An adult spectator, fresh from watching St. Philip Neri’s seventh graders re-enact the Stations of the Cross, walked up to a teacher to give the student-actors the ultimate compliment.
The spectator gushed: “I truly felt the presence of Christ here.”
The reverence was palpable in St. Philip Neri Church as the school’s 56 seventh graders brought to life Christ’s final hours this Lent. The Stations were presented separately before for two age divisions of St. Philip Neri students – to give the young congregants intimate, front-pew seating in their circular church.
“It definitely made me feel close to God. I didn’t have to think about anything I was doing – it just kind of came to me,” said seventh grader Victoria Reid, referring to her performance with classmate Emily Bancroft of the dramatization’s concluding liturgical dance.
“When Jesus gets nailed to the cross, I feel the pain that he went through, that amazement that he died for us,” Victoria said. “It really moves me.”
The 14 stations were done in “freeze-frame” fashion, an approach that Suzanne Patin, middle school religion teacher, describes as “captivating” because of the expressions on the portrayers’ faces.
“You can move and talk and sing through the Stations, but when you present a freeze-frame, the expressions that (the students) hold are so very touching,” Patin said. “It’s that quiet emotion that the people watching can take in.”
In another unique approach to the living prayer, Patin had her students preface the traditional Stations of the Cross with silent tableaus that depicted three pivotal moments in Christ’s life: The Annunciation, which marked Christ’s incarnation; The Wedding Feast at Cana, Jesus’ first miracle; and the Last Supper, which heralds Christ’s institution of the Eucharist. Fittingly, St. Philip Neri students focus on the New Testament in their seventh-grade religion classes, and Patin is always looking for ways to “bring Jesus to life in real life.”
"I thought it would be a good idea to present some of Jesus’ life and ministry before we went into his Passion,” Patin said. “We re-enact a lot of Scripture-based stories in class. They love all of them, in particular the Wedding Feast at Cana,” she said.
Seventh grader Dylan Dunn, who had the daunting task of portraying Jesus, said he initially was terrified about his mother seeing him in a role of such enormity and emotion. Dylan wore three layers of clothing to illustrate his journey from the humble Christ in the Last Supper, to the scarlet-clad prisoner, to the suffering Christ dressed in a simple white tunic on his way to Calvary. Dylan said he also got a small sense of the physical weight of the cross.
“I got closer to God by doing it,” Dylan said. “The nailing of the cross was the most difficult part to show, because it had to hurt. My favorite scene was the Last Supper, because most of my friends are in that one, just like Jesus’ friends were with him around the table.”
Seventh grader Holly Hedrick, who portrayed the Blessed Mother, said she hadn’t appreciated the degree of Mary’s “attachment to Jesus” until she dramatized the Stations in full costume.
“It is such an honor to be playing Mary,” Holly said. “When she meets her son in the Fourth Station, I always think about what a strong woman she was; she suffered a lot when he was dying,” she said.
Kaitlyn Freese was present for the “bookends” of her class’ solemn presentation: first as the angel Gabriel in the Annunciation scene; and after Christ’s crucifixion, as the angel that appeared by Jesus’ empty tomb. To add a note of comfort to this final scene, St. Philip Neri’s coordinator of religious education, Denise Kirsch, suggested that Kaitlyn position herself in front of the church’s tabernacle as a reminder that the Risen Christ remains with us through the Eucharist.
“Sometimes the Stations leave people feeling sad about what happened to Jesus,” Kirsch notes. “But his glorious triumph was in the resurrection, and therefore in the Eucharist that we share. That’s where our whole Catholic faith lies. The story didn’t end with Christ crucified!”
Kaitlyn, dressed in dazzling white, suddenly appears at her perch near the tabernacle when the lights are switched back on in the darkened church.
“You understand Scripture a lot more when you act it out,” Kaitlyn said, crediting Patin for giving her and her classmates the entire backstory of each character.
“It was an honor and a blessing to be an angel in the Stations,” she added. “Not every Way of the Cross has that.”
Patin, who has prepared the Living Stations at St. Philip Neri since 2006, called Christ’s Passion and Death “the foundation of our faith” and a powerful reminder of how “God has a plan and everything happens for a reason.”
“Even though we talk about how Jesus suffered and died on the cross for our sins, sometimes we don’t really think about it until we get that chance to go deeper into it as a faith community,” Patin said.