The passion of the priest

Toronto Star/August 28, 2004
By Sheila M. Dabu

A Toronto-area priest who was spiritual adviser to Mel Gibson during filming of the controversial movie The Passion Of The Christ has been suspended by Aloysius Cardinal Ambrozic for saying Latin masses for a traditional Catholic splinter group.

Rev. Stephen Somerville, of Queensville, north of Toronto, said daily mass in Latin, with Gibson acting as his altar server, when the movie was filmed in Italy last year. Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in the film, also attended the 7:30 a.m. services most days before filming.

Somerville has been a priest in the Toronto archdiocese for 48 years. He has appealed the suspension to Rome.

The Passion Of The Christ, which comes out on DVD on Tuesday, has made Jesus more popular than Spider-Man and put Gibson, its producer, on top of Forbes' list of the 100 most powerful Hollywood celebrities.

It is easily the most successful religious movie ever made. Since its release on Ash Wednesday last February, the movie has grossed more than $600 million (U.S.) worldwide.

In North America, its box-office gross is behind only Shrek 2 this year and is ahead of Spider-Man 2.

Somerville, who defends the film against critics, and who strongly denies that Gibson or the movie are anti-Semitic, was suspended by Ambrozic for celebrating mass in Toronto for the Society of St. Pius X, a group that Ambrozic and the Vatican's ecclesiastical commission consider "not in full communion with Rome."

"(Y)our ongoing association with and celebration of the Tridentine Mass for members of the Society of St. Pius X give external recognition to their illegitimate claims and their lack of submission to our Holy Father Pope John Paul II, to bishops appointed by him, and to the teachings of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. Your actions are also a potential source of scandal to clergy and laity of the Archdiocese of Toronto," Ambrozic said in a letter to Somerville.

The Society of St. Pius X is one of several traditionalist Catholic groups that refuse to accept changes brought in by the Second Vatican Council, such as saying mass in the vernacular instead of Latin and having the priest face the congregation instead of turning his back to them.

Mel Gibson is a traditional Catholic, but not a member of the Society of St. Pius X faction. Somerville became his chaplain and spiritual director after they met through Gibson's father.

Suzanne Scorsone, a spokesperson for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto, said yesterday that Ambrozic didn't have a choice in the matter.

"Essentially it's a situation where (Somerville) has chosen to take a position not in keeping with the faith body he has agreed to be a priest for. Since he's taken a different position he can no longer speak for us," she said. "He was given the opportunity, even after the suspension letter, to reply and say that he would agree with what the Church teaches.

"He declined to do that. The time period elapsed and so the suspension is now official," she said. "This is an issue on which the Holy See already has a very clear position."

A retired Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Toronto, Somerville said he respects Pope John Paul II for his "heroism and his office" as head of the Catholic Church. But, like other traditionalist Catholics, he has reservations about post-Vatican II doctrine.

Since 2001, he has been celebrating the pre-Vatican II Tridentine Latin liturgy, which has its roots in the 16th-century Council of Trent, using the 1962 guide to the mass. Masses are held in chapels and private homes, mostly in Toronto and Michigan, Montana, Indiana, Philadelphia, Minnesota, and Washington, D.C.

Being suspended by the Toronto archdiocese means Somerville is still a Catholic and can practise his religion, but is not officially authorized to say mass anywhere in the world.

"I regret that it's come to an open conflict between me and my archbishop," he said in response to the suspension. But, he believes, the suspension "is unlawful and without foundation."

He said the St. Pius X society is not "schismatic," as alleged by Ambrozic, and is not "out of communion with Rome."

And under canon law, he said, "no one is to be penalized who disobeys a command out of necessity, even if he is mistaken about the necessity, even if it's only a perceived necessity."

Since The Passion Of The Christ opened in February, Somerville has been giving talks to traditionalist Catholic schools about the film and the traditionalist liturgy.

The emphasis of the movie, like the emphasis of the traditionalist Catholic mass, Somerville said, is the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. The Passion of Christ on screen ("passion" translated in Latin means "suffering") is mirroring the Passion of Christ that takes place during a Catholic mass.

