Changed by Stations of the Cross?
Detroit Archdiocese teams with The Cross and the Light musicians to evangelize through the retelling of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection in song.
“Our goal is to baptize the imagination,” said Kelly Nieto, creator and executive producer of The Cross and the Light. “Imagine singers performing by candlelight, and then, as the Holy Spirit descends at Pentecost, imagine the walls of the church bursting into flames 30-feet high.”
Nieto was talking about her epic musical production, which has become a Lenten tradition for Catholics in the Detroit area. The Cross and the Light is being presented this year in a concert format, with seven vocalists performing multiple roles. There will be 21 performances at five churches throughout southeastern Michigan.
The production has drawn praise from Father Eduardo Montemayor, associate director of the archdiocesan Office of Evangelization.
“It’s a treasure that we have right here in the Archdiocese of Detroit,” Father Montemayor said.
He outlined plans for providing follow-up, after people have encountered Christ at the performance. Volunteers are being prepared to assist with hospitality and ticket sales; but he is suggesting a third component to the churches: evangelization.
“We’re training volunteers to be able to proclaim the Gospel right afterward, in a simple way,” Father Montemayor explained.
With assistance from St. Paul Street Evangelization, volunteers are learning to talk with and encourage those who may have just come to an understanding of Christ, through brief personal encounters and small-table discussions at a reception in the parish halls.
“With a trained volunteer at each table,” Father Montemayor said, “asking just five or six thought-provoking questions, we could help people to open up.”
Act 2: The Empty Tomb to Pentecost
The popular musical, which was nominated for two prestigious Wilde awards in 2014, was originally created as a stage play. The play — or at least the first half of it, titled Living Stations of the Cross — was first performed in 2002 at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church in Farmington, Mich. As it grew in popularity, The Living Stations moved to Detroit’s Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, where it played to an audience totaling more than 22,000 on Lenten weekends in 2011 and 2012.
Father Charlie Fox, then-secretary to Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron, said of the presentation, “My studies at the seminary are focused on the ‘New Evangelization.’ This is exactly what Pope John Paul II meant when he used that expression. It is a bridge between where people are and where God wants them to be.”
But for Nieto, the project didn’t end there. “Jesus had resurrected,” said Nieto, “but the apostles were still hiding in a locked room,” in terms of the play’s themes.
In 2012, God laid it on her heart to write Act 2, “The Empty Tomb to Pentecost.” While the Living Stations had told the Gospel story through Good Friday, The Cross and the Light carried the story through the Resurrection to Jesus’ ascension into heaven — and on to its dramatic and glorious conclusion with the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, enabling the apostles to “make disciples of all nations.”
Last year during Holy Week, The Cross and the Light was performed by a 70-person cast, with a full stage set and theater lighting at Detroit's Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts. This year, Nieto is taking it on the road as a concert experience — featuring seven performers each playing multiple roles.
In place of the bulky stage pieces, Nieto has turned to a state-of-the-art digital-imaging system that projects the background onto the venue’s walls utilizing multiple projectors.
Nieto, a former Miss Michigan and former runner-up for Miss America, is no stranger to the stage.
She is a dynamic speaker, entertainer, fiddle player and musical comedienne and has opened for performers such as Garth Brooks, Willie Nelson, Kathy Mattea, Ray Stevens and Charlie Daniels.
So she speaks with experience when she says that the vocalists who perform in The Cross and the Light have just as much talent and professional energy as those well-known secular artists.
The cast includes Kenny Watson in the role of Jesus and artist Tim Bowman Jr., son of jazz legend Tim Bowman and nephew of gospel icons Vickie and CeCe Winans, as the doubting Thomas.
Other cast members include Beth Lackey, Ashley Rozanski, Bradley Ellison, Christiana Perrault and Blake Gronlund.
Ashley Rozanski, who plays the role of Mary Magdalen, said of her role, “It has been an honor to rejoin the cast of The Cross and the Light again this year following my performance as Mary Magdalene in last year's production at Music Hall in Detroit. As a young [24-year-old] Catholic, I know how vital it is to continue to create and perform modern retellings of the greatest love story of all time.
Added Rozanski, “As a working actress in New York, it is even more special for me to come back to my hometown not only to perform, but to bring people to the foot of the cross. It wasn’t until this show that I realized this was my God-given mission. God has blessed me with talent — and sharing that talent by telling His story is truly life-changing for me. I’m excited to tour with this year's concert-style production and to get to meet more young Catholics just like me.”
Hearts Ripped Open
Nieto recalls that the Church once relied on telling the Gospel story through beautiful artwork and stained glass. She hopes that, today, through music and technology, The Cross and the Light will tell the story to a new generation.
“This is a personal encounter with the Lord,” she said. “People come to this event, and their hearts are ripped open. We lead people to Christ, just like the apostles did at Pentecost.”
“So many people are hungering and thirsting for God,” she said, “and they just don’t know the beauty of the Church. They’ve learned about rules: ‘This is the ambo. You kneel here. You do this.’ But it’s like planting seeds in sidewalk cement. They’re never going to grow unless you tell them who Jesus is and what he has done for them.”
This impulse to evangelize for her may be surprising, as she did not grow up strong in faith, and as a young adult, she ventured into atheism and New Age spirituality — but the Stations of the Cross are key to her conversion.
After her conversion in 2000, as she was preparing to enter the Catholic Church, she attended the Stations of the Cross for the first time.
Praying the stations, she felt overwhelmed with grief and pain, and she understood for the first time the depth of Jesus’ love and sacrifice.
“It changed me forever,” Nieto recalled.
“I was inspired to write The Cross and the Light to give millions of other people that same understanding. In addition to raising my five children, this is my life’s mission.”
Register correspondent Kathy Schiffer writes from Southfield, Michigan.
The Cross and the Light will be presented April 16-May 16 in southeastern Michigan. A schedule of current performances is available at the website CrossandLight.com.