Students Re-enact Via Crucis in St. Peter's Square

Emmanuel School of Mission Makes Good Friday an Opportunity for Evangelization

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By Ann Schneible

VATICAN, APRIL 6, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Every year on Good Friday, a small group of young men and women have the privilege of bringing the Stations of the Cross to life in St. Peter's Square, re-enacting the final hours before Christ's death amid the thousands of pilgrims and tourists visiting the Basilica of St. Peter.

Each Station was narrated today in English, with actors re-enacting the scene before freezing in place, remaining motionless as prayers and reflections were read. Several hundred onlookers, many of whom were just passing through, lingered to watch the 14 Stations of the Cross.

The young people who performed these Stations of the Cross are students of the Emmanuel School of Mission who have, since last October, been receiving missionary formation by way of study, evangelization, community life, and spiritual guidance. In keeping with its missionary spirit, the Stations of the Cross which the ESM re-enacts each year in the St. Peter's Square on Good Friday, is not intended simply to be a dramatic performance, but rather an opportunity to offer a witness of faith to all those passing through the square, believers and non-believers alike.

Helen Wagner, co-director of the ESM along with her husband Kevin, spoke with ZENIT about re-enacting the Stations.

"We really wanted the people watching to be able to enter into the Passion," Wagner said, "to be able to experience, in some way, the love of Christ because they can see visibly how much Christ offers of himself to save each one of us individually."

Although St. Peter's Basilica is an important religious site for Catholics, there is a great diversity of beliefs among those who visit the basilica. One of the objectives of this live re-enactment of the Stations of the Cross, therefore, is to provide an effective visual representation of what the Catholic faith is, and especially what the passion of Christ signifies for Catholics on Good Friday. "I think many people know that Christ was crucified," Helen explained, "and that it happened on this day [Good Friday], but I think so many people don't understand how much he bore for our sins, and many of them wouldn't understand what led up to the crucifixion."

It was essential, moreover, that the students did not perform the Stations of the Cross as a drama per se, but rather as an actual reflection on the passion of Christ. For this reason, immediately following the Stations of the Cross, onlookers were invited to a time of silent prayer before the Cross used in the re-enactment. This was "to show the people that it is not just a performance," says Wagner, "Rather, it should encourage each of us to accept this act of love that Christ has offered for us, and to make an act towards him, to stop and meditate, to spend some time with Christ, and in some way, to come closer to him, to perhaps say sorry for our part in his suffering, and to ask for forgiveness."

Acute humiliation

ZENIT also spoke with two of the ESM students, Benjamin Uphill from Sydney, Australia, and Hannah Zafar from Leeds, England, who participated in this year's re-enactment.

Uphill, who portrayed Jesus, spoke about what it was like to re-enact the Passion in the middle of the busy St. Peter's Square. "The directors wanted to convey that [the Crucifixion] was quite brutal, it was humiliating, and wasn't very dignified."

"I heard a few gasps nearby when Christ would fall," he continued, "or when the garment was stripped off. And then afterwards, I noticed that people are looking at me, and I'm near-naked and covered in blood. I think it caused them to reflect [on what they were seeing]; they look and they see, and they have to ask themselves questions."

Hannah Zafar, who directed this year's Stations of the Cross, also spoke about the experience performing the Stations in the Square where there is such a thoroughfare of people. "One thing that struck me," she said, "is that it was very public. There were some who were watching, but even some who were just nearby and not watching, but looking over. It really made me think about how public Jesus' humiliation was; it's not just something that was quietly kept aside. Sometimes when we read the Scriptures we only see Jesus, and we just see what happened. But we don't see the crowds of people who were just passing by, and it makes you realize just how lonely and isolating his experience was. [That Christ died] in a very public place made the humiliation all the more acute, and the suffering even more shocking."

As director, Zafar emphasized that she wanted the Stations to be a prayerful experience for those who would witness it. "I wanted it to help people to pray," she said, "and I wanted it to be something that people could look at, and could see how real the sacrifice was, how human Jesus' suffering was. I wanted them to be able to relate to what they see, and therefore pay attention to this man, Jesus."