A Great Moment In the Life of an Artist

PEGGY NOONAN

Talking with James Caviezel after his meeting with the pope.

James Caviezel

The actor James Caviezel, who plays Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, met with Pope John Paul II on Monday at the Vatican. Afterward Mr. Caviezel talked with me briefly by phone from Rome. I asked him what it was like, and transcribed what he said.

"I walked into the room and I was laughing at myself—who am I, where I'm from, and now I'm going in and sitting here having this huge meeting. And there's the pope sitting there in a chair with a chair next to him and I am to sit in it. I had an opportunity to see him when I was a boy, but I didn't because I had to study for a Spanish test that I probably didn't study for anyway. But my family came back and they were overjoyed. That was in 1984, when the pope came to Vancouver, British Columbia.

"I walked in and he just waved to me. It was in the Vatican, in a big room; I think it was the library. There were a lot of chambers that went in different places — a room off a room off a room, you know.

"He smiled and waved. There were four of us, me and my wife and my mother-in-law and father-in-law. My wife was right to my right. She kneeled first and she kissed his hand. I kneeled down and kissed his hand, and then we talked.

"Did you ever read the pope's Letter to the Artists of the World? I read it several times when I was a young actor. It was very important to me. It came out and I remember what he said is that part of the truth, right, is accepting — you can't just write about darkness and say 'This is the way it is,' because light always comes through. It must. If you went into a 40,000-foot warehouse, even if you just light a match the match pierces the darkness. It pierces even in the vast amount of darkness. As I see it, the movie is a light, it is a match.

"So the first thing I began to talk about was his Letter to the Artists. I told him it gave me great strength in my life and my career. I thanked him. I said, 'Thank you.' The pope — this is a very holy man. He's seen the Nazis and the communists [and there were] people he knew that understand what a regime is like and what they do, and how they can take your freedom from you. He's seen it. This is the pope from Fatima. I think the guy's a mystic. He's a saint. I'm not impressed by celebrity — that word is bad when you're standing in front of a saint. But something moved me. I know he is a saint.

"I wanted a blessing for my marriage and my family. The other thing I said — the point of the film, I always knew if it's gonna rock you have to have Mary. There are different Christian traditions and ways and views, but let the Holy Spirit do his work, I'm not denying the mother. What her son said on the cross, 'Mother behold your son, Son behold your mother' — it's one of the seven things Jesus said on the cross. He said it. You can't leave it out, so if you include it you have to develop it, you have to tell the story, to show it. He was giving his mother to the world. He gave his mother to John, to the world.

"So the second thing I said to the pope is, 'You boldly put the M on your crest.' The Blessed Mother on his crest. She is the one I think who made the movie for her Son. I told [the pope], 'Your statement, your example.' She knew the great pain. We put her son to death for saying, 'Be a good person.' Well, he told the truth. The truth cuts like a sword. That's the sword right there, 'Be a good person.'

"In the world we make good as evil and evil as good. But here's a guy [the pope] who doesn't do that. He carries a lot of crosses. I don't know how he functions. And there's politics everywhere — everywhere. But the church will survive. It'll be here when we're dust.

"When this whole thing began — I met one day with Mel [Gibson], and we're talking about other roles, and then stories in the Bible, and he's looking at me. And I said, 'You want me to play Jesus, don't you?' And he said, 'Yeah.' Your life builds up to things. When you're asked a question, when the whole history of your life comes to that moment — You want me to play Christ. don't you? — God gives you a grace inside your heart that says, 'Look, this is where I need you.' One of the great saints, I read her, is Maria de Agreda, a mystic. She wrote that Mary said, 'If you truly follow my son, scandal will follow you all your life.' But OK — if they persecute you, they persecuted him first.

"Miraculous things have happened. When I was hit by lightning [during the filming of a crucifixion scene], it was the one day I didn't have communion. We always had mass and I always received communion but on that one day the priest ran out of hosts. I was up there on the cross and I was hit and we knew I was going to be hit, we could see it coming. And the eyes of the men below me turned glossy. Everything was pink, fire coming from both sides of my head. And there was a sound — it was like the sound of the planes hitting the building on 9/11, a weird, guttural, discordant sound. Not like an explosion. And then afterwards I heard the sound when they played one of the films, the videotape [of the World Trade Center on 9/11, on television] and it was like a shock: 'That is the sound of the lightning.' The plane going into the building.

"This is a very intense time in my life. The first part of my life was a leading up to this, a preparation. You learn a lot. You shouldn't hold on to things, to neuroses. People, artists, think they have to hold on to their neuroses, their pains, or they won't be a good actor anymore or a good artist. That's the Liar. The Liar tells you that. You hold on to them, you'll just wind up a lonely person. People become lonely with time, and the fame has moved on to someone else. You have to heal, you have to maintain relationships and get rid of dysfunction and neurosis. That's why we say the Our Father — 'Deliver us from evil.'

"I get letters from people — 'You swore in this movie,' or whatever. I reply 'Yes, I play sinners.' I look for stuff that has redemption. That doesn't mean the characters are redeemable.

"I'm — my love — I love my church. I love my church and through my church I see my country as the greatest gift God gave us, freedom.

"How long did I speak to [John Paul]? I can't really remember. It wasn't longer than five minutes with me and 10 minutes with my family. When I left I was happy. I just felt happiness. We all left together."

(Pope John Paul II's Letter to the Artists of the World is available here.)

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Peggy Noonan. "A Great Moment In the Life of an Artist." The Wall Street Journal (March 18, 2004).

This article reprinted with permission from The Wall Street Journal and Peggy Noonan.

THE AUTHOR

Peggy Noonan is a contributing editor of The Wall Street Journal. She is also a contributing editor of Time magazine and Good Housekeeping, a member of the board of the Manhattan Institute and author, most recently, of John Paul the Great: Remembering a Spiritual Father. Ms. Noonan was special assistant to President Ronald Reagan. In 1988 she was chief speechwriter for Vice President George Bush as he ran for the presidency. Her first book, What I Saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era, was published in 1990. She is also author of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness (1994), On Speaking Well (1998), The Case Against Hillary Clinton (2000) When Character Was King (2001) and A Heart, A Cross, And A Flag: America Today (2003).

Before entering the Reagan White House, she was a producer at CBS News in New York, where she wrote and produced Dan Rather's daily radio commentary. She also wrote television news specials for CBS News. In 1978 and 1979 she was an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. Ms. Noonan lives in New York.

Copyright © 2004 Wall Street Journal


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