Where would Jesus go? Notre Dame

Author: Erik Runyon

Where is ‘Jesus’ these days? The answer is thus: He’s at the University of Notre Dame studying Spanish.

“I’m in the process of finally getting my college degree,” said actor Jim Caviezel, whose astonishing portrayal of Christ in Mel Gibson’s remarkable “The Passion of the Christ” catapulted him to stardom.

“I’m now too old to be Jesus,” chuckled Caviezel, 37, who just wrapped shooting “Deja Vu” with Denzel Washington in New Orleans. “You can now call me Moses.”

I caught Caviezel via cell phone as he scurried across the campus of his dreams last Friday. “It’s like home here,” he said. “Like family. Notre Dame was a no-brainer. I plan to be studying here when I’m not working.”

His conversation mixes spiritual riffs, sports nuggets and shamrock allegories with films that touched his heart, like “Brian’s Song” and “Rudy.”

Though he’s known for not working in movies with unredeemable scripts or gratuitous sex scenes, Caviezel will play unredeemable characters. “But I’m not telling you who plays the bad guy in this movie,” he said.

Is Caviezel, who his childhood friends thought would either be a priest or an actor, the most grounded star in Hollywood? (He claims he didn’t want to be either.) Well, consider. He played college basketball; once dreamed of joining the Naval Academy; married the love of his life, Kerri, whom he met through his sister, and adopted Bo, a young Chinese boy with a brain tumor. “I looked into Bo’s eyes, and they asked ‘Will you love me?’ And I did.”

So who is Caviezel, really?

“He’s the real deal. He’s as good as it gets,” said Paul “Sam” Kelmanson, a former Chicagoan who is now a Hollywood screenwriter. “He has the grace of Christ in his heart, and he’s a phenomenal artist.”

Caviezel, a devout Catholic who cites stories of courage as benchmarks in his spiritual life, is also a huge fan of Charlie Weis, Notre Dame’s football coach.

“This guy is tough . . . but this guy loves. And he is destined to be the greatest coach Notre Dame ever had.”

But it was something Coach Weis did off the field that put him in Caviezel’s Hall of Fame.

Weis kept his word to a dying child.

“A mother — who did not tell anyone she was dying of terminal breast cancer — asked Charlie to visit her dying son,” Caviezel said. "Charlie goes to his house, hands him a football and asks the kid, ‘What can I do for you?’

“The kid says: ’I’d like to make the first call for the next game.’ Pass to the right. ESPN filmed the visit.”

The boy died shortly afterward.

“There, in the face of controversy and under pressure, Weis did the right thing. He kept his word to that kid on the first call during a game against the University of Washington at Husky Stadium. I was at the game. He told his team to pass to the right.

“And in doing the right thing, it wound up being the right thing!

“The beauty of it is that the coach didn’t do it just for the boy. He did it for me . . . and for all of us. Life is about faith which leads to courage and love.”

Caviezel, who loves film because it mirrors life, has been keenly affected by movies since he was 5.

“That’s when I saw ’Brian’s Song’ and bawled my eyes out.”

The legendary TV film, which was about Chicago Bear Brian Piccolo’s battle with cancer and his caring teammate Gale Sayers, led Caviezel to ask his father, “Why?”

“I wanted to know why he died,” Caviezel said. “And when I met James Caan [who played Piccolo], I told him how moved I was by the film. I somehow sensed the love in that film.”

Does Caviezel embody the line he delivered to Sean Penn in “The Thin Red Line”: “I’m twice the man you’ll never be?”

“You bet,” said his friend Peter Schivarelli, a Notre Dame grad. “His dream is to be canonized.”


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