(03/19/2004) - The Jewish Week, New York
The Nun, The Rabbi And Mel
They are two friends from different faiths,
but they have a similar critique of 'The Passion.'
Julie Wiener - Staff Writer
As a scarred and battered Jesus stumbles under the weight of his cross, relentlessly
whipped by soldiers, Myrna Matsa turns to her friend in the movie theater seat
"Are all these beatings in the Gospels?"
"No," replies Donna Conroy, whose arms have been folded guardedly
across her chest for most of the film. "This isn't Scripture. It's Mel
It is an exchange - Matsa leaning over to check facts with Conroy - that has
been repeated several times this evening. The two friends - a rabbi and a nun
- are watching "The Passion of the Christ" together at a threadbare
theater in a Bronx strip mall.
Rabbi Matsa and Sister Conroy are colleagues at Calvary Hospital and classmates
at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Doctor of Ministry
in Pastoral Counseling Program. At Rabbi Matsa's urging, the two saw the controversial
movie together last week (accompanied by a Jewish Week reporter).
While the two clearly enjoy each other's company, and are roughly the same
age (Sister Conroy is 57, Rabbi Matsa preferred to keep quiet on the age question),
they have strikingly different personalities: Sister Conroy seems down-to-earth
and has a good sense of humor, while Rabbi Matsa is sweet and dreamy.
Wary of the violence and anti-Semitism, Sister Conroy initially planned to
avoid the film altogether. Rabbi Matsa, however, felt it was too important to
"But the only way I would go would be with Donna," she says.
Waiting for the film to begin, the two brace themselves for gore. Asked if
she expects the film to move her spiritually, the nun says, "I will be
surprised if it does. Twenty-five or 30 years ago maybe I would have thought
it would touch me spiritually. Now I'll have to see."
The Church has changed a great deal in three decades, she says. "Thirty
years ago, Catholics were still very spiritually attuned to aspects of the Passion
and death of Jesus, more so than his life and resurrection. Now, although we
still acknowledge that Jesus was a historical figure who died through crucifixion,
a lot of the emphasis really is on his teaching and his life and his resurrection."
The movie begins and the clergy friends watch attentively, although Rabbi Matsa,
the more timid of the pair, spends much of the film wincing and covering her
eyes. Neither is shy in commenting - quietly - throughout. Sister Conroy notes
when the movie deviates from the religious text, while Rabbi Matsa critiques
it from a historical perspective.
As the Roman leader Pontius Pilate throws his hands up in the air and tells
the Jews, "It is you who want to crucify him, not I. I am innocent of this
man's blood," Rabbi Matsa grumbles that in reality, the Jewish high priest
Caiaphas "had no power over Pilate.
"This version of the Gospel was written when the Romans were still in
power," Rabbi Matsa says, noting that rather than alienating the Roman
leadership, the Christian writers found it easier to simply lay the blame on
By the time the credits roll, the nun and rabbi are both exhausted. Walking
out of the theater, Rabbi Matsa says, "I feel nauseous. I don't want to
trespass on your theology, but this is such a new experience for me."
"This is not my theology!" Sister Conroy says, a little defensively.
Then, breaking the tension a little, she exclaims, "Oh, man, that was brutal."
The two part ways for a few minutes - each hopping into her car to drive to
Applebee's, on the other side of the mall - where they will reconnect to discuss
the film. In her Subaru with a reporter, Sister Conroy says, that although some
Catholic friends have told her the movie was not that anti-Semitic, "I
think it is."
"It provokes strong emotions in anyone who is attached to this,"
she says, noting that it makes it look like the Romans "tried to wash their
hands of complicity but were egged on by the [Jewish] priests."
Later, she elaborates on the film's anti-Semitism, saying it is often nuanced
and "insidious" rather than overt: Pilate's obvious disdain for the
mob of Jews, frequent camera panning over the lavishly ornate robes of the Jewish
"If you didn't have anti-Semitic proclivities, I don't think you would
get them from going to the movie," she said. "But if you had them,
they would be reinforced."
Waiting at the Applebee's entrance, where a large sign promotes the restaurant's
Lenten Menu, Rabbi Matsa has a big question for her friend. "I want to
ask about the meaning of suffering in Catholicism," she announces, as the
hostess ushers them past the tables packed with young black and Latino families.
"I don't even know how to begin to answer that," Sister Conroy says.
"It's a 1,200-year history. I can't do that tonight."
But as they sit down, glossy menus unopened in their hands, Sister Conroy says
there is a "whole tradition that says it's suffering that brings us close
The two discuss the creative license Mel Gibson has taken with the story and
how it is out of synch with the current theology of the Church. Rabbi Matsa
complains at the way the priests were characterized as bloodthirsty, when in
fact contemporary Jewish law was highly reluctant to impose the death penalty,
and the two agree that the film's sympathetic depiction of Pontius Pilate makes
no sense historically.
"That's part of the anti-Semitic flavor of it," Sister Conroy says.
"I don't think it was Mel Gibson's intention. I think it was his ignorance."
Rabbi Matsa, who has been nervously diplomatic, appears relieved to hear Sister
Conroy describe the movie as anti-Semitic. The rabbi says she is worried about
what reactions the movie will spur. "My fear is someone walking out and
saying, this is what you did. I'm going to show you what it felt like. This
has happened for centuries."
Sister Conroy acknowledges that it has the potential for "undoing any
Jewish-Christian relationship that's been built up. But people who are involved
in dialogue already are not going to be influenced by this."
The heavy focus on suffering troubles Rabbi Matsa. "[Jesus'] suffering
didn't stop sin in the world. It didn't stop terrible things from happening.
... I would be very interested in knowing what is sacred about watching this."
"For me there was nothing sacred about watching this," Sister Conroy
says emphatically. "It was a lot of horror."
Nonetheless, she says Mel Gibson's approach to the theology is not unfamiliar
"In a sense that's how I grew up. At a time when the sisters told me Jesus
died for my sins. I personally was responsible. I remember saying to my mother
I don't understand, was what I did that bad?"
Growing up in upstate New York in the 1950s, Sister Conroy says, "You
did not question anything. Questions weren't welcome. What the Church taught
was what you believed. If you questioned you weren't a good Catholic."
Like the Church, Sister Conroy has become more sensitive to anti-Semitism over
the years, although she credits her sensitivity less to official Church documents
and more to studying in an interdenominational program and to working with Jewish
families at Calvary Hospital.
So, in the end was there anything redeeming about the film?
Both Rabbi Matsa and Sister Conroy said they were moved by the depiction of
Mary - played by a Jewish actress, Maia Morgenstern.
"In my work I see a lot of mothers whose sons are dying, and mothers are
very strong people and courageous," Sister Conroy said. "That was
the only time in the movie I had any sort of feeling. The scenes with Jesus
were so brutal I kind of shut down. I don't think a psyche can sustain watching