By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published April 13, 2006
The day before Nancy Osborne turned 50, Hurricane Katrina roared through, wreaking havoc and nearly destroying her family’s Hattiesburg, Miss., home.
Three days later, while out searching for supplies, Osborne’s husband was shot to death, the victim of an apparent attempted carjacking.
Left without a husband and father, Osborne and her six children were devastated and had to face the greatest cross they would ever carry.
Osborne, a soft-spoken, poised woman, was one of several speakers who witnessed to the impact of Christ’s Passion in their lives at Via Crucis, a powerful experience of the Stations of the Cross held Saturday, March 25, at the Arena at Gwinnett Center in Duluth.
Osborne spoke of her husband, a former Episcopal priest, who had made the decision to convert to Catholicism the year before. His family joined him in converting.
Osborne said that she is thankful because it has been her faith that has helped her to cope with the loss of her husband.
“It was my husband’s vibrant, authentic embracing of the truth in the Roman Catholic Church that brought my family to where we are,” she said. “The church has helped us to carry our cross.”
Via Crucis was sponsored by the Leadership Institute, an apostolate of Regnum Christi dedicated to forming young men to “love Christ, serve people and build the church.”
Earne Bentley worked with the Leadership Institute to put on Via Crucis and said they were pleased with the turnout.
Coordinators estimate the crowd at about 800, which they consider a success for an event planned in just two months.
“We had no idea what to expect. We didn’t know if we’d get 100 people or 3,500, so we were happy,” he said.
Guest speaker Jorge Valdés was the first to address the crowd. A popular speaker in the archdiocese, Valdés entwines Scripture into his moving testimony of conversion.
Valdés is the former head of U.S. operations for the Medellin drug cartel, one of the largest organized crime webs in the world. Once responsible for 85 percent of the cocaine brought into the United States, Valdés has since re-committed his life to the Catholic faith, earned a Ph.D. in New Testament Scripture from Loyola University in Chicago, and founded Coming Clean Ministries, named after his book, “Coming Clean.”
Valdés spoke of his former life when he believed so strongly in what he was doing he was “willing to die for it.” But he said, he was “born again into new life.”
“The truth for us begins and ends at the cross. Jesus went to the cross in tremendous pain and agony for us because he knew there was no other way,” he said. “There can be no new birth without a death.”
Though life can be difficult, it is always met with reward.
“That’s the challenge. You have to realize the life of Christ is sometimes the life of suffering. But there is tremendous joy and freedom and liberation in suffering,” Valdés said. “It is the freedom of eternal life.”
The Stations of the Cross began immediately after Valdés’ testimony. Each station was portrayed by a clip from the movie “The Passion of the Christ” on the giant screen above the stage, followed by the moving testimony of speakers who described the crosses in their own lives.
Doug Tollett spoke of the heartbreaking cross he and his wife were forced to bear when their 21-year-old son, Matthew, was killed in a car accident eight years ago. After struggling with enormous grief, Tollett’s wife, Brenda, had a dream in which their son told her he had “joined the army of God.” It changed their entire family, Tollett said.
“Through his death, we have come to know Christ. Our whole family has. Praying that God would help us carry this cross was the only way we could do it,” he said. “We have found peace, joy and happiness, and we thank Jesus Christ for that.”
Speaker Joseph Grimaldi, a sophomore at Pinecrest Academy in Cumming, received his cross when he was diagnosed with a rare soft tissue cancer in his pelvis nearly four years ago. He was told that he had a 20 percent chance of survival. After surgery and chemotherapy, he was clear of cancer. But last summer the cancer returned, only to be again diminished with treatment.
“God has really looked over me these past couple of years,” Grimaldi said. “Cancer has strengthened my faith. I’ve learned that God only gives you crosses you can bear. There’s nothing you can’t do, nothing you can’t control with God.”
Pat and Marion Metz spoke of the daily crosses they carry in the everyday struggles as parents of 10 children.
Janina Arritola spoke of her son, who was diagnosed in the womb with a rare chromosomal disorder. Doctors said that he was “not compatible with life.” Now a few months old, many still do not understand the choices she and her husband made to give birth to their son, despite his many medical issues, but Arritola knows that God meant for her son to have life. After her talk, a moving round of applause broke out as she walked off the stage and her friend put the baby in her arms.
Speaker T.J. D’Agostino said that he had not had to face any heavy burdens.
“How can you understand the Passion if your burdens have been light?” he asked. But in an effort to reach out and to better understand suffering in the world, D’Agostino has chosen to go to Haiti to serve the poorest of the poor.
Each speaker brought the various Stations to life. Some spoke of massive, burdensome crosses, while others spoke of the simpler, day-to-day crosses they carry.
When Phil Nagel was 15, he was riding bikes with his 13-year-old brother, when his brother was hit by a drunk driver and decapitated. Three months later, Nagel’s best friend was killed by a drunken boater while they were waterskiing together. In the next four years, Nagel also lost his mother and ended up plunging into the numbness of drugs and alcohol, which he called “20 years of hell.”
But in 1991, Nagel entered a treatment center.
“The backbone of my recovery has been a humble, honest prayer life,” he said.
Other speakers included Aileen Barreca, a lay Missionary of Charity, who spoke of serving others, and Robert Donner, who spoke of the painful loss of his father.
The Stations concluded with a touching video tribute to Pope John Paul II, “a journey home for a servant of Christ.”
After each speaker, a small choir sang in Latin and in English, while a simple, large wooden cross was brought forth, put into a stand along the stage and illuminated by a spotlight. By the end of the event, 14 wooden crosses stretched across the front of the arena.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory concluded the Stations with remarks.
The Stations of the Cross, he said, “are 14 commemorative moments of the suffering and death of Christ that have captured the heart of Christians for many years.”
“There is no right way or wrong way to walk this path of sorrow,” he said, because the Stations are “intended to soften our own all-too-often hardened hearts.”
“The Stations of the Cross are a Lenten activity that, like the season of Lent itself, help us to better understand our own worth because of the price paid for us by Christ.”
Every Christian can find strength in Christ’s Passion, the archbishop said.
“Christ has given each one of us an example of patient endurance through suffering and death,” he said.
The archbishop received a rousing standing ovation at the conclusion of his remarks.
Many who attended the Via Crucis said the event was a moving and meaningful way to reflect on the Lenten season.
Mary Ann Stubbs, a parishioner of St. Patrick’s Church in Norcross, called the experience “incredible.”
“It helped you to really relate to the Passion. It was very good having the speakers. It made it all so real,” she said.
Jim and Joselyn Schutz, parishioners of St. Brigid Church in Alpharetta, said that they hope to attend Via Crucis every year.
“What the archbishop said really hit me,” Joselyn said. “I need to really let myself feel the sorrow and feel the sadness, because it reminds me of the sorrow for my own sins.”
Jim Schutz said that his family began Lent by watching “The Passion,” but said that the speakers at Via Crucis helped to show the humanity of the Passion.
“Coming to this and hearing the speakers, you know it’s sometimes hard to put ourselves back 2,000 years, but the speakers really helped bring it closer to home,” he said.
His wife agreed.
“We’re not going to miss this again. I think it’s a wonderful way to punctuate the middle of Lent and to remind you that it’s not just about giving up chocolate for 40 days.”
Earne Bentley said the Leadership Institute plans to make Via Crucis an annual tradition.
“This year we just wanted to get out there, make a statement and do something big. Hopefully we did that,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll have any trouble getting people here next year.”