What distinguishes the Oberammergau Play is its historical longevity and enduring appeal to both Christians and those who go just for a unique theatrical experience. Its story is well known. But to briefly recapitulate: it all began in 1633, with the plague that was decimating the Bavarian countryside during the period of the Thirty Years War and which eventually entered the Alpine village of Oberammergau, where scores died. Those surviving vowed to enact a Passion Play in perpetuity if the plague passed, which it did - from that day on. Since 1634 the villagers have honoured their vow, roughly every decade.
Oberammergau's most prominent building is its hangar-like theatre. Rebuilt in 1930, the vast stage is open to the elements, with the Kofel Mountain as a stunning backdrop. The statistics are staggering. Between late May and early October 2000, in excess of a half-million visitors, at an average rate of 5,000+ daily, witnessed the famous Passion Play. All of this, of course, represents a multi-million pound 'industry'. But throughout wars, revolutions and military occupations, the villagers have stayed true to their tradition; their Play, with its eternal message of salvation, witnessing to their Faith and faithfulness.
All, however, is not quite what it was.
As James Shapiro points out in Oberammergau: The Troubling Story of the World's Most Famous Passion Play [Little, Brown & Company, 2000]: "the past century in particular has witnessed a steady shift in control, away from the local parish priest and into the hands of the Passion Play Committee and village council." (Sound familiar?!). This has entailed much controversy over the Play's alleged anti-Semitic text in some passages. Put simply, high Church authorities now retain final approval of the text and the manner in which major scenes are managed. This, writes Shapiro, was a controversial measure, winning the approval of the village council by only a single vote. The stage was set, as it were, for significant changes to how parts of the Gospel story had always been conveyed.
The "opening shot in the war against the play," as James Shapiro puts it, was fired in November 1966. Phil Baum, Director of the American Jewish Congress's Commission on International Affairs, marshalled a group of American intellectuals and artists to oppose the Play's perceived anti-Semitism. High-profile names, such as Arthur Miller, Leonard Bernstein, Gunter Grass and Heinrich Boll, apparently underlay what amounted to a boycott of the Play. Shapiro recounts that during a news conference in New York City announcing the boycott, Elie Wiesel opined that "the artist cannot be silent when the arts are used to exalt hatred." The 1970 production subsequently saw unprecedented blocks of empty seats.
But it didn't stop there. Up until 1970, the doctrine conveyed by the Oberammergau Play had received the Church's full approval. However, after Vatican II's innovative Declaration of the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, this support was withheld; the implication being that the Play, according to the Archbishop of Munich, "contained anti-Semitic elements and needed revision." Shapiro comments: "The play hadn't changed but the Church's message had."
Commenting in The Remnant of 15 September 2000 on the disparity between these prayer texts which appear to convey totally contrary sentiments, to say the least, Thomas E. Woods PhD wonders if Rome wants the Jews to convert to belief in Christ or not? If so, he says, why not simply say so. Are we praying that the Jews arrive at the fullness of redemption through belief in Christ and membership of His Church? If so, why not just say it?
James Shapiro (no keen apologist for the Catholic Church) appears to answer this query in one shot. What the new oration, or prayer, clearly demonstrates and supports, is a "change in the Church's message." In this regard and just as troubling was the late Cardinal John O'Connor imparting his blessing and best wishes on national (American) T.V., to a young Catholic man converting (deserting!) to Judaism! The Cardinal rationalised his support for this act of apostasy by stating that "… Christ came into the world as a Jew. Ethnically, religiously, a Jew. We believe He was the Son of God. But He came for everybody." At the same time, Cardinal Lustiger, Archbishop of Paris, has claimed that it is not necessary for the Jews to convert to Catholicism. Thomas Woods asks rhetorically: "are we to believe, then, that two of the most important and influential cardinals in the world, not to mention two of the Holy Father's favourites, are radically at odds with the Holy See on this matter?"
