October 7, 2004
Church Honors Gibson ‘Inspiration’
Mel Gibson's "muse" is on the path to sainthood. Pope John Paul II this week beatified Anna Katharina Emmerick, a 19th-century German nun whose mystic visions inspired Gibson's gory depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus in "The Passion of the Christ."
Sunday's move dismayed some Jewish observers.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which publicly criticized "The Passion" as anti-Semitic, expressed "deep distress" and said the beatification could harm Christian-Jewish relations.
"In our letter to Church leaders, sent in early June, we acknowledged that beatification is entirely within the realm of the Church and we understand that Sr. Emmerick has been proposed in recognition of her virtuous life and how she strengthened others in faith despite her own ill-health," said an ADL statement.
"Yet," it added, "it cannot be contested that in addition to the aid she offered many of her co-religionists, hatred and anti-Semitism were fomented in her name."
The beatification was the latest move by the church regarding sainthood in recent years that has alienated some Jews.
In 1998, for example, many Jews reacted angrily when the pope made Edith Stein a saint, saying she had been rounded up and killed during World War II because of her Jewish identity, not because she was a nun.
Emmerick, who lived from 1774 to 1824, was almost illiterate and spent much of her life as an invalid. Her grisly visions of the torturing of Jesus were recorded by the German Romantic poet Clemens Brentano, who published them after her death in a book, "The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ."
The book, which portrays Jews as cruel "Christ-killers," has achieved cult status among Roman Catholic traditionalists who oppose the church reforms implemented by the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s.
These reforms included an opening to the Jewish world and a renunciation of the charge of deicide, that Jews were responsible for Jesus' death.
Gibson used a number of the book's images in his controversial film.
"Amazing images," he told an interviewer earlier this year. "She supplied me with stuff I never would have thought of."
Among them were elements not found in the Gospels, such as Mary mopping up her son's blood after his scourging, and the hooded devil inciting Jews to demand Jesus be crucified or following him as he carried his cross.
Beatification is the last step before Roman Catholic sainthood. The process for Emmerick was begun in 1973 and approved in July 2003, eight months before "The Passion" came out.
The Vatican said it honored Emmerick for her virtuous life, not her visions, which it said it could not confirm.
A previous attempt to beatify Emmerick was halted in 1926 because of concern that Brentano had infused his account of Emmerick's visions with his own views.
During the beatification ceremony, the pope did not mention the book. He praised Emmerick's piety and concern for the poor and noted that she bore stigmata, or bleeding wounds in her hands and feet, similar to those of Jesus on the cross.
Still, said Shawn Landres, who co-edited a forthcoming book, "After The Passion Is Gone: American Religious Consequences," on the impact of "The Passion," the move was upsetting.
"The church's decision to beatify Emmerick is especially troubling to those of us in the Jewish community who sought to defend the post-Vatican II Church against its critics, especially in the wake of the 'Passion' controversy."
Landres, who is a research fellow at the University of Judaism's Sigi Ziering Institute in Los Angeles, said the timing of the beatification also raises questions.
"[It] suggests an attempt to reach out to traditionalist Catholics energized by 'The Passion,'" he said.
However, he added, "beatifying one relatively minor mystic won't satisfy the traditionalists, whose objections to the post-Vatican II Church are much broader and more serious."
He cautioned, however, that Jewish criticism of the beatification should be made with respect for the Roman Catholic Church as a whole.
"Our role should be to hold the church to its highest standards, not to denigrate and antagonize it," he said. "There is dignity in dissent."