Playing the role of Jesus in his parish’s recent Living Stations has forever changed the way 13-year-old James Gantz views Christ’s passion and the Stations of the Cross.
"Before I understood that Jesus carried the cross and stuff but I never realized how much pain must have come with that," James told the Catholic Courier.
James is not the only one who was deeply moved by the Living Stations, which were held March 12 at St. Mary Church in Waterloo. In fact, the experience was as moving for the people in the pews as it was for the young people who staged it, according to a March 21 bulletin column penned by Father James Fennessy, pastor of St. Mary as well as St. Patrick Parish in Seneca Falls.
"The youth of both parishes came together … to help create a powerful telling of the passion and death of Jesus," Father Fennessy wrote. "In fact, it was a powerful experience of prayer."
Nicholas Goodman, the 16-year-old director of the Living Stations, helped set the somber, reflective mood by announcing at the evening’s start that what was about to take place was not so much a production as a moment of prayer, Father Fennessy wrote.
A dozen children and teens from St. Mary and St. Patrick had been working on the Living Stations since early February, said Kim Burke, the parishes’ director of religious education. The participants ranged in age from kindergartners to high-school juniors, and they practiced two to three times a week.
"It was a big commitment, especially for the younger kids who weren’t used to that type of commitment," Burke said.
"It took a lot of patience, just because kids like myself have very different schedules and very busy schedules, so until the day we did it we hadn’t had the entire cast together at one time," Nicholas added.
Directing children and teens from such a wide age range did prove challenging at times, he said. Although he’s only 16, Nicholas is a theater veteran and has been involved with 34 productions through both his school and community theater groups, including a theater group he founded to benefit the Waterloo Public Library. Nonetheless, Nicholas said the Living Stations is the most serious production he’s ever been involved with, and he spent a lot of time determining the best ways to help audience members grasp that somber mood.
Trying to communicate that mood to some of the younger actors also proved challenging at first, he added. Some of the children portraying Roman soldiers, for example, were required to push James as he portrayed Jesus’ walk with the cross. In early practices they would push James and then laugh, as if they were horsing around on a playground.
"A lot of the kids didn’t get that pushing and shoving wasn’t just for fun like it is at home with their brothers and sisters," he said.
The children applied themselves to their roles, however, and everything came together during the final practice.
"Even with little kids you can pull off something really powerful," Nicholas remarked.
"It’s almost like God just sent the right kids to do it, and there was a really good group of kids that came together to do that," Burke added.
Sisters Hannah and Heidi Miller said they agreed to be part of the Living Stations because they enjoy singing, acting and going to Mass at St. Patrick.
"When I heard they were doing it I said sure, count me in," said Hannah, 12.
Hannah was one of the Living Stations’ narrators, and she and her sister also sang during several musical interludes. Heidi, 10, also played a Roman soldier, a role she at first found challenging.
"I liked being a soldier because it was a really big part, but I didn’t like the fact that I had to whip Jesus, so what I did was hit the cross, not him," Heidi explained.
A lot of people in the audience cried during and after the Living Stations, and they seemed amazed that children and teens could produce something so powerful, Hannah said. Hannah and Heidi themselves said the experience made the Stations of the Cross really come alive for them.
"I always knew that it was like a sad story and everything, but just looking at the little pictures on the wall didn’t really put you there, and you don’t really feel his pain," Hannah said.
"I didn’t think about what Jesus was going through at the time," Heidi added. "Actually seeing what he was going through made it seem real to me."
Nicholas said he had a similar realization toward the end of the Living Stations. Each time James came to the back of the church between stations, Nicholas applied more fake blood to James in order to simulate Jesus’ increasing wounds.
"One time I looked down at my hands and saw the blood and I realized, that’s my blood on his face, in a sense,’" Nicholas said. "It was a very powerful moment."