once again, with all of the human as well as godly suffering that it entails. I use the present tense, because although Christ died for us so long ago, He still lives. His sacrifice exists in the present and can be witnessed every day by us all. Yes, even by me.
Mary weeps for her son. Her tears and His blood mingle to soak the world in hope and love. Within their grandeur all despair is smothered and all sin cleansed. Yes, I see it now. I see it so clearly.
Perhaps one day I'll meet Mel Gibson and be able to thank him for what he has done and tell him how his screen meditation helped to change me. Also apologize to him, for not understanding what he was saying. "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you. But only say the word and I shall be healed."
I should be explicit. After my column last week
about The Passion of the Christ movie a great
many people have written to me, both negative
and positive. The issue they have discussed, the
question they have asked, is whether I have
become a Roman Catholic.
In all honesty I am surprised. I'm not a very important person and my particular beliefs are surely of no interest. The answer, however, is that on July 5 of this year I did indeed join the Roman Catholic Church. Or returned to her. I was baptized a Catholic almost 20 years ago, but for the past 10 years have been an enthusiastic evangelical Christian.
To those Protestants whom I disappoint, I am sorry. I have not taken the decision lightly because it concerns my immortal soul, and I intend no offence to those people I still consider to be my brothers and sisters.
As I write this column I realize that it is not only my spiritual life that may be affected. While I am hardly likely to become a pauper, it seems my income is going to take a beating. I do a great deal of speaking in evangelical churches and I fear that some of them may now cancel me, or decide not to book me in the future.
In fact one major speech, booked long ago, has already been thus treated. Let me emphasize that the person who contacted me from this particular Protestant organization was embarrassed by the cancellation and could not have been kinder.
What hurt me was that none of what I had planned to say was in any way specifically Catholic and I had written the speech long before my conversion. I shall not say that the decision was sectarian, but I will say that it was highly regrettable.
As was the way it came about. A minister had written to the venue where I was to speak, "outing" me as a Catholic. He insisted on his name being kept secret and at no time wrote to me directly. Hardly a gracious act. Nor is he alone.
It appears that one or two other individuals have begun a campaign to inform people of my great sin.
Again, they did not speak or write to me and did all this in, well, in a rather dark and sinister manner. My conscience is perhaps a great deal clearer than theirs.
It hardly makes me a martyr. People die for their faith every day and some cancelled speeches and columns -- and, I predict, a few more to come -- will not destroy me. Yet it's so self-defeating.
My views on morality, the family, marriage, sexuality and the absolute divinity of Jesus Christ have changed not a bit.
I hardly think that the gay militants, Muslim radicals and atheist extremists who abuse and insult me on a regular basis will suddenly stop their antics. Nor will I stop loving the evangelical church and defending it and its members in public and in private. But while we agree on so very much, we do differ on certain core beliefs.
I am convinced that the church founded by Christ is the Roman Catholic Church and that Jesus gave earthly authority to Peter and his successors, down to and beyond Pope John Paul II.
I believe that Jesus is present on the alter during the Mass. I believe in the seven sacraments.
Any spiritual journey is part intellectual, part emotional, part visceral, part supernatural. The path winds and turns and around each corner is revelation and wisdom. I've read a great deal of theology and have enormous respect for the great reformers. I love and know my Bible, including the passages that will surely be quoted to me by those who regret my swim across the Tiber.
Do not tell me about historical failings or current problems because I've heard them all. I've met lapsed Catholics and lousy Catholics as well as good Catholics and glorious Catholics. Not relevant. It is the truth of a belief, not the failure or success of alleged followers to live up to that truth, that is of importance.
I'm a miserable sinner. But at least I know it. Please pray for me. Or, if you can't, try to tolerate me.