Living the Passion

Photo: Paul Schwarz Photo: Paul Schwarz

For 30 years, St. Stephen’s teens have immersed the community in Christ’s suffering

It was a simple presentation: a handful of students, a single spotlight and a cross. But the first “living” Stations of the Cross that Bill Swedberg experienced while a graduate student left a lasting impression.

“I was mesmerized,” Swedberg said. “It was prayerful.”

After he became youth minister at Renton’s St. Stephen the Martyr Parish in 1987, and was “desperately” looking for something teens could do to engage with the parish community, the Living Stations became the answer.

“This gave us a chance to do something that touched people’s hearts,” Swedberg said.

Since then — every Lent for 30 years — the parish’s teens have presented the Living Stations.

“Even though it’s got all the trimmings of a show, of stagecraft, this is prayer — we’re praying the Stations of the Cross,” Swedberg said. “We’re reflecting on the words, and all the focus is on presenting this prayer so that the community experiences the Way of the Cross.”

Being part of the Living Stations can be a transformative experience for the teens.

“It informs you as a Catholic and I think strengthens your faith,” said Becca Frampton, who was a high school senior when she portrayed Mary two years ago. After her experience, Frampton felt she needed to become more active in her faith. She has become an extraordinary minister of holy Communion at St. Stephen’s and is more focused at Mass, where she now wears a veil (“a constant reminder that I’m in church”).

“I think a lot of that has to do with the stations,” Frampton said. “He sacrificed so much so that he can be in the Eucharist for us.”

Bill Swedberg
Bill Swedberg. Photo: Randall Venn

Darkness, then light

In the early years, St. Stephen’s teens presented the traditional Stations of the Cross. About 15 years ago, Swedberg and his team of adults discovered the scriptural stations instituted by Pope John Paul II, and began using a version of them. Each station includes a Scripture-based narration of the scene at hand, which allows a fuller telling of the Passion.

Like the stations Swedberg found mesmerizing so many years ago, St. Stephen’s Living Stations are presented in tableau form: The actors assume specific poses, which create a snapshot, Swedberg explained.

Changes between stations are done in the dark, while music anticipates the coming scene. When the lights come back on, the congregation sees the teens in pose, along with one focused movement, such as the scourge coming down on Jesus’ back and his reaction, Swedberg said. The teens hold their poses during the reading by a teenage narrator, followed by the congregation’s prayer response.

Only one line is uttered by a cast member, when Jesus dies on the cross: “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)

Over the years, each boy who has portrayed Jesus delivers that line “with passion and power, and just this sense of God’s Spirit that chills me to the bone,” Swedberg said.

‘Fully human experience’

More than reenacting the Passion, the teens at St. Stephen’s get a window into the life of Jesus that many of them have never experienced.

“I make sure that we give them the education so that they understand … the motivations of the Romans and the Pharisees and the people in the crowd,” Swedberg said. “That education is really a wonderful way of meditating on the Way of the Cross.”

Courtney Johnson, now in her late 30s, began participating in the Living Stations in junior high. She began as a member of the crowd and, as a senior, portrayed Mary. Johnson recalled the scene where Mary cradles the body of Jesus after he is taken down from the cross.

“It just struck me at the time: Wow, this was a fully human experience,” said Johnson, now a middle-school youth leader at the parish. “I guess as a teenager, I hadn’t ever really thought of it in that way before.”

Listening to the Spirit

Each Lent, an average of 30–35 teens serve as actors, readers, stage crew and makeup artists for the Living Stations. They are supported by up to a dozen adults, “extraordinary men and women that love the teens, they love the Passion,” Swedberg said. It’s all pulled together after only a half-dozen or so rehearsals, beginning on Ash Wednesday.

Now 30, the Living Stations is twice as old as some of the teens in the cast. Some of their parents were once cast members, said Swedberg, who is now the parish’s pastoral assistant for communications but still directs the Living Stations. For Swedberg, who grew up attending St. Stephen’s, the stations also have been a family affair: His son and daughter were cast members and his wife, Patty, helps provide the music.

After presentations at two other parishes (see box), the Living Stations are presented at St. Stephen’s on Good Friday. At their conclusion, St. Stephen’s pastor, Father Ed White, usually kneels in front of the Living Stations cross, says a prayer and invites the cast and congregation to venerate it. The cross feels authentic, Swedberg said, because it appears to have blood on it.

“When you see people come up and kiss the cross and hold on to it, it’s so very, very moving,” he said. “It’s just amazing.”

In three decades of working with teenagers on such an important presentation, “you learn to bend with the Spirit. You learn to trust,” Swedberg said. “If you came to our first rehearsal, you would not believe that this motley crew is going to do something which is really profound.”

But, he added, “we are always looking for the Holy Spirit speaking to us.”

Experience the Living Stations

St. Stephen the Martyr’s Living Stations will be presented at 8 p.m. on these dates:

- Friday, April 7, at St. Brendan, 10051 N.E. 195th St., Bothell

- Wednesday, April 12, at Holy Rosary, 4210 S.W. Genesee St., Seattle

- Good Friday, April 14, at St. Stephen the Martyr, 13055 S.E. 192nd St., Renton

A free-will offering will be taken at St. Brendan’s and Holy Rosary to cover expenses, which include the cost of renting a truck to transport the sets

Northwest Catholic - April 2017

Jean Parietti

Jean Parietti is the local news editor for NWCatholic.org and features editor for Northwest Catholic magazine. You can reach her at jean.parietti@seattlearch.org.