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J.D. Long GarcíaMarch 28, 2024
A man, portraying Jesus, carries a cross down a neighborhood street during a 2019 live re-enactment of the Stations of the Cross outside All Saints Catholic Church in Houston on Good Friday. (CNS photo/James Ramos, Catholic Herald)

During her first confession in 15 years, Abigail Sánchez discovered she had not been confirmed. The priest had asked her where she received her first Communion and confirmation, and she gave the name of the church. It was Lutheran.

She was baptized into the Catholic Church in the cathedral in Sinaloa, Mexico. But she would have to go through the Order of Christian Initiation of Adults, the priest told her. “It’s just nine months,” he said.

“Oh really? Just nine months, Father?” Ms. Sánchez laughed as she recounted the story. “But actually, I love it. I’m learning so much. I feel confident to defend my faith.”

I spoke with Ms. Sánchez before a rehearsal for a dramatized Via Crucis at Most Holy Trinity Church in Phoenix, Ariz. I ended up speaking with 19 of the participants, actually, but her story stood out.

In a study released last April, the Pew Research Center documented the steady decline of Catholicism among U.S. Latinos. It found that approximately 43 percent of Latinos are Catholic, a severe drop from 67 percent in 2010. Ms. Sánchez, on the other hand, is a young adult who is coming back to the Catholic Church. She explained that while her grandmother was an evangelical Christian, she and her mother had always gravitated toward Catholicism. Becoming a member of the parish community has been lifegiving—but also a challenge.

“I’ve come from a very traumatic background,” Ms. Sánchez said bluntly. “If people got close to you, it’s because they wanted something from you. So I’m constantly battling those thoughts. And God is constantly healing me. So to me, it’s just very new to find people that genuinely want to help you and be there for you. It’s a new experience and a nice experience.”

Passing on the faith to others is a primary focus for the organizers of the Via Crucis at Most Holy Trinity. I arrived a few minutes late, but to my surprise, I found the parking lot nearly empty. One man sat alone in a folding chair, a rosary in one hand and a smartphone in the other.

“¿Qué tal?” I began introducing myself, but he cut me off. “Soy Eusebio.”

Martín Vazquez, who plays the role of Pontius Pilate, practices his lines for a dramatized Stations of the Cross at Most Holy Trinity Church in Phoenix, Ariz. (J.D. Long García)
Martín Vazquez, who plays the role of Pontius Pilate, practices his lines for a dramatized Stations of the Cross at Most Holy Trinity Church in Phoenix, Ariz. (J.D. Long García)

Eusebio Trejo is the organizer of the Via Crucis, but really, he is like the director. He had been a participant for years, having played the parts of a soldier, Pontius Pilate and a thief. When the previous organizer, Juan Marín Salmerón, passed away, the group insisted that Mr. Trejo take the lead.

“There’s usually about 20 of us who take part in this,” he told me, pointing to some parking spots where the stage is set up for the scene with Pontius Pilate, Barabbas and Jesus.

The observance began many years ago, but Mr. Trejo could not specify the year. It used to take place in the school, but Mr. Marín Salmerón asked for it to be opened to the larger community.

The outdoor procession begins at the parish’s north campus, winds through the main parking lot and ends at the school’s baseball field, where Cavalry is staged. Like many of the participants, Mr. Trejo is from Mexico, and his children were born in the United States. He said Mexican immigrants brought the tradition with them to the parish. Others I spoke with also came from Mexico, hailing from states like Chiapas, Chihuahua, Durango, Guadalajara, Sinaloa and Veracruz.

“Before, both Hispanics and the Anglo-Saxon community—that’s how the parish refers to them—would do it together,” Mr. Trejo said. “In the beginning, it was full of people from all over. But now, it’s just us.”

Last year, the pastor told Mr. Trejo that he did not think anyone who spoke English was coming anymore, so he should consider just doing it in Spanish. “But we’re doing one Station in English and one in Spanish, and that’s how we’ll continue to do it until the pastor tells me to stop,” Mr. Trejo told me.

His family, including his son and his grandson, have roles in the Via Crucis. Over the years, the group has incorporated ideas from cinematic depictions of the Passion and incorporated them. The group tries to reach everyone who attends.

“When you’re watching a movie, you see it one way. But when you’re here, and you're focused on the script…” he trailed off in thought. “When you’re the soldier beating him or you’re Pilate or Barabas, it’s something that you just say…gosh, just the way Jesus was mistreated. It touches your heart.”

It was a common message from the participants who spoke with me. In his book Caminemos Con Jesús, the theologian Roberto Goizueta writes that popular observances like this are “essentially incarnational and, therefore, relational.” “Jesus is not simply a spirit ‘out there’ or even ‘in here,’” he writes. “[H]e is a truly historical, flesh-and-blood man who accompanies us in our lives—as do our families and friends.”

The actors in a Passion play make present this historical reality both to themselves and to others in the community. “The Mexican parishioner was no longer just playing the part of the soldier,” Mr. Goizueta writes. “[H]e now was the soldier…. By physically putting himself in the place of the soldier, he recognized his own intrinsic relationship to the soldier, to the multitudes surrounding the cross, to Mary, and to Jesus Christ.”

These insights came to mind when I spoke with Carlos Montelongo, who is playing the role of “Soldier 2” for the second year in a row. “We are Catholic, and we have to continue this for our brothers and sisters and for future generations to see this,” he told me. “We make it as real as we can so it touches people’s hearts.”

