Editor’s note: As The Catholic Virginian was preparing to go to press, the Passion play at St. Joan of Arc, which had been scheduled for Friday, April 3, was cancelled. While the performance will not be held, we want to share with you parishioners’ story of time, talent and spiritual enrichment.

Jennifer Neville, Special to The Catholic Virginian

People gasped. 

Some cried.

Each year, the hundreds of people experiencing the re-enactment of the Passion at St. Joan of Arc Parish (SJA) in Yorktown have been so emotionally and spiritually moved that they left the church stone silent. 

“Every year I am surprised at how the people leave the sanctuary and the emotion that it brings out in them,” said this year’s director Donna Prantl, who was in the adult cast in previous years. “You can see the effect it had on them. The spirit, the feeling, the awareness, carries all through the week.” 

A cast of 27 youth and 51 adults will re-enact biblical vignettes, Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper and the Passion chronicling Christ’s journey from his condemnation by Pontius Pilate to his entombment. 

It has all the dressings of a play – actors, lighting, settings, props, costumes and makeup – but Father Mike Joly, SJA pastor, describes the event as a Passion prayer, not a play.

“When a play is over, when the lights go down and the curtain comes down, everything evaporates. The story is over,” he explained.  “In a Passion prayer, something spiritual also continues a transformation in us. The goal is that we are all a bit different after the Passion prayer and further along the path of conversion, further along a path of a deeper love of Christ.”

Colin Billings, the high school senior portraying Jesus, said performing the Passion is unlike other plays he has been in because rather than bringing a fictional character to life, he portrays someone “real.”

“Jesus is alive in the world and is alive in me,” Billings said. “It’s not an act. It’s not a play. It’s not pretend. It’s real. It’s real in me. It’s all worship.”

Youth have the key roles. Many return year after year, each time playing a different role and thus gaining a different perspective of the Passion. 

Adults portraying Jews, Greek slaves and Roman guards and pharisees lend realism in supportive roles, mostly as rabble rousers. For example, during the vignette of the blind man, the adults, who are serving dinner to the audience, slip into their roles, jeering, praising or expressing awe. During the Passion, they yell “Crucify him! Crucify him!” to Pontius Pilate, and an angry “Get up! Get up!” when Jesus falls carrying the cross.

People in the audience cringe, if not cry,   as a Roman guard whips Jesus, Christ falls  from exhaustion from carrying his cross, and    a guard nails him to the cross. Soliloquies from Judas; Pilate’s wife; Simon of Cyrene; the three weeping women; and Mary, mother of God, bring different perspectives. 

Instrumental and choral music creates a reverent environment, especially during the Passion where the adult cast sings between scenes to give the audience time to reflect.

Prantl agreed with Father Joly’s assessment that the play is “a slingshot into Holy Week.”

“I feel the play makes people reflect more on Christ’s love, suffering and sacrifice,” she said. “It hits you in your heart, your soul, your mind, your body.” 

Jennifer Sanders, SJA coordinator of faith formation and the Passion play’s stage director, said the play gives the audience a “different experience of the death of Christ.”

“Sometimes we become numb about Jesus on the cross,” Sanders said. “When we hear the sounds and see the play, it becomes real for us. We search inside ourselves and try to understand and digest what has just happened.”

Cast members, especially the youth, say that being in the production deepened their faith, and that spills into their everyday lives. 

Junior Chance Reyes said that playing the guard who scourges Jesus is helping him learn to forgive people. Jay Call, 14, said portraying Simon of Cyrene has made him aware of the need to help others. Edwin Vernier, 10, said playing a boy who mocks Jesus gives him “an example of what Jesus went through.” 

That’s also true for 15-year-old Gavin Peters who has portrayed several different characters over the last four years. This year he plays the blind man in the vignette and the Roman guard who nails Jesus to the cross.

“I really know what the Passion means,” he said. “Easter used to be just a holiday, but now it’s more of a celebration, a feast, a time of happiness, and it is one of the happiest days of the year for me because that’s when Christ rose.”