Did Pope really plug ‘Passion’?

Church denies papal support of Gibson's pic

This article was updated at 7:33 p.m.

“It is as it was” may not be the way the pope would like it to be.

Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, one of Pope John Paul II’s closest friends, told the Catholic News Service his boss never offered that 11-letter endorsement of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.”

“The Holy Father told no one his opinion of this film,” Dziwisz told the news service, which is regarded as one of the most authoritative sources on Vatican affairs.

Even so, a rep for Gibson and his Icon Prods. maintained that the pope had used the phrase to describe Gibson’s film depicting of the crucifixion of Christ.

Gibson’s rep expressed surprise at Dziwisz’s latest statements. “Based on all previous correspondence and conversations held directly between representatives of the film and the official spokesperson for the pope, Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls,” he said, “there is no reason to believe that the pope’s support of the film ‘isn’t as it was.’ ”

Navarro-Valls was unreachable for comment.

The pope’s positive pronouncement on “Passion” was initially reported in a Dec. 17 column by Peggy Noonan on the Wall Street Journal’s Web site. The journey of the short, blurb-ready phrase was circuitous.

According to the column, Dziwisz first reported the pope’s reaction to the film to Steve McEveety and Jan Michelini, a producer and an assistant director on the pic, in a meeting at the Vatican. McEveety, in turn, recounted his conversation with Dziwisz to Noonan.

A source close to the situation said McEveety had asked for and received Vatican officials’ permission to repeat the “It is as it was” statement before speaking to Noonan.

The “It is as it was” papal remark was also reported on Dec. 17 by the National Catholic Reporter, an independent weekly paper covering the Church, also using an anonymous Vatican source.

The Vatican, which normally does not comment on films, has offered no official comment on “Passion,” nor has the pope’s official rep confirmed or denied the pope’s reaction.

Previous attempts by news orgs to confirm the pontiff’s quote have had mixed results. The day after the Wall Street Journal’s report, on Dec. 18, Reuters cited an anonymous “Vatican official” who confirmed the Pope had seen and approved of “Passion.”

A week later, the Catholic News Service quoted its own anonymous “senior Vatican official” who said “The Holy Father saw it, but he made no comment. He watched in silence.”

Amidst all the back and forth, The National Catholic Reporter reopened its story and said its source stood by the Pope’s quote, adding new details such as the viewing took place in the dining room of his living quarters, on a large-screen TV with a “European-format VHS videocassette.”

Adamant denial

But in his most recent interview, Dziwisz, who is considered the second most powerful official of the Catholic Church because of his close relationship with the Pope, was adamant in his denial of a papal endorsement of “Passion.”

“I said clearly to McEveety and Michelini that the Holy Father made no declaration,” Dziwisz said. “I said the Holy Father saw the film privately in his apartment, but gave no declaration to anyone. He does not make judgments on art of this kind; he leaves that to others, to experts.”

When it was first reported, Pope John Paul II’s approval of “Passion” did much to quiet groups which had expressed concern about possibly anti-Semitic overtones in the pic because of the current pope’s accomplisments in soothing Catholic-Jewish interfaith relations.

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