Caviezel's keynote address came after conference attendees had seen a private screening of The Passion of The Christ and spent a day hearing renowned Catholic speakers commissioning the young adults to take their place ushering in the new civilization of love.
Caviezel issued a similar challenge as he shared his experiences of making the film and the events that led up to accepting the role of Jesus Christ.
"What was it like to play this role? Unquenchable fire. There was no comfort. There was no peace," the actor said. He explained how he had been whipped twice while filming the scourging scene that took seven weeks to shoot. The lashes left him breathless, in severe, shocking pain, and with a 14-inch welt that would become the model the make-up artist used to create the additional wounds on his body.
"The second strike came with such velocity that I tore the flesh on my hands and wrists, yanking them out of the chains. I tasted two lashes of the whip. Some mystics think Jesus may have endured more than 5,000 blows. This was no mere man."
During the five weeks taken to shoot the crucifixion, he experienced hypothermia from the blood-chilling November winds of Matera, Italy. The actor explained how the winds came up the canyon like "knives" as he hung on the cross, with only a loincloth for protection against the cold. The cross, which stood on the edge of the canyon, swung back and forth with the real possibility of snapping and dropping him into a nine-foot ravine, he said.
To warm him, large heaters were used. Unfortunately, the heaters burned his toes and melted the latex makeup, but if they weren't close enough, the winds just blew the hot air away from him. Caviezel would oftentimes go home and try to sleep in the makeup that otherwise took eight hours to apply. His legs cramped, his limbs convulsed, and the makeup all over his body itched. He inhaled fumes from the heater, he had one eye shut and the other hyper-focused, while the crown of thorns caused him severe migraines, he said. "You know I'm just an actor pretending this is happening to me. It helps you appreciate what Jesus actually did continuously for every one of us."
Driven into the Arms of God
In addition to the pain and the exhaustion, he recalled how waiting on the cross between takes became tedious. To fight the boredom, he listened to music on headphones. One particular song called "Above All" by Michael W. Smith helped him through his most difficult moments.
"It arrived when I was confused and angry. I didn't think I could go on. The song described how Jesus was rejected and alone. That thought took me to a place it opened an interior door that held me while on the cross," an emotional Caviezel explained. "The experience of feeling rejected and alone as all those around me laughed while drinking their hot coffees, oblivious to what was occurring. Jesus must have felt like this forsaken, rejected, alone, and despised. It helped me pray in a very deep way to pray without words, to pray from the heart. The discomfort, the loneliness, the split shoulder, the raw flesh all forced me into the arms of God because I had nowhere else to go for a performance I knew I was unable to create."
Caviezel emphasizes that anything good about his performance was born out of the fasting, the prayers, and the daily Masses.
"As I hung there I thought about all the twists of providence that brought me to that cross." The truth was that Caviezel had been chosen and he knew it had not been a coincidence.
He recounted for the captivated audience how Mary had been guiding him through all the key moments of his career a career that would lead him to her Son. He gives credit to Mary for landing the most sought-after role in The Thin Red Line, by director Terrence Malick. He remembered arriving at Malick's home for an audition in a state of panic and self-doubt. It was a moment of truth, because he had decided that if he did not get the role, he would quit acting. He could not go on wondering if he would ever work consistently as an actor. "It's 6 p.m. and I'm still in the car," he said. "I need to go in. I believe in my heart the next 10 minutes changed my life forever. I'm an emotional mess and it's 6:05. I'm in the middle of the fourth glorious mystery."
He would go on to finish the rosary and, compelled by a familiar sensation, he took the rosary with him to the meeting. He had first experienced this sensation when, at 19, he felt called to be an actor. "I had a sensation right here in my chest that I was supposed to be an actor. That this was what God had crafted me for. This is what He wanted of me. Reluctantly I went forward." The woman who opened the door for him wore a Miraculous Medal. He assumed she was Catholic and the maid. She was neither. While they were talking, he got the sensation again, stronger then ever.
"I interrupt her and I say, 'This is for you Ma'am.' She is completely startled and she asks, 'Why did you do that?' Tears [are] welling up in her eyes. 'I prayed this morning that God would send me another [rosary] and in walks you.' This woman is now collapsing in tears. I'm holding the rosary between us and in walks the director [who] says, 'Honey, what's wrong?' I realize this isn't the maid! "From that day on, Terrence Malick and I began to have a close relationship that continues today. He would go on to cast me in the first major role of my career. It would be nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Something was going on, but it was still a mystery. Cut to the spring of 2000."
J. C. Superstar
Caviezel was on the set making the acclaimed Count of Monte Cristo.
The actor said it was a very difficult period for him. He wondered if his prayers were being heard. His sign came in the form of an image of the Immaculate Conception.
"While shooting a pivotal scene in the film, when the Count of Monte Cristo must decide if he [will] remain with the love of his life or leave her for his revenge, I'm looking up at the ceiling but in reality there's nothing there."
For inspiration, director Kevin Reynolds decided to have him look at a painting of the Immaculate Conception he found on the ceiling of one of the rooms. "I was in shock. It was a sign for me a sign that the Lord and His Mother were with me. Through my trials they had been there the whole time leading me by the hand to my vocation. If you saw The Count of Monte Cristo, you know that shot did stay in the film and I'm proud to say that I shared screen time with the Mother of God."
The next thing Caviezel knows is that he is playing Jesus Christ in Gibson's newest movie, a film that no one knew he was making at the time.
Gibson wanted an actor with the initials J.C. who was 33 years of age.
Jim Caviezel fit the description.
"Was it a coincidence? I don't think so. When I was up there on that cross I learned that in His suffering was our redemption. Some of you may feel confused or uncertain about the future. This is not the time to give in. We each must carry our cross. It is time for our generation to accept that call. Young people, tear yourselves apart from this corrupt generation be saints! Use the gifts given to you by God for good purposes. You can only reach the splendid heights He has reserved for you if you first submit to Him. Conform your will to Him."
Caviezel challenged everyone from university students to priests and bishops to resist the desire for comfort, popularity, and timidity. He challenged leaders to preach the unpopular gospel "in season and out of season." He called all Catholics to recommit to prayer, the rosary, fasting, frequenting confession and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. "Our whole world is entrenched in sin. There in the quiet of our hearts a woman is calling us, each one of us, back to her Son. Jesus is there for us in the Scriptures. How often do we ignore Him? We must shake off this indifference. Only the Faith and the wisdom of the Church can save us, but it requires men and women, warriors ready to risk their good names, even their very lives to stand up for the truth."
In a passionate rendition of Gibson's battle cry from the Oscar-winning "Braveheart," Caviezel challenged Catholics to fight for the freedom that is real freedom from weakness and from the slavery of sin.
"You, my friends, by God, you must fight with Mary and with Christ as your sword. May you fight with St. Michael and all the angels in defending God, in sending Lucifer and his army straight back to hell where they belong!"
Nadia Pozo is a Staff Writer for the Catholic Standard & Times.
(This article originally appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times, Archdiocese of Philadelphia and is used by permission. Please visit their Web site.)