BEAVERTON, Ore.—A suburban parish in Oregon is breaking devotional ground by going back to the source—the Gospel source.
Portland Archbishop John Vlazny is scheduled to dedicate a new 800-seat church at Holy Trinity Parish on Nov. 18. That in itself is a thrill for parishioners who for decades have been worshipping in what was meant to be a gymnasium. But by chance, the design of the new house of worship left 14 sizable empty spaces encircling the church high on the walls. There, parish leaders hope by next spring to portray what some are calling a Bible-based “epic of the Passion.”
The parish is raising money so that Beaverton liturgical artist Greg Lewis can paint massive canvases based on a version of the Way of the Cross developed a decade ago by Pope John Paul II.
The Pope took the scenes directly from the Gospels when he made his way in prayer around Rome's Colosseum on Good Friday, 1991.
Holy Trinity is among the first churches in the United States to fashion its Way of the Cross in accord with the Pope's 1991 texts. Archbishop Vlazny has praised the pioneering paintings as “beautiful representatives of an important story of our faith.”
At the urging of the parish liturgist, members of Holy Trinity have prayed the scriptural Way of the Cross during Lent the past two years. The Scripture-based prayers caught on with the pastor and people, paving the way for the current art project.
During those Lenten devotions, no one in the pews at Holy Trinity reported missing the traditional stations, which have six scenes not included in the Gospel—among them, Jesus’ repeated falls.
The old stations also pass over some important events, such as the Agony in the Garden, the promise of heaven to a repentant lawbreaker, Peter's denial and the Resurrection. John Paul's Way of the Cross includes those scenes and the people of Holy Trinity may be able to see the whole story on their walls.
“Some people say, ‘Hey, that's ecumenical,’ but it wasn't written to be just ecumenical, it was written to be the Gospel,” says Dr. Charlie Gardner, a retired physician who heads up liturgy at Holy Trinity.
Gardner says the large size of each scene—about 5 feet tall and 15 feet wide—plus the spacing and the prominent location, will fit what Catholic bishops have been asking for in recent liturgical documents. In Built of Living Stones, their year-2000 statement on art and architecture in churches, the bishops warned against “clustering” the stations in one place.
“While such an arrangement may be expedient, it is not desirable because it eliminates space for movement, which characterizes this devotion as a ‘way’ of the cross,” the bishops wrote.
There are 14 pieces of blank wall in the new Holy Trinity Church. But there are 15 events in the new Way of the Cross. No problem, says Gardner. The 15th event—the Resurrection—will be amply symbolized by the new baptistery. In the letter to the Colossians, Chapter 2, St. Paul says that the one who is baptized moves into the death of Christ and then is raised just as Christ was raised.
Gardner, who uses the Pope's new Way of the Cross for private prayer, says the reflections give a full experience of the Passion, the last hours of Jesus that Christians hold up as the means of their salvation. “The new version brings a wholeness and an uplifting finale to the crucifixion story,” says Father John Waldron, pastor of Holy Trinity. “Our parish sees this expansion as a legacy we are leaving future generations.”
Parish leaders hope the new Way of the Cross will appeal to people who may not be Catholic but want to discover more about the faith. At the prompting of Archbishop Vlazny, evangelization has become the focus of the Catholic Church in Oregon.
Holy Trinity now counts about 1,200 families with growing populations of Hispanic, Filipino and Vietnamese Catholics.
When the parishioners take part in the devotion, they use a pamphlet written by Jesuit Father Joseph Champlin of Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse, N.Y.
“This, as far as I can judge, is groundbreaking territory,” Father Champlin says of the Beaverton plan.
Among the other churches to have used the revised Way of the Cross is Sacred Heart Parish in small Gervais, Ore. Its scriptural stations are traditional in size and were blessed in 1996 by then Archbishop Francis George, now cardinal archbishop of Chicago.
In Salt Lake City, the Cathedral of the Madeleine installed a version of John Paul's Way of the Cross during a 1993 renovation. The stylized, symbolic paintings measure about 3 feet wide and 5 feet high. They were painted by local artist Sam Wilson, who incorporated local flora and fauna to help worshipers embrace the Passion as theirs.
In Utah, planning the new stations caused more debate among liturgists than among the people in the pew.
“The discussion among planners was quite vigorous; it was a broad consultation,” says Deacon Owen Cummings, who was on staff at the cathedral and helped guide the restoration. “When it came to the people, I don't honestly think they noticed the difference,” Cummings explains. “Their devotion is to the stations as opposed to John Paul's particular version of the stations or any other version.”
Benedictine Father James Wiseman, a Catholic University of America expert on devotions, says he has heard of no other churches incorporating Pope John Paul's Scriptural Way of the Cross. It is clear that no one has portrayed and displayed the Hly Father's version of the Way of the Cross quite so boldly as Holy Trinity plans.
David Richen, the Portland, Ore. architect who designed the new Beaverton church, says he has seldom seen so golden an opportunity to integrate contemporary art and architecture.
“It will be a large, powerful space and it needs bold and courageous art to complete its purpose,” Richen says.
Not that anyone at Holy Trinity wants the acrylic paintings to be overpowering. Plans call for muted earth tone colors to mimic aged sandstone.
Lewis has completed a preliminary study of the 13th scene, Jesus’ death on the cross. He has been researching life in first-century Palestine to make the paintings historically accurate.
For instance, researchers have found that the Romans often crucified criminals by pounding nails through metal cuffs into the wrists.
Details like that will be part of the paintings. “What I am after is that they are biblically correct,” says Lewis, who has also designed covers of Catholic church music books.
“I also want to make them contemporary enough so they could be a teaching tool.”
Ed Langlois writes from Portland, Oregon.