A modern, street version of the Way of the Cross

The enactment of Veronica wiping the face of Jesus. Photo: Columban Fr Colin McLean

The enactment of Veronica wiping the face of Jesus. Photo: Columban Fr Colin McLean

In 1972, at the Cultural Centre of the Philippines, in Manila, I saw my first version of the rock opera, “Jesus Christ Superstar”, which starred  Boy Camara as Jesus. It was also the first time I had seen any presentation of Jesus wearing trousers and not the biblical robe. And I was totally captivated. Little did I know then that I would direct a modern street version of the Way of the Cross almost yearly from 1974 to 2024 in Manila, Philippines, in Melbourne (Northcote and East Brighton), and in Salvador, Brazil.

My reasoning for maintaining the modern dress was twofold:

  1. If Jesus were born now instead of more than two thousand years ago, Palestinian Jew that he was, he would probably be wearing jeans and a t-shirt.
  2. In Matthew’s Last Judgment text, the king (Jesus) utters the words: “Insofar as you did it to one of these least brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.” One did not have to see Jesus in that person, but just helping someone in need was enough to guarantee the kingdom. So Jesus today sees himself in each one of us, ie. in the clothes of today.

In August 2023, I celebrated some masses in St Therese’s parish, Essendon. Previously, I had broached the subject with the parish priest, Father John Hannon, of presenting a similar Way of the Cross in the streets of the parish on Good Friday 2024. He gave me the go-ahead, provided that I organize the cast. Not an easy task considering the scarcity of youth at Sunday masses. One Sunday, for the homily, I showed some slides of the Way of the Cross presentations In the 1980s, I had directed in Northcote and East Brighton, so I now distributed a written survey to gauge what parishioners of St. Therese’s and Our Lady of the Nativity parishes would think about such a modern Way of the Cross.

The feedback I got was very positive, so I decided to give it a try, wondering where I was going to start with organizing a cast. Then, one Sunday, At the parish 10:30 mass, I was sitting in the pew behind a family of five, mother and father, two sons and a daughter. I have to confess I was distracted during the mass as to whether I should approach them, total strangers. 

I think, at this point, Jesus must have given me a nudge. As the mass concluded, I reached forward and tapped the father on the shoulder. He turned, and I said,” Could I talk to you and your family for a few minutes after mass?” He agreed and I met them just outside the church. When I told them I was looking at the possibility of a modern, streetside Way of the Cross, they told me they had seen my slides and were very impressed with the idea of a modern Way of the Cross. That’s where it started! Had Jesus not nudged me to tap Robert on the shoulder, it might never have happened. So, Robert, Jenny and their three children became my first cast members. They then recruited others. However, we still didn’t have a “Jesus”. I had approached three possibles, but for one reason or another they couldn’t do it.

The cast with Columban Fr Colin McLean

The cast with Columban Fr Colin McLean.

When it was getting closer to Holy Week, Robert informed me they had found a guy prepared to play the role of Jesus. I was relieved. The following Sunday, I was at the 10:30 mass at St. Therese’s when a young man walked in and sat a few pews in front of me. His appearance and demeanour left me thinking, “He would make a good Jesus”, but I couldn’t approach him because Robert had told me they had already found a guy. So after mass, I joined Robert, Jenny and their family outside in front of the church. Then, Robert called the young man to approach us who had agreed to play the role of Jesus. To my amazement, it was the guy I had seen when he came into mass and thought he would make a good “Jesus! Realizing we could only rehearse after the 10:30 Sunday mass due to the weekend commitments of most of the cast, we decided on narrations rather than dialogues. As it happened, we were able to rehearse only twice before Good Friday. So, on Good Friday morning, some of the cast were nervous due to only two rehearsals, and especially when they saw more people than we had expected to accompany the Way of the Cross. We need not have worried. All the feedback from those who accompanied the streetside Way of the Cross in Essendon on Good Friday, 2024, was overwhelmingly positive.

Quite a number of people were reduced to tears. The photos speak for themselves. All those who participated indicated they are more than ready to do it again next year. Also, the weather could not have been better. Someone made the comment that perhaps it was God’s way of showing approval for what we were doing!

As well as the street version, Father John Hannon led the traditional Stations of the Cross inside the church for those who preferred the traditional, and for those less mobile to walk the outdoor presentation. Father John commented in a text message about the outdoor Way of the Cross, “certainly worth doing again next year!” Both versions of the Way of the Cross brought the reality of Jesus’ suffering and death for us to a deeper level.

Columban Fr Colin McLean resides in Essendon after living and working in Brazil for 35 years.

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