Gary Susman
December 02, 2003 AT 05:00 AM EST

If Pope John Paul II wants to see Mel Gibson’s controversial dramatization of the Crucifixion, he may have to wait in line next February and buy a ticket, like the rest of us. Reuters reports that Gibson has turned down a Vatican request to screen ”The Passion of Christ” during a conference this week on cinema and theology. Gibson begged off and told the church authorities to wait, saying in an e-mail that ”the film is only weeks away from being finished,” Reuters reports.

That Gibson is still editing the film in anticipation of its Ash Wednesday release date hasn’t stopped him from holding several private sneak preview screenings over the past few months, showing the film to handpicked audiences consisting largely of prominent Protestant clergy and conservative pundits. Just last week, the film earned the endorsement of the Rev. Billy Graham. The televangelist, who apologized last year for making anti-Semitic statements in a 1972 conversation with President Richard Nixon, said in a statement that he found the film faithful to the Gospels and unlikely to foment anti-Semitism, as Jewish groups have feared. Graham also said he had gotten to meet Gibson and star Jim Caviezel and was impressed by their faith and sincerity.

Gibson belongs to a sect of Traditionalist Catholics who recognize neither the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (which include the Church’s call not to blame the Jews for the Crucifixion) nor the Pope’s authority over the Church. Nonetheless, the Vatican had apparently expected him to grant its request for an advance screening this week. ”Gibson has not fully committed yet, but we will very probably hold a closed-door screening for [theological] experts,” said Andrea Piersanti, head of the Church entertainment group Ente dello Spettacolo, in an interview with Variety over the weekend. ”This way, we will be able to form our own serene and detached opinion of the film,” said Piersanti, who is also president of the Italian government’s film commission, Istituto Luce.

In September, two Vatican officials (one of whom had seen only the film’s trailer) praised the movie, but the Vatican distanced itself from their comments, saying they represented only the officials’ personal opinions, and that the Vatican would withhold judgment until top Church officials in Rome have screened the movie.

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