Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Passion Play at Oberammergau

By Msg. Tom Stack

THE PASSION Play is staged in the small Bavarian town of Oberammergau every 10 years. When I made it to Oberammergau just before this year’s production ended its run, I fulfilled a long-standing, though irresolute, ambition. Concluding on October 3rd, after 102 performances over its 4½-month run, it had been seen by some 500,000 fans, drawn from both Germany and the wider world.

Remarkably, the event is completely “home grown”. The 98-strong dramatis personae are all recruited locally. It is reckoned that from the small town population of roughly 5,000, approximately 2,400 – that is almost half the inhabitants – are involved in one way or another in the production – as performers, choir members, musicians or stage hands. The state-of-the-art, roofed auditorium seats almost 5,000.

The large stage area is, however, constructed in the open air, its dramatic backdrop furnished by the mountainous, tree-clad, alpine landscape.

This produces the unusual sensation of being somehow indoors and outdoors at the same time. The play itself provides a spectacular theatrical experience, calculated to appeal to both Christian believers and unbelievers alike. It embraces a variety of art forms: acting, sculptured tableaux, superbly drilled choreography, live orchestral music and period biblical costumes.

The entire German text of the play is printed in the programme and is supplemented by a full English-language version, with other translations also available. Next to me at the performance which I attended were two ladies from Osaka poring over their Japanese text.

The play is folk theatre in origin and still retains its strong traditional outline and flavour since its inauguration almost 400 years ago. It was first presented in 1634 and has continued almost without interruption at 10-year intervals ever since.

The circumstances of its origin are significant. During the Thirty Years War, widespread plague ravaged Bavaria. The Oberammergau community vowed to represent the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus in theatrical form, as a Christian memorial. Providentially, from then on the townspeople were spared further deaths in their vicinity, which was construed by them as a special blessing.

Cumulative experience and contemporary visual and audio technology have enabled the Oberammergau Passion Play to evolve in terms of its staging and presentation. This has strengthened its emotional impact.

The modern text, too, though faithful to the Gospel narratives, is, I believe, racier than of yore. Interestingly the traditional Passion segment of the story is not confined to the events of Holy Week (Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday) but also skilfully interpolates earlier episodes in the public ministry of Jesus, such as his teaching on the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (Luke 6:20). The text also reveals the Jesus character interacting with women in a way undreamt of by orthodox religious figures of the day. His approach to female figures in the story is counter-cultural, such is the dignity and respect which he unfailingly accords them. I recall, above all, the poignancy of the scene in which Jesus lifts to her feet the cowering “woman taken in adultery” and as her accusers slink away, asks “Has no one condemned you? Neither do I condemn you . . .” (John 10:10). A timeless moment of forgiveness.

At Bethany there is the delicacy of the Nazarene’s encounter with the woman named Magdalena in the script who is admonished by two of the disciples as she makes an extravagant gesture of esteem towards Jesus which he, in contrast, graciously affirms (Matthew 26:10). There is the confrontation with the merchants whom he ousts from the temple (Matthew 21:12) and the drama of “truth speaking to power” as the prisoner appears before Pilate (Luke 6:2).

The play lasts something over five hours (with an intermission). The narrative, however, never flags. The artistic excellence of the production is sustained throughout and one is swept along by the momentum of the story which edges towards the heart of the Christian mystery.

What is in the end most special about the Oberammergau experience is that it delivers the pristine quality of the Gospel story in a singular way. And for me it was a day well spent.

Tom Stack

Published in the Irish Times (An Irishman's Diary) November 8th 2010

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Oscar Romero

Romero legacy of hope echoes on for oppressed and dispossessed

By Fr. Tom Stack

Thirty years after his
death, Oscar Romero
remains a hero for all who
go hungry in body and soul.

Images of Oscar Romero have been visible everywhere in El Salvador in recent days. Across the country, enthusiastic crowds gathered to commemorate this extraordinary Christian leader. The 30th anniversary of his death last week was met by an outpouring of affection for his memory.

Awareness of Romero’s reputation has spread beyond his native land, and the historic witness he played to truth and justice is now marked annually in many countries of the Americas and beyond.

In Dublin, a special memorial mass was celebrated under the auspices of the Irish Missionary Union, attended by Franciscan friars and Sisters of St. Clare, both of which orders have Irish personnel currently working in El Salvador.

Oscar Romero was archbishop of San Salvador from 1977 until he was brutally assassinated by a government military death squad, who gunned him down while celebrating the Eucharist in the chapel of the city’s cancer hospital on March 24th 1980. That shocking event is still mourned each year.

The circumstances of his death are not the only reason for Salvadoreans’ annual mourning for their late archbishop. The anniversary also revives the memory of a potent, hope-filled aspiration for the poor of El Salvador, which it seems has never been quenched.

Besides the appalling manner in which he was killed, he is venerated for his commitment to the struggle for human rights and social justice which characterised his ministry.

Last week, I had an opportunity of viewing a film which featured Oscar Romero, which was shown on RTÉ in 1980, just weeks before his death.

It was part of a Radharc series, presented by the late Fr. Joe Dunn. Although filmed 30 years ago, what it portrays remains remarkable as the embodiment of Christian integrity in a singular man – a gift that never grows old. It reflects the Salvadorean bishops’ consuming concern for truth, justice and compassion on behalf of the dispossessed of his countryfolk.
The Film is titled Who Is for Liberation?, a reference to the then emphasis on a particular pastoral approach to socio-religious issues which came to be known as “Liberation Theology”.

Its priorities are based on a number of fundamental truths: It is nothing less than an affront to preach the existence of a provident God to a people suffering a state of oppression that breeds hunger and helplessness. Such are deprived of freedom, not by God’s will, but as a result of the sinfulness of an unjust political and social establishment. This oppressive condition is to be confronted by the communal strength engendered by the social solidarity of those who are dispossessed.
In this way hope is nurtured, especially by their sharing of the meagre resources which these poorest of citizens can offer to one another. Pastoral programmes driven in this way will inevitably include a political, though non-violent, dimension.
This pastoral stance is seminally contained in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. It is further articulated by the emphasis on the “preferential option for the poor” which emanated from the subsequent Latin-American conference at Medellin, Columbia, in 1968.

In addition, the World Synod of Bishops in 1971 declared: “Action on behalf of justice... appears to us as a constitutive dimension of the Gospel... and of the Church’s mission for the liberation of every oppressive situation.”
This renewed vision of the social theology of the Catholic Church was personified