- The Washington Times - Friday, March 29, 2002

Good Friday, the anniversary of Jesus Christ's death, is traditionally observed in solemn three-hour services in darkened churches hung with funeral palls.

But from California to New York, the religious procession known as the "via crucis," Latin for "way [or road] of the cross," is morphing from a uniquely Hispanic Catholic practice to mainstream American religion.

The traditional observance combines the stations of the cross, a passion play and street theater to remind the bystanders that today is no ordinary day.

These Good Friday processions employ the same ingredients incredulous crowds, hovering police officers and mourners following in the steps of a condemned criminal present in the original event nearly 2,000 years ago.

The symbolic route starts with Jesus being condemned by Pilate and makes its way several blocks or several miles to a crucifixion site. Along the way, the crowd and actors perform the events in Jesus' death procession Jesus falling three times under the cross, his words to weeping female followers and his encounter with the legendary Veronica, who is said to have wiped his face with her veil.

"The Hispanic community is growing so much, they're bringing their customs along," said Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington. "You are reliving the whole thing."

U.S. cities with large Hispanic populations have the most elaborate processions. Parts of San Antonio will come to a halt today while 2,000 performers act out the last hours of Jesus' life along city streets. The actor playing Christ must drag a 100-pound cross for several blocks.

Two local TV networks will broadcast the spectacle live, which drew 17,000 onlookers last year. Spectators actually follow the actors, along with sculptures of biblical figures, on the "via crucis" route. If they stray too close to the action, they get jabbed by a spear carried by one of the Roman soldiers.

"To get a people in a procession moving through time and space is very powerful," said Susan Webster, a Minnesota art historian who specializes in the history of such marches. "I've seen crowds in San Antonio reach out and touch the sculptures as they're carried about. There is such a strong nexus between the divine and the people."

Thousands will also gather before San Fernando Cathedral downtown for the climactic crucifixion scene. One of the local auxiliary Catholic bishops will play the part of Simon of Cyrene, who carries Jesus' cross for part of the way. The pastor of the city's largest Southern Baptist church has been invited to be co-host for the event.

For those who cannot make it to South Texas, the whole thing can be viewed live on www.catholicity.com beginning with the noon EST procession.

In Houston, a "via crucis" just east of downtown draws mainly Mexican-American participants who trace the death march through a neighborhood next to a coffee factory.

While cars and buses honk in the background, actors and banner bearers stop by 14 intervals on the route to perform the actions contained in the stations of the cross. As Scriptures are read, costumed actors pantomime the actions of Jesus; his mother, Mary; the Roman soldiers; and other characters in the drama.

A similar march west of the city, home to Houston's Central and South American immigrants, draws even larger crowds. In both cases, the marches are sponsored by Spanish-speaking Episcopal churches.

In Elgin, Ind., 30 actors, including a narrator, put together a procession through the east side of town that is seen by 3,000 viewers.

A Chicago "via crucis" requires the actor playing Christ to be single and younger than 32. According to several men who have played the part, it's a daunting one involving a march through the streets carrying a 9-foot cross while soldiers jeer and whip them for several blocks.

Pope John Paul II has taken part in a "via crucis" of sorts each year by walking around the Roman Colosseum for the 14 stations of the cross. Before he broke his hip in a fall in 1994, he also used to carry a cross. The 81-year-old pontiff will not do the walk this year because of health problems.

Possibly the world's largest "via crucis" is in Mexico City, where 2 million bystanders view an event involving 2,000 actors. Crowds hoist a 209-pound cross for 4.2 miles.

Participants say the "via crucis" gives the ordinary person a chance to act a bit part in one of the world's oldest stories.

"It's a public testimony to the death of Christ," said Alejandro Aguilera-Titus, associate director for the Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. "It's a catechesis. Not only do you get to listen to the Word of God, but you also get members of the community taking part."

Today at 11:30 a.m., up to 2,000 New York residents are expected to join a Good Friday march beginning at St. James Catholic Church in Brooklyn, then wending across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall. Police, fire and Port Authority officials will carry a cross from City Hall south to St. Peter's Church near ground zero and the remains of the World Trade Center.

In the District last Sunday, Catholics walked the 14 stations of the cross at the Franciscan Monastery garden in Northeast.

A formal "via crucis" is scheduled for 2 p.m. today, when parishioners from Our Lady Queen of the Americas parish at 2200 California St. NW will bear a statue of Jesus in a coffin from there through Dupont Circle, ending at St. Matthew's Cathedral, 1725 Rhode Island Ave. NW. Prayers and hymns will be in Spanish.

"There's this guy wearing a black overcoat who always carries the cross," Ms. Gibbs said. "I realized that was his sacrifice."

A more dramatic "via crucis," beginning at 12:30 p.m. at the Spanish Catholic Center at University Drive and New Hampshire Avenue in Silver Spring will involve 1,000 people walking through the streets and singing songs in Spanish and English. The march ends in a passion play staged at nearby St. Camillus Catholic Church.

Sister Manuela Pencela, who works at Our Lady Queen of the Americas, says processions occur all week long in Seville, her hometown in southern Spain.

"The people wish to represent our Lord's suffering for all of us," she said.

Miss Webster, who teaches at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., says Seville's eight-hour daily processions are organized by fraternal groups.

"They wear KKK-type hoods," she said, "which keeps them completely anonymous. The idea is that no vainglory is involved because they are all equal before God and the crowds.

"It's what I'd call local religion, as opposed to the Church with a capital C," said the professor, author of the 1998 book "Art and Ritual in Golden Age Spain." "If you ask people why they do this, they say it is a public expression before God of recognition of the sacrifice of his Son. It's time given over to a contemplation of one's life."

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