By Jonathan Spicer
For a few seconds during CBC’s broadcast of the Stations of the Cross at World Youth Day, the shot cut to Pope john Paul II as he watched the performance on his personal television. And for those same few seconds, just beyond the pope’s shoulder, Byron Abalos’ face filled the inset screen as he performed the ancient Christian ritual.
“It was just too much,” Abalos, a third-year theatre-acting student at Ryerson, said in an interview last week. Abalos fell back into his chair, remembering seeing the broadcast on the jumbo screen overhead while he was acting.
“It wasn’t merely a show. For me personally, it was an expression of faith,” he said.
Pilgrims flooded University Ave. on July 26 to participate in The Way of the Cross, a play depicting the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, penned by John Paul II himself. Abalos introduced and commented on the 14 scenes while playing an animator, a character representing the youth of the world, in the internationally broadcast World Youth Day event.
The fusion of acting and faith became a call from God after two years of theatre school, said the Catholic student, who had also been at World Youth Day 2000 in Rome, Italy.
“It was easier to find truth because it was the truth,” Abalos said. “I remember standing at the 12th station, at the foot of the cross, when Jesus is raised 50 feet above the stage, and just weeping out of the beauty and tragedy of the event. It became real.”
April Mullen, another third-year theatre-acting student at Ryerson, said she was honoured to have played the role of Veronica in the play and found herself identifying with the character’s acts of goodness — like when she wiped Jesus’ face at the sixth station. The struggles that people face today are the same struggles faced by those in the gospel, Mullen said.
“It’s what you hope for and dream for, to help change and direct our world into a better place — not necessarily a more Catholic place,” she said. “It’s why you become an artist: to inspire.”
Mullen was so inspired by the opportunity that she drove from Niagra Falls to Toronto for the auditions and dress rehearsals, sometimes six days out of the week. And after three months of preparation, some 50 young volunteers stepped out onto the elaborate stages for the first time to play soldiers, officials, members of a Jerusalem mob and other characters from the biblical narrative.
The stations were visually powerful tableaus, elevated one metre above the street so that the crowds could see what was happening. Police estimated 150,000 people gathered at Queen’s Park alone for the conclusion of the pageant.
The three-hour performance followed Jesus as he dragged his cross through a steady rain and thousands of praying and crying Catholics, on the path to his crucifixion.
The sweet payoff, however, was when all performers were invited out to the tarmac at Pearson Airport to see the Pope off, a few days later.
“It was magical, more than any of us could imagine,” Abalos said, a personal photo album of the Pope spread open just beyond his shoulder.