By Stephen M. Silverman
Updated January 20, 2004 01:00 AM

A giant question mark has been placed over the Pope’s reputed personal endorsement of Mel Gibson’s upcoming controversial film, “The Passion of the Christ,” reports The New York Times and trade paper Variety, both quoting the Catholic News Service.

The pontiff’s secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, tells Vatican correspondent Cindy Wooden that although John Paul II had seen the film, “the Holy Father told no one his opinion of the film.”

The Catholic News Service is regarded as one of the most authoritative sources on Vatican affairs, says Variety, while The Times makes the point that the archbishop’s remarks contradict an earlier report on the pope’s reaction to having seen the film, which deals with the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus.

The pope was reputed to have said, “It is as it was,” at least according to a Dec. 17 column by Peggy Noonan on the Wall Street Journal’s Web site. Noonan is a former speechwriter for Presidents Reagan and the elder George Bush.

Despite Monday’s revelation, a representative for Gibson and his California-based Icon Productions insisted to Variety that the pope had used the phrase to describe the film, which is set to open on 2,000 screens in North America on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 25.

“Based on all previous correspondence and conversations held directly between representatives of the film and the official spokesperson for the pope, Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, there is no reason to believe that the pope’s support of the film ‘isn’t as it was,'” the rep told the trade paper.

Navarro-Valls was unavailable for comment, says Variety. But Dziwisz, reportedly considered the No. 2 ranking official of the Catholic Church, was adamant in his denial.

“I said clearly to McEveety and Michelini that the Holy Father made no declaration,” Dziwisz said. “I said the Holy Father saw the film privately in his apartment, but gave no declaration to anyone. He does not make judgments on art of this kind; he leaves that to others, to experts.”

“The Passion of the Christ” has been a storm center of controversy since news of it surfaced last year, when it various religious and theological groups feared it might spark feelings of anti-Semitism. Gibson and his reps, meanwhile, have kept the movie away from being screened for the Anti-Defamation League.