Days before World Youth Day 2002's Way of the Cross, the event's director, Father Robert Gendreau, was concerned that there was not a lot of media interest in this grand-scale Stations of the Cross. Stretching along one of Toronto's busiest avenues with hundreds of people involved, and six months in the making, this was no small production -- but would there be interest in an event that Pope John Paul II wasn’t attending? A WYD colleague reassured him not to worry, and called the Way of the Cross“a sleeping giant.” And as Father Robert said, the giant awoke that night!
This past spring, Fr. Robert Gendreau shared his thoughts on this outstanding WYD2002 event for an episode of Catholic Focus on the Stations of the Cross. We began by discussing the text that was used. The Montreal priest had an advantage because the author of the text was well known man -- not just in Catholic circles, but internationally as well. It’s author: Pope John Paul II. The use of this text was a “beautiful surprise” for Father Gendreau. On the other hand, he concedes it was a challenge, because it was intended for meditation, and not dramatization. How could he make the text come alive?
Part of the answer came in performance: a simple, honest performance from his actors. When Father Gendreau began working on the stations, the former actor recognized that he had two major obstacles to overcome for this huge undertaking: time and experience.
“You’re working with guys and girls very willing to do something,” Father Gendreau recalled, “but on the other hand you have only three months to work with the actors and you don’t want to end up with a nice amateur thing for the parish hall. It’s an international event, it has to be very professional.”To avoid a ‘school play’ feel, Father Gendreau established two rules.
“I will have none of these actors speak,” he explained, “to speak in theatre takes years. To speak right, to have the pause to have intonation, and to respond to the other and make that in harmony.”
For the same reason, Father Gendreau wanted his actors to have plain expressions. “I said to all my actors, I do not want you to have any emotions on your face. Just do the things. So they did. There again it takes years to have the right expressions. So with nothing, the miracle that happened, it was coming from inside. Their eyes were filled with life and they were really living something.”
To watch the event, as you can Friday night on Salt + Light Television at 9pm ET, you see this in the raw, genuine emotion of the actors.
The setting also helped bring the text to life. Father Robert masterfully wound University Avenue into the narrative, particularly at stations 13 and 14; when Jesus was taken down from the cross and placed in the sepulchre. “Before we [enter] Queen’s Park we pass under an ark.” Father Gendreau remembers with glee “It’s like the Middle East palace, it’s wonderful!”
“We had dreamed of putting some mist, because of rain it was naturally there!” Father Gendreau continues: “The crossing of the wood was very mystical. It’s an homage to the trees because Jesus’ cross was made of wood from a tree, we have been saved by the wood.”
You may also recall that Christ was wrapped in red silk, which was something that the Montreal priest did not plan. “This did not come from me, but it was there. It looks like blood, it was beautiful!” Having watched the scene again, the blood red silk creates a stirring dramatic effect. We’ve just witnessed the crucifixion, barely able to watch Jesus on the cross, writhing and suffering. Then he gives his last breath and dies – we are left shocked, we are filled with sadness, our own hearts pierced. Perhaps this is how Jesus’ followers felt? Peter. John. Magdalene. Our Lady.
The audience at this time was very sombre. Earlier in the evening people were mugging for the cameras. But now, many of the pilgrims rest their heads on the security barriers, or on each others shoulders, wiping tears from their eyes, whispering prayers to themselves.
It was this connection that Father Gendreau wanted with his audience, a connection that some people had told him would be difficult. “Someone said to me, ‘Father the way of the cross, the youth won’t be interested. They don’t know about that.’ ‘Well’ I said ‘that’s exactly the point.’ They have to learn about it, discover it.”
Father Robert used the music and his striking scenes to teach young people about the Stations, and remind older people too, of this great devotion. The audience as a whole was drawn into the experience. “Kids prayed. People participated.” adds Father Gendreau.
“Of course I didn’t know it would work that well.” the former actor admits, “I didn’t know the television would be so powerful. You know that they used 26 or 28 cameras. Three hours without editing. We’re not talking about sports. It’s a dramatic event, it’s art! I’m still amazed we made it. It’s a miracle. It’s a miracle, I’m sure!”
Father Gendreau may consider it a miracle, but having witnessed it in person, I consider it a gift and a blessing of World Youth Day 2002.