Nor, I believe, has the recent declaration Dominus Iesus, at once clear and ambiguous in the way of post-conciliar documents, satisfactorily cleared the decks in this matter. The familiar fog of "we say this but mean that" remains: exemplified by Cardinal Ratzinger's comment that Dominus Iesus affirms "that the being of the Church as such is a larger identity than the Roman Catholic Church." What exactly does this mean? That Dominus Iesus conflicts with the perennial teaching of the Catholic Church prior to Vatican II? That we should be looking out for a forthcoming "explanatory document" to clarify the clarification? Or that we have finally arrived at "reconciled diversity": endgame, it would appear, to a failed ecumenism? Bishop Waltar Kaspar, Secretary to the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, for one, seems to think so! Remarking in L'Osservatore Romano that prior to Vatican II the Church "understood the re-establishing of Christian unity exclusively in terms of 'return of our separated brothers to the true Church of Christ ... from which they have at one time unhappily separated themselves'," he declared: "The old concept of the ecumenism of return has today been replaced by that of a common journey which directs Christians toward the goal of ecclesial communion understood as unity in reconciled diversity."
Can this be construed as an absurd 'unity in divergence', as it seems clearly to imply? Apparently so. Those of us who still labour under the illusion that we are the One, True, Universal Church, united in belief, clearly have some catching up to do. Because it appears that conversion now refers to a general movement towards God, that may in turn refer to multi-directional changes of religious adherence! Cardinal O'Connor - Prince of the Church, no less - publicly blessed this theological novelty as he blithely bid adieu to the young Catholic lapsing into a heretical faith. At least Karl Rahner (hardly a paragon of orthodoxy) was more honest when stating, in 1982: "Either recognise the irreconcilability of the different denominations or be content with a mere verbal unity, or admit that the different denominations constitute a single faith."
Papal Luddite vis-à-vis
A recent pilgrim to Oberammergau - whose Catholic objectivity and veracity I have no reason to doubt, and who was otherwise overwhelmed by the play's poignancy and masterly presentation - offered the following observations in the September 2000 Oratory Magazine (bracketed comments are my own). "Our Lord," she writes, "had more than a touch of the Che Guevara about him [a whiff of Liberation Theology?]. Mary Magdalen was given too great a prominence and Our Lady seemed to have been rather down-graded [the village boasts a coterie of feminists - 'nuff said]. The responsibility for Our Lord's condemnation is shifted from the Jews to Pontius Pilate and here, as elsewhere, the dead hand of political correctness seems to have blurred the clear message of Holy Scripture. Another jarring note was the appearance of the High Priest Caiphas for the formal condemnation of Our Saviour. The doors of the Temple slowly opened and he appeared dressed in white, borne aloft on a sedia gestatoria (portable throne), flanked by two fans suspiciously like the flabelli once carried on either side of the pope in solemn processions. The reference to Pope Pius XII was as obvious as it was tasteless."
The revised/updated text of the Passion Play has received ecclesiastical approval, doubtless under the pretext of centuries of indefensible anti-Semitic sentiment leading to exiles, pogroms and social ostracism - the much maligned efforts of Popes throughout history to defend and assist the Jews notwithstanding. And insofar as such textual revisions merely seek to emphasise the major culprits in the conspiracy to murder Christ - "chief priests and the scribes" (Lk 22:2), their rent-a-mob and Pilate - one can mount few objections. But political and ecclesiastical change-agents are never content with anything less than total subversion of tradition - and the champions of tradition! Hence the demolition-job on Eugenio Pacelli, Pope Pius XII, which so disgusted the Oratory pilgrim and companions.
Though to do with the Play's artistic direction rather than its text, it is inconceivable that such a pivotal scene would be outside the oversight of the Church authorities. Yet this blatant attack on Pius XII was countenanced. The sub-text and agenda are clear. Everything about the towering historical figure of Pius and his lack of fawning accommodation with the Zeitgeist and other religions is galling for present day liberals. Last of the pre-conciliar pontiffs, last of the Popes of Tradition, he still casts a disapproving, contradictory shadow across all their Modernist endeavours. As an authoritarian (by later standards), hierarchic figure, jealous of right order and doctrine and the high dignity of his supreme office, Eugenio Pacelli oversaw what nowadays is eagerly caricatured as an extreme centralisation of rule in the Universal Church - never mind that the dissent, disobedience and dislocation which has overtaken every aspect of Church life since Vatican II owes much to the almost complete reversal of centralised government in favour of a failed episcopal collegiality! But this inconvenient tie between decentralisation and decay is necessarily ignored by the enemies of Pius who are more mindful of his willingness to use his supreme authority to confront liberal stirrings, contained but not entirely suppressed by previous pontiffs, and from which he considered Angelo Guiseppe Roncalli and Giovanni Battista Montini (the future Popes John XXIII and Paul VI), not entirely immune. In particular, the Modernists shudder to think how the obscurantist (i.e. traditional Catholic) outlook embodied by Pius stifled for so long the leanings of these future conciliar Popes towards an innovative ecumenism which was always destined to conflict with Pius' understanding of John 18:36 ("My kingdom is not of this world") and Matthew 1:34 ("I came not to send peace but a sword").
