Higher Calling

updated 03/22/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/22/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

It's not every Sunday that Jesus himself—or at least the movie version-gives witness at church. But on Feb. 29 Jim Caviezel took the pulpit at St. Mark's Church in Venice, Calif. During his 20-minute homily, The Passion of the Christ's lead actor urged the rapt, standing-room-only audience of 800 to embrace Jesus in their lives. "There was a standing ovation," says Father Michael Rocha, St. Mark's pastor and a longtime friend of Caviezel's. "He was mobbed after the mass."

The passionate response to the movie—in just two weeks, director Mel Gibson's depiction of the last 12 hours of Jesus' life has grossed an industry-rocking $210 million-plus—clearly extends to its star. A devout Catholic previously best known for modest roles in films such as 2000's Frequency, Caviezel, 35, finds himself at the center of a different breed of blockbuster. When he attended an Ash Wednesday screening in L.A., "people with the sign of the cross [in ashes] on their foreheads were asking to hug him," says Rocha. "He's a bit overwhelmed by it all, but he was born to play this part."

It took some time for Caviezel to agree. At first "I felt unworthy," he says. After Gibson courted him, however, "I just accepted the responsibility and said, 'What actor wouldn't want to play this role?' " Gibson has said he didn't yet know Caviezel was Catholic when he saw the actor's turn as a World War II soldier in 1998's The Thin Red Line and made him his first choice to play Jesus. "Jim has a wonderful, childlike innocence that I thought was the perfect quality," Gibson told reporters, while also praising his toughness. "He needed that strength, because we put him through hell."

Between eight-hour makeup sessions, dislocating his shoulder while carrying the 150-lb. cross, suffering hypothermia from exposure in frigid weather and surviving a lightning strike on the set in Italy, "there was always a new pain," says Caviezel, who stayed in character by remaining aloof from cast and crew. Even cutup Gibson would stop midjoke if Caviezel walked by. When local schoolchildren visited during the five-month shoot, "he would sign photos and then would place his hands on each of their heads," as if giving a blessing, says Rosalinda Celentano, who played Satan. "He even did it to me at the end of filming, almost as if to say, 'I forgive you.' "

Thanks to his Catholic upbringing by chiropractor dad James, 63, and mom Maggie, 59, the Mount Vernon, Wash.-born Caviezel has always taken his faith seriously. A decade ago, as a struggling actor living in L.A. with high school buddy Jay Tando, "we'd make deals where he'd go clubbing with me if I'd go to church with him the next morning," says Tando. "I hated church and he hated clubbing, so it was a tradeoff for both us." Not that Caviezel lacks a lighter side. While filming Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius, a bio of the 1920s golf great due out next month, he crooned the Elvis catalogue between takes with costar Claire Forlani. His religion, says producer John Shepherd, "is just one component of who he is."

That component has often caused friction in his career. Caviezel balked at nude scenes in 2002's High Crimes (costarring Ashley Judd) and 2002's The Count of Monte Cristo out of devotion to principle (and to Kerri, 35, his schoolteacher wife of six years) and refused to remove his crucifix necklace while filming 1997's G.I. Jane. His faith "doesn't go over real well in Hollywood," he told The Seattle Times. As controversy swirls around The Passion of the Christ, which some have called anti-Jewish, the actor has been second only to Gibson in steadfastly promoting and defending it. "I know we didn't make an anti-Semitic film," he says. "This is what the Gospels are. And it's none of my business what other people think of me."

Where do you go after playing Jesus? In Bobby Jones, Caviezel takes on a figure golfers regard as a minor deity. So what if he only picked up the game a month before shooting? "You can't tell Jim there's something he can't do," says producer John Shepherd. "It just spurs him on."

Jason Lynch. Tom Cunneff and Sean Daly in Los Angeles, Mary Boone in Seattle and Praxilla Trabattoni in Rome

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