ROME — My various work projects had been so demanding that Easter 2015 had hardly entered my mind before I boarded flights for Rome on April 3. I had no way of knowing this would be the most intense Easter of my life.
Shortly after landing at Rome’s Fiumicino airport on Easter eve, I found myself watching Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” (2004) with a dozen deeply devoted Catholic college students. I had never seen "The Passion" before, and I can affirm that I will never watch it again.
In its own way, the film’s depiction of the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life is gripping, but it is so unrelentingly and graphically violent that I had to cover my face a number of times just to get through it. It seemed to me that no body could ever endure so much grotesque physical abuse, that if Jesus had actually been subjected to the kind of torture depicted in the film, he would never have lived long enough to be crucified.
There are paradoxes here. We know that Jesus was crucified by the Roman authorities after being whipped and scourged and beaten. So the depiction in “The Passion of Christ” is probably more realistic and historically accurate than we like to think. And — I get it — the point of Gibson’s film is to make us just as uncomfortable as possible without driving us out of the theater. How can we understand God’s decision to make himself suffer the ultimate human degradation unless we have something like a real understanding of what that must have involved by way of physical and mental suffering?
As I watched "The Passion" in horror, I realized that my idea of the crucifixion has always been pretty vague and mythological. Whenever I have stood before Michelangelo’s stunning Pieta in St. Peter’s — one of the world’s supreme works of sculpture — I have never once stopped to recognize that, by the time Mary held her dead son in her arms, Jesus’ body was torn in every way, pierced by a spear, whipped and scourged right down to the ribs, bloody, bruised, swollen and profoundly disfigured. The perfection and artistic serenity of Michelangelo’s treatment removes the bloodlust from the story, and lets us concentrate instead on the pity of the crucifixion, and even the divine dignity of it, rather than its sickening violence.
I give Gibson credit for that — he made the torture and execution of Jesus real to me for the first time. Too real. The film’s obsession with graphic violence felt gratuitous. It turned my stomach rather than deepened my understanding of the sacrifice. I could not sleep for many hours, but during that time I was not praying to God or Jesus in praise or sorrow. I was just sick at heart at man’s ingenuity in meting out pain to his fellow man.
One more note about the film: Just as Jesus began to climb the steep hill of Golgotha, carrying a cross that even a healthy man would have had trouble hoisting up the trail, a thunderstorm broke over Rome. We all jumped from the unexpected flash of lightning and exchanged nervous glances. The last 40 minutes of "The Passion" were, for us, accompanied by a kind of angry orchestral thunderstorm.
On Easter Sunday, we got up at first light to hasten by city bus to St. Peter’s Square. An audience of more than a million pilgrims was expected. If we had any expectation of getting seats close to the platform on which Pope Francis would celebrate the Mass — or for that matter to get any seats at all — we had to get to St. Peter’s three hours ahead of time, and then jostle our way to preferred seating once the security team began to let people pass through the magnetometers.
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At times, it felt more like a badly organized Super Bowl than a Papal Mass at the Vatican, but the students were savvy and ready to forge their way (politely but unhesitatingly) to excellent seats. I do not exaggerate when I say that there were elderly nuns in the crowd who locked arms and surged forward like a Greek phalanx.
When we took our seats, about 10 rows back from the protective fence, it had begun to drizzle. Then it began to rain. Then it began to rain hard. Then it began to rain cats and dogs.
By 8 a.m., the crowd filled the vastness of St. Peter’s Square and spilled over blocks deep in every direction. Just 2¼ hours to go. As far as I could tell there was roughly one umbrella for each 100 people at the Vatican. If ever there was a moment that called for a loaves and fishes miracle, this was it. The number of umbrellas did seem to increase over time, but it rained well over an inch Easter morning, perhaps two, and no matter how many umbrellas interlocked to create a kind of ad hoc pilgrims’ awning, that water had to go somewhere. The net effect concentrated the flood into icy rivulets that suddenly ran off the umbrella ahead of you (or behind you) and down your back.
By the time the Mass began at 10:15 a.m., we were as wet and cold as it was possible to be, sitting in cheap plastic chairs that had become shallow pools of rain water, trying to get a glimpse of the pope, or anything at all for that matter, through the sea of brightly colored umbrellas. We were about as close to Pope Francis as it was possible to get, and yet we could neither see him nor even see the giant Jumbotron that televised the event. Most of the students had begun to shiver, sodden with rain, chilled by wind, with the temperature at about 40 degrees.
Nevertheless, almost everyone who had come to St. Peter’s Square stayed — because it was Easter, because individuals had ventured, at great expense, from all over the planet to experience this moment. What’s a little discomfort in the face of Jesus’ agonies? We stayed, too, because we were in the presence of Pope Francis, who has in his remarkable ministry struck an unusually strong chord with the peoples of the world. My group stayed also because Tom Schulzetenberg, the director of the University of Mary’s Rome program, had been given the high honor of reading a short text to almost a million pilgrims.
Hours later, once we had gotten out of our soggy clothes and showered for a very long time, we broke bread together back at the Rome campus. I had smuggled in jelly beans and chocolate eggs and Jello from North Dakota. Jello, it turns out, doesn’t perform very well outside of its home court. Here in Rome it was just a dark red slurry on our plates.
This was the Easter I will never forget.