As the Church celebrates Holy Week and recalls in a special way the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Catholics around the world turn to artistic depictions of these events in order that they may become more realistic and poignant in their lives.
Pictures and movies about the Passion may be part of this effort, as are live re-enactments, or “Passion Plays,” performed in venues throughout the world. The most famous Passion Play is in Oberammergau, Bavaria, Germany, performed every 10 years since 1634 (with the next performance scheduled for 2020), but there are many smaller productions throughout the country making an impact in the lives of Catholics.
In Los Angeles, Jonathan Roumie and Maria Vargo are producers, directors and lead actors of The Last Days: The Passion and Death of Jesus The Christ, which is being performed five times at Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles, with the last performance at 3pm on Good Friday (see TheLastDaysofJesusPassionPlay.com). Roumie portrays Christ, and Vargo plays Mary. The play begins with Christ teaching in the Temple and ends with his death and burial, with material taken from all four Gospels. Portions of the play also reflect some of their own interpretations, such as during the Pietà scene, when Mary holds the body of Jesus after he is taken from the cross, when Vargo, as Mary, delivers a monologue expressing the thoughts and emotions Mary may have had at that moment.
The play is in its eighth year and in its second year with its current script. Both Roumie and Vargo are Catholics motivated by a spirit of evangelization, and previously the play was held at St. Monica’s Catholic Church in Santa Monica. The pair decided to switch the location of the play so they’d have the opportunity to hold the play five times during Lent — St. Monica’s could only accommodate a single night — and to reach out to non-Catholics.
“We’re very pleased to be doing the play in a new space and to reach out to a wider audience,” said Roumie. The play has drawn a few hundred each night, with the biggest crowd expected for Good Friday.
As an actor, Roumie has been portraying Christ in different productions for five years, most notably for the TV series The Chosen. He said that when live audiences see him in The Last Days, some seem to forget he’s an actor and seem to believe they are laying eyes on Christ himself. “It’s daunting and humbling,” he said. “No human can fill his sandals, but I try my best as an actor to portray him in a way that is both acceptable and relatable.”
He added that playing Christ has become a ministry of sorts, with his goal “to bring people closer to [Jesus]. It has become a major part of who I am professionally, and it has helped me grow spiritually in ways I could not have anticipated.”
Roumie was recruited to portray Christ by Vargo, who first met him while she was portraying St. Faustina in a play produced by St. Luke Productions. “Jonathan embodies him so beautifully. To see him portray Christ at the Last Supper is incredible and beyond words,” Vargo said.
To prepare for the role, Roumie spends much time in prayer, particularly the Rosary, and frequently attends Mass. “I ask for wisdom and humility in playing my role and that I become a channel of the Holy Spirit to reach out to people.”
Vargo, too, prays for success in portraying Mary and asks that “God work through me.”
She has seen many touched by The Last Days, including a nun who told her, “Thank you for doing this play. You reminded me of why I took my vows.”
On the parish level, the Shakopee Passion Play, an annual production by Sts. Joachim and Anne Church and School in Shakopee, Minnesota, has been an annual tradition in the community since 1981. Its pastor, Father Erik Lundgren, has portrayed Christ since 2016. As many as 2,000 people have come to see the performance in recent years, including Father Lundgren’s archbishop, Bernard Hebda of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
The two-and-a-half-hour play is held at St. Mark Church in Shakopee, a historically German parish. A Knights of Columbus member, Dave Czaja, and a former pastor, Father Robert Cassidy, first launched the production. “It’s basically a glorified living Stations of the Cross,” Father Lundgren said.
The windows of the church are covered so that special lighting can enhance the production, and a choir sings hymns. The characters themselves have no dialogue, but the play is narrated. A decade ago, the local Hispanic community got involved, and a Spanish narration night was added.
Father Lundgren agreed to star in the production, he said, “to save souls and glorify God … to smell like my sheep and show them I care about what they love.”
He also wishes to honor the memory of Father Cassidy, who was Father Lundgren’s pastor growing up, and to persuade spectators to take advantage of the sacrament of penance.
For the past 25 years, Holy Name of Jesus parish in Wayzata, Minnesota, has held a Passion Play in its parish church with its ninth-grade confirmation students serving as actors. Over the years, the parish has collected an impressive quantity of props and costumes, with adult parishioners volunteering to serve off stage.
“The Passion Play makes the story of the passion and death of Christ more real to our children,” said Ashley Cermak, a parish youth minister. “For example, our actor playing our Peter may come to the realization of what it was like when he denied knowing Christ.”
The size of the cast varies depending upon the number of confirmation students, but generally ranges between 50 and 100. About 700 people attend the play.
Added Cermak, “It is a beautiful thing to see the different generations coming together to be reminded of this story which is at the center of our faith.”
Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.