"I think it's an act of evangelization. Mel is preaching the Gospel very powerfully in this movie.... It's powerful enough to surely make a lot of converts together with the grace of God."

Gibson has kept a low profile since the movie opened. The last time Somerville spoke to the director about the movie was in April. It was a quick phone call and Somerville said he got the impression that Gibson was under fire and that "life was not all peaches and cream." But Gibson had also mentioned news of a criminal turning himself in after seeing the movie.

Somerville celebrated mass in an office space at Cinema City on Rome's east side, where the filming took place.

While morning religious service is not the typical Hollywood practice, Somerville said the movie's main message would have rung hollow without the celebration of mass, which he says is the true Passion or sacrifice of Jesus.

"Mel is a very different kind of director and he absolutely wanted to go to mass. I reminded them in my first homily that Mel and his company were spending $25 million ... and I as priest could reproduce the real thing in half an hour for nothing."

Gibson "insisted on kneeling on that hard floor behind me and making, in perfect Latin, the responses to the mass by heart."

The service was held in a small room with a few chairs and a simple wooden table that served as the altar, with a crucifix hanging over it. Religious ornaments adorned the room, including a large picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Virgin Mary of Mexico.

Somerville always started and ended the mass with a hymn. Kneeling beside him was the Oscar-award-winning actor who was his altar server for the seven weeks.

Somerville said Gibson has a fine singing voice, although he sang an octave lower "as if shy of letting his voice be heard."

The masses, said Somerville, were simple, the "old way" like before the Second Vatican Council. There were about a half-dozen from the movie crew who regularly attended. Caviezel usually came, but on mornings that required heavy makeup work, such as during filming of the scourging scenes, Somerville would save him a Communion host so that he could come later in the afternoon to receive it.

"I'm walking in that memory right now. I'm wearing the shoes that Mel Gibson gave me while working on the set for him. I was wearing an old battered pair of black sneakers that were extremely comfortable and that's the reason I didn't want to throw them out even though they were battered and worn out," Somerville said.

He brings one leg up on the table and shows off one of the shoes.

"When a man kneels down behind you as you're saying mass, facing God, he sees your feet and he could see my shoes, so he gave me these lovely pair of Reebok shoes. So, that's my living memory of the Passion set," he said.

Somerville met Hutton Gibson, the actor's father, in the summer of 2001 in Houston when Somerville was asked to fill in as priest for a traditional Catholic congregation.

"Many Catholics no longer go to church. You know the story: Divorce and abortion are now rampant among Catholics. They weren't when I was a young priest. It was entirely different and both Mel and I have made the fundamental decision to repossess traditional Catholicism, and that gives us not only something in common but something profoundly in common, so it was much more."

Somerville served on the Advisory Board of the International Commission on English Liturgy for more than 10 years, charged with the work of translating the new post-Vatican II Latin liturgy into the English language.

He has since reconsidered his own role during the implementation of the post-Vatican II changes and renounced his work on the commission.

On Gibson's faith, Somerville said, "It's like the man, strong and rugged, and it has the traditional qualities which I believe are necessary, not an option, and I hope that the rest of the (Catholic) Church will recover the traditional faith before too long, before too many souls are lost.

"Mel is a well-informed Catholic. He talks intelligently about the faith. He's a man of prayer; prayer, of course, is a breath of faith."

Somerville was not surprised by the film's success.

"People resonate with the film I suppose because Mel was so inspired in his capturing of the experience of the Passion of Christ and we have so many Christians or recent Christians, ex-Christians in society, they've already heard about Jesus.

"They know that he's the only Saviour, or at least I hope they know that. In other words, everybody needs Jesus even if they don't realize it, so it's not surprising that people are flocking to this movie which is such a vivid, inspiring portrayal of his last 12 hours of his life on Earth."

Although many critics denounced the film for violence, Somerville disagrees.

He said while there was inevitably Gibson's own artistic interpretation of the Passion, for the most part, the movie is an accurate, honest, biblical and historical portrayal of the violence that actually was done to Jesus.

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