The Passion of The Christ
and Anne Catherine Emmerich
and Mary of Agreda
The Mel Gibson movie The Passion of The Christ has caused new interest in the writings of the Catholic mystics Venerable Anne Catherine Emmerich, and Venerable Mary of Agreda. Although the  source of the movie is the Gospels, Gibson nonetheless appears to have taken some inspiration for his artistry from the writings of these two holy Catholic women, whose writings he acknowledges were important to the spiritual journey which lead him to make the movie.

Anne Catherine Emmerich was an Augustinian nun who was born 8 September 1774 at Flamsche, in the Diocese of Münster, in  Germany and who died at Dulmen on 9 February 1824. During her life she experienced the mystical phenomenon of the stigmata, the wounds of Christ, which after a study ordered by her bishop were judged by a panel of physicians and clergy to be authentic. In addition she had mystical visions, the content of which came to be written down by Clemens Brentano, a man who served as her secretary in this regard. Among the most famous of her writings is the The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

In 1892, well after her death, her Cause for Beatification was introduced by the bishop of Münster. She subsequently attained to the title of Venerable, indicating Rome's recognition that she lived a life of heroic virtue. However, in 1928 Rome suspended the Cause of Beatification when it was suspected that Brentano fabricated material attributed to her. The Holy See has since permitted the Cause to be re-opened on the sole issue of her life, without reference to the possibly doctored writings. On 2 July 2003 a decree of a miracle was promulgated by the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, opening the way for her Beatification (L'Osservatore Romano N. 29, 16 July 2003,  2).

Venerable Mary of Agreda was a Spanish Franciscan nun, who lived between 1602 and 24 May 1665. Her Cause was almost immediately introduced after her death, in 1672, as she had lived a life of evident holiness in the eyes of her contemporaries. During her life she had experienced mystical phenomena including private revelations. The content of these revelations were written down under obedience and after her death were widely circulated in Spain. The most famous of these writings is the Mystical City of God: Divine History of the Virgin, Mother of God.

However, when Divine History came to the attention of the Holy Office (called today the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), it was  condemned on 4 August 1681, on the basis of an evaluation by the University of Paris, and put on the Index of Forbidden Books by Pope Innocent XI. The Pope subsequently suspended its effect, at the request of the King of Spain. Other studies of the work by prestigious Catholic universities in Spain and elsewhere vindicated it, and in 1713 the Holy Office indicated that the suspension of the condemnation applied everywhere. However, certain historical questions still remain concerning possible editorial changes after Mary of Agreda's death. Such questions, as in the case of Anne Catherine Emmerich, may never be adequately resolved.

How should such writings be treated today? The answer to this is two-fold.

First, as private revelations such writings must not be accorded equal or greater authenticity than the Gospels themselves. Private revelations are not given by God to satisfy curiosity or to fill in the gaps of the historical details left out of the Scriptures. Rather, they occur within the context of the prayer life of an individual. A person who has passed through the initial stage of growth in sanctity, called the Purgative Way, in which they have meditated on the Gospels, on Christ's life, on Church teaching, and have exhausted what human language can provide them as food for prayer, enter upon an Illuminative Way in which God provides them new food for contemplation, not descriptions of Christ's life but scenes from it. As the proverb says, a picture is worth a thousand words. The  purpose is to bring the intellect to rest in God who is Truth, and to inflame the will to love God who is Good.

As St. Thomas Aquinas and St. John of the Cross make clear, however, although God can give new lights, most private revelation is "constructed" from the building materials of the memory and knowledge of the person. This means that the mystic's own religious, cultural and educational influences help determine how the visions are presented to them. This accounts, for example, for the variety in the details of the same events among different mystics. Some details may have been supplied by God, others taken from the presuppositions of the mystic. Since God's purpose is not to improve upon Scripture but to inflame the will with love, the source of the details are ultimately irrelevant to that purpose. In the end, the Church judges the authenticity of such writings not by these details but whether anything is contrary to faith and morals. It does not, therefore, guarantee that every detail is true, only that it is theologically safe.

Secondly, in addition to the general "problem" of interpreting private revelation there is also the specific problem of the uncertainties associated with these particular writings. Both factors argue for reading the writings of Anne Catherine Emmerich and Mary of Agreda as a means to inflame one's love for God and for neighbor, and not as an appendix to Sacred Scripture. Toward that end they can be very fruitful, just as The Passion of The Christ can lead to a fruitful personal meditation on the sufferings of the Lord, without being historical in all its details.

An Example. An example of the principle of God using what is already known by the mystic to form a vision or private revelation is the placement of the nails, and its corollary, the location of the stigmata in those saints who have had them. Scripture doesn't tell us with precision how Jesus was nailed. The Hebrew word in Psalm 22:16 is usually translated hand, but could apply to the wrist or adjacent forearm, as well.  Nonetheless, the artistic tradition usually portrays the palm of the hand, while mystics propose a variety of placements from palm to wrist to forearm. On the other hand, the Shroud of Turin and historical studies of crucifixion argue strongly that the Crucified was nailed through the wrist, as the only part which could support a body's weight. Do the differences among mystics, and with the likely actual case (the wrist), make a palm or forearm placement of the wounds inauthentic? Not according to Catholic mystical theology, which recognizes the subjective (personal) element in mysticism, and which therefore allows for differences in such details. In The Passion of The Christ Mel Gibson has chosen to follow Emmerich's placement, a choice which is both artistically and theologically  justifiable. 

For more information on the role of Private Revelation in the Church see:



Answered by Colin B. Donovan, STL

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