Pope John Paul II called the Inquisition "a tormented phase" and "the greatest error in church history," but to help scholars separate the facts from fiction, he opened the Vatican's secret archives in 1998.
The Pontiff said it was his hope that research of the Vatican's archives would reveal whether public opinion of the Inquisition is "faithful to the reality" of the heresy trials that the Roman Catholic Church conducted over 700 years to stop the spread of heresy.
"It is appropriate that ... the church should become more fully conscious of the sinfulness of her children, recalling all those times in history when they departed from the spirit of Christ and his Gospel and, instead of offering to the world the witness of a life inspired by the values of faith, indulged in ways of thinking and acting which were truly formers of counter-witness and scandal," Pope John Paul said in his Letter on Inquisition Symposium from June, 1998.
For David Rabinovitch, a Seattle journalist and filmmaker, the unveiling of hundreds of thousands of hidden documents provided an opportunity to tell the story of individuals who were tried for heresy and sentenced to prison or death - many were burned at the stake - during this dark era of church history that began in the 12th century and continued into the middle of the 19th century.
His four-hour "docudrama," The Secret Files of the Inquisition, is scheduled to make its U.S. debut at 9 p.m. Wednesday and May 16 on PBS stations nationwide, including WGTE-TV, Channel 30, in Toledo and WBGU-TV, Channel 27, in Bowling Green.
The secret archives have been estimated to contain 30 miles of shelving, and with so many documents to review, Mr. Rabinovitch said in an interview this week that he quickly decided to narrow his focus to specific people and representative events, rather than report broad overviews and stark facts.
"Dramatically, it seemed the best approach was to reduce each episode to as small a locality as possible, to characters who represent different forms of the Inquisition, and to confine the time periods as much as possible," he said. "In that way, we were able to develop a portrait of these societies living in fear and repression. That is part of the emotional feeling we wanted to create through the intersecting lives of the characters."
The series does tell a bigger story while examining the lives of individuals - a French noblewoman and the village priest who seduces her and many other local women; Jews ordered to "convert or die"; an ambitious inquisitor who becomes pope; a 19th century Jewish family whose son is kidnapped by church officials.
"We really had the feeling, and it just hit everyone as we started to shoot, that we were bringing these people alive in some way," Mr. Rabinovitch said.
Church officials justified the use of torture to obtain evidence and sentenced to death thousands - reliable figures are elusive, Mr. Rabinovitch said - to eradicate heretical teachings, thereby saving souls from damnation. At one point in the 1500s, the pope excommunicated the entire city of Venice for refusing to obey the Vatican's ban on unapproved books.
In writing the script, Mr. Rabinovitch said he used verbatim the transcripts from the Catholic Church's Office of the Inquisition. Actor Colm Feore narrates the text while actors portray the people and events, filmed in ancient castles and historical villages in Spain.
"For the docudrama, in the documentary part everything is true," he said. "Drama was the technique for the realization of telling the story."
Mr. Rabinovitch worked closely with translators and interpreters, then had the script and film details reviewed by a committee of academic advisers.
"Unlike The Da Vinci Code or The Passion of The Christ, which did not have the academic vetting of The Secret Files of the Inquisition, every single word spoken by every character in our series is absolutely true. It comes from the church itself. We invented nothing," Mr. Rabinovitch said.
When Mr. Rabinovitch first approached the Vatican for access to the files, he said he had no idea what to expect.
"An archive is not a library. It's a research facility," he said. "It's not the kind of thing where anybody can just walk in and say, 'Oh, here's a trial of witches in 1660, I'd like to have that!' It doesn't work that way."
He first had to do extensive research on specific subjects, he said, before making a request for the archives.
"They might find what you requested, or they might say it might exist but we can't find it," Mr. Rabinovitch said.
He thought the documents would be in the form of sheaves of parchment or vellum, but was surprised to find they were kept in bound books.
"Of course there were bound books before there was a printing press," he said. "When they brought us these books, there was no sealed environments, no gloves on our hands. I felt I was holding the lives of these people in my hands."
He discovered that the Vatican archives contained just a fraction of the documents on the Inquisition, whose trials were held throughout most of Europe during that 600-year period.
"Wherever and inquisition was held - Padua, Venice, Toulouse, Zaragosa - that's where the institute's transcripts were taken," Mr. Rabinovitch said. "As we began to realize what we were facing, we realized we could not be exhaustive. There are 85,000 files that exist in Spain on the Inquisition."
Much of the Vatican's archives consisted of letters exchanged between the Holy See and the local inquisitors, Mr. Rabinovitch said.
Mr. Rabinovitch began production on The Secret Files of the Inquisition in 2004, filming it in Spain using a cast of 40 main characters and hundreds of extras.
Among the experts interviewed on camera are the Rev. Joseph A. Di Noia, undersecretary of the Vatican's Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith; historian and papacy expert Stephen Hailczer; and scholar Agostino Borromeo of Sapienza University in Rome.
Father Di Noia is believed to be the highest-ranking Vatican official ever interviewed on the subject of the Inquisition. But Mr. Rabinovitch said he turned down an opportunity to interview an even higher-ranking Vatican official.
"When I found myself in front of Reverend Da Noia and made our presentation, he said, 'Would you like to make arrangements for an interview with Cardinal [Joseph] Ratzinger?' "
Cardinal Ratzinger was secretary of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, while Father Da Noia was undersecretary of that Vatican agency. But Mr. Rabinovitch chose Father Da Noia - a New Yorker, a theologian, and a "fresh face."
A year later, Cardinal Ratzinger was elected Pope, becoming Pope Benedict XVI.
The series already has been shown in numerous countries and viewed by tens of millions of people, Mr. Rabinovitch said.
It has won Leo Awards for Best Cinematography and Best Original Score; the Gold Medal for Docudrama from the New York Festivals, and Canada's Gemini Award for Best Direction.
The awards testify to Mr. Rabinovitch's ability to achieve his goal of telling the human drama of real people whose lives were affected by the Inquisition.
"The Inquisition in many ways is a precursor to the Holocaust, and like the Holocaust, it's not a story of nameless people in numbered files," Mr. Rabinovitch said.
"As you see from the work we've done, every person had a name, address, family, and occupation. We became quite fascinated with this in terms of re-creating the lives of these people as authentically as possible. In a way, we were releasing these voices that were locked away for centuries. And they speak to us today."
More information on The Secret Files of the Inquisition is available online at www.pbs.org and www.inquisitionproductions.com.
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