Tom Allen, president of CatholicExchange.com, and Matt Pinto, who heads Ascension Press, had a simple idea: write and publish a short book called A Guide to the Passion: 100 Questions About The Passion of The Christ. The basic premise is to walk through Mel Gibson’s new film (and basic Catholic teaching) scene by scene and explain to a modern, uncatechized audience what is going on. Its 100 questions and answers begin in the Garden of Gethsemane and culminate with the crucifixion and resurrection. Then it presents the basic case for the divinity of Christ, briefly discusses how the Church fits into the picture, and finishes by giving some resources and recommendations for what to do next. It was a sensible idea, so we three-along with Paul Thigpen, Ph.D and Marcellino D’Ambrosio, Ph.D.-drafted the book with the intention of making it brief, easy to read, and easy to give away.
We knew there would be interest, but we never anticipated how volcanic it would be. Two shell-shocked weeks after we made the book available, we have received requests for more than 250,000 copies, with thousands more pouring in every day. To give some perspective, a Catholic book is a “bestseller” if it sells 10,000 copies in its entire lifetime. A secular book is a “bestseller” if it sells 75,000 copies in its entire lifetime.
“I saw one of the pre-screenings of the movie. As I sat there I realized that this movie could have extraordinary evangelization potential, but that it would also elicit many, many questions,” explains Pinto. “Many people going to the film may know little about Scripture and may not be able to process the many questions the film is bound to provoke. So I thought ‘We need something that will provide an average reader with answers to those questions.’ We wanted to address the head as well as the heart-to answer questions as well as provide food for prayer and meditation. So I called Tom, who was also involved in the marketing and distribution of the film.”
Allen leapt at the idea, knowing that a guide for Catholics could bear much spiritual fruit. Himself a “revert” of some 10 years, he was thrilled by this once-in-a-generation moment in which Jesus has been placed directly in front of our entire culture and his voice is actually being heard in the public square asking, “Who do you say I am?” Moreover, he was deeply impressed by the fervor of Protestant communities in supporting the film, defending it from unjust attacks, and preparing to use it for evangelistic purposes. Everywhere he looked, websites sprang up featuring downloadable materials about Jesus and the Gospels. Marketing companies began churning out posters and flyers promoting the film. Tracts poured into circulation making the case for Christ.
Allen wasn’t alone. As a convert from evangelicalism, I was particularly been struck how barriers between evangelicals and Catholics have fallen in ways that would have been unthinkable even 20 years ago. The head of a prominent Protestant television ministry told a gathering of more than 500 hundred mostly evangelical ministers who had just viewed The Passion of the Christ: “This film puts Christ back on our bare crosses.” Indeed, evangelicals are actually buying crucifixes to use for meditation on the Passion! Multiplexes in the deeply Protestant South have debuted the film on up to twenty screens at a time. A common reaction of evangelical women to the film is, “Now I get the Mary thing that Catholics have.” As one evangelical woman summed things up: “I could relate to Mary watching her son die.”
And the cross-pollination goes the other way, too. Mel Gibson told Christianity Today: “I’ve been actually amazed at the way I would say the evangelical audience has-hands down-responded to this film more than any other Christian group.” Lay Catholics are looking at the way in which their evangelical brethren are saying, “Now is the hour to evangelize the culture!” and thinking, “Let’s get on board with this!”
The thing we hoped to contribute to the global conversation about this film was simply this: we wanted to complete, not compete with, Protestant evangelization efforts. Evangelicals have done a fine job of using this film as a springboard for a culture-wide conversation about Jesus. But Catholic theology is ultimately the only thing that can adequately address many of the questions the film provokes because Gibson’s vision is so distinctly Marian, so obviously Eucharistic, so quintessentially Catholic.
Allen concurs. “For example,” he says, “in televised interviews Mel has accurately linked the sacrifice of the cross with the sacrifice of the Mass. In doing so, he is repeating age-old biblical and Catholic teaching. And in the film he makes this point cinematically by, for instance, juxtaposing scenes of the raising of the cross with shots of the elevation of the consecrated bread at the Last Supper. A Guide to the Passion is written to help the viewer understand what the film-and the New Testament and historic Christianity-are talking about when these and many other connections are made. We hope, in fleshing these connections out, we can deepen the experience of the filmgoer and bring him to an encounter with the living Christ. That’s ultimately what it’s all about, whether you are Protestant or Catholic.”