I saw Mr. Montelongo in character during the rehearsal, shoving Jesus over to the light pole that served as a pillar for the scourging. He seemed to become a different person, jeering and mocking Jesus.

“When I was younger, I barely participated,” Mr. Montelongo told me. “It’s changed how I enter into this. Jesus gave us so much. The least I can do is play my part well and serve the people in this church. When the soldier has his conversion, it is something special.”

José Pedro Duarte plays the Centurion beside Mr. Montelongo. He described himself as a timid person, but participating in the Via Crucis has helped him in his public speaking.

“It’s a beautiful thing. We hope to continue for many years to come,” Mr. Duarte told me. “If young people want to participate, that’s great. I don’t have to continue in my role. We have to make room for young people. The idea is that we don’t lose the tradition.”

In his book The Faith of the People, the theologian Orlando Espín describes the crucified Christ and Mary as central figures in Latino popular Catholicism. He argues that popular religion reveals the sensus fidelium—or the sense of the faithful—of Latino communities in the United States.

“He is the divine Christ, and that makes his innocent suffering all the more dramatic,” Mr. Espín writes of Latino depictions of the Passion. “He is prayed to as one speaks with a living person, not merely mourned or remembered as some dead hero of the past. In his passion and death he has come to be in solidarity with all those throughout history who have also innocently suffered at the hands of evildoers.”

Our Lady of Sorrows, La Dolorosa, is also a major focus of the U.S. Latino Passion plays, Mr. Espín writes, noting how participants comfort the woman who plays the Blessed Mother with condolences at the death of her son. At Most Holy Trinity, the role has belonged to Marta Reyes for the last five years.

“On Good Friday, I’m really crying,” she told me. “People tell me I make them cry. I do it from my heart. People really do feel what’s happening.”

Ms. Reyes said she offers her participation for the special needs of her family and for her own health. And it has been working. “Three years ago, I couldn’t walk,” she said. “I offer it up, and now I can walk and do all my activities. I think I was healed by God, through the intercession of the Most Holy Virgin Mary. It’s been a great blessing.”

It was already dark as the group rehearsed Jesus’ trial with Pontius Pilate. One of the participants parked his truck opposite the stage and turned on the flood lights. As I took photos, I walked past Mr. Trejo. He pulled me aside and quietly mentioned it was the first time the person playing Pilate had the role. “He has many lines,” he said. “But he’s doing a good job!”

He was talking about Martín Vázquez, who played the role of a soldier last year. But really, he started getting involved a few years ago after playing one of the three kings during Las Pastorelas, a traditional Mexican Christmas play. “I’ve never been a part of putting on the Passion play,” Mr. Vázquez said. “But it always captured my attention so I’m glad to be a part of it now. It changed my life.”

During practice, he acted opposite Eliezer Rios, who plays Jesus. Mr. Rios has been a part of the performance a few times now. “It’s hard just to do the acting, to carry the cross the entire way. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for Jesus,” he said. “It’s good, so others learn by seeing it happen—and it helps us be grateful for what he did. He gave it all for us.”

Because of deep emotion, a number of participants struggled to capture in words what the annual Via Crucis means to them. “When you’re participating, there’s an emotion that just doesn’t fit in your heart,” Ramona Ontiveros told me. “When you see it, you think, ‘Oh poor Jesus.’ But when you participate…it’s different. If you don’t come, you don’t know what you’re missing. Come see what our Lord did for us.”

Yaneli López agreed. “It’s beautiful and sad at the same time,” she said. “And the Lord has performed many miracles in my life and [for] my loved ones. I never attended this in Mexico when I was an adolescent. I never took part in it. You can feel the difference. I don’t know how to even explain it—all the changes that have come from this.”

Araceli Garfías, who plays St. Mary Magdalene, said, “When they strike Jesus, it hurts me, too. Everything he suffered. I feel…” She paused. “Through what he showed us, by giving his life, it’s the greatest gift he gave us for our conversion. He gave his life for us. He was the son of el mero mero—the big boss. He’s the king. He gave his life, and it’s the greatest example that he could have left for us.”

Some have specific intentions in mind as they pray through their performance. Elsa Engraciano, for example, told me she offers her participation for the conversion of her family. “I’m a grandmother already, and I have a grandson that drinks too much,” she said. “And I think of him, and I want to sacrifice for him. I want to leave this example for my family so they follow the path of God. That’s what we have to do as grandparents—teach our children and grandchildren first and foremost. These are moments that mean so much for us as Catholics.”

At 17, Jesús Manuel Castillo is one of the younger participants. But he has been participating since he was 10. That is when—at his mother’s insistence—he was part of the crowd that shouts insults at Jesus.

“It’s good for us to be a good example, so young people can see it,” he told me. “It’s not a big sacrifice. Just two days of practice. Those who haven’t participated, if they want to come at 6 p.m., they can come and see. They can see what part they might want to play.”

At 10, Mr. Trejo’s grandson, Adán Trejo Postillos, is likely the youngest of the participants. In his second year as a soldier, he wore his Roman soldier’s helmet to practice. It fit snugly over his dark-rimmed glasses.

“It’s, like, from God. It’s what happened in real life,” he told me. “So this can help people understand what really happened. I wanted to participate because I love Jesus so much. So I wanted to do this for God.”

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