The idea that many liberals harbour a real hatred, as opposed to mere aversion, for someone as saintly as Pius XII is difficult to conceive until one recalls their near idolisation of his successor, the recently beatified John XXIII, whose different vision of the Church had been strongly influenced by early contact with Modernists and Socialists like themselves. In liberal eyes, he was perceived as the Great Liberator after decades of subversive struggle within the straightjacket of doctrinal orthodoxy and ecclesiastical tradition. The Modernist Yves Congar, latterly handed a red hat by John Paul, has written: "Pius X was the Pope who confronted the modernist movement, understood as 'the theoretical and practical subordination of Catholicism to the modern spirit' ... However, the Movement's studies continued to follow its irrepressible course, both from outside and within, at times meeting with resistance, problems, controls and restraints. Later the situation changed profoundly. There was John XXIII (1958-1963), the Council (1962-1965), aggiornamento..." (Eglise Catholique et France moderne; Hachette, 1978, pp. 37-8). Arch-liberals Hans Kung, Karl Rahner, Congar himself, Henri de Lubac, Edward Schillebeeck, along with Jesuit John Courtney Murray, were all either Council periti or advisors mainly if not entirely chosen by John XXIII. All either helped fashion or were influenced by the Nouvelle Theologie which dramatically re-fashioned the Church: from a stoutly-defended Citadel to an Open City subject to any and every conflicting wind-of-change. As Silvio Tramontin, a journalist favourable to John XXIII, has noted: "... he (Pope John) has been defined by the progressivists as a standard-bearer, a demiurge, to which they attribute not only the summoning of the Council, but all the progress made by today's Church..." ["Giovanni XXIII: di Idestral o di Isinistra?" Avennire, 1 June 1993]. To be fair, Cardinal Heenan also wrote: "I often wonder what Pope John would have thought had he been able to foresee that his Council would provide an excuse for rejecting so much of the Catholic doctrine which he wholeheartedly accepted" (Council and Clergy, London, 1966).
Whatever (or whoever) really motivated John XXIII to call a Council whose outcome was sufficiently predictable for Pius XII to decide against calling one himself, will doubtless be debated until Judgement. But in light of this hero-worship he enjoys in Left-wing circles both within and without the Church, it is perhaps easier to understand why Modernists and their secular counterparts detest all that Pius represented. Above all, if not for this long reigning papal Luddite of the Church's ancien regime, they reason, the longed-for fruits of their perverse ecumenical endeavour - the reconciliation of the Church to the secular milieu and subsequent abandonment of all Catholic militancy with regard to promotion and defence of the Faith - might have been enjoyed decades earlier.
And while we may well ask who or what is really driving and relentlessly maintaining this anti-Pius - i.e. anti-papal - 'industry', it seems to me that 'they' or 'it' were unwittingly handed further ammunition by the Vatican itself, by way of the Catholic Jubilee Year apologies to the Jewish Race for historical 'sins of commission and omission'. Why? Because in the mind of the ignorant masses the Holy Father's mea culpa relates most obviously to a certain deceased Pope routinely reviled in the popular press for allegedly abandoning the Jews in their hour of need. Thus, as always and just as in the revised Oberammergau Passion Play, Pius XII effectively becomes the Scapegoat, like the one upon which Aaron laid the sins of the people before driving it into the wilderness [Lev 16: 21-22]. Isolated historically from an institution which for all practical purposes has re-invented and distanced itself from its past, Eugenio Pacelli appears perfectly chosen to deflect and divert accumulated guilt-by-association, while at the same time demonising the 'legalistic' and 'authoritarian' pre-conciliar Church he personifies in contemporary iconography.
Paradigm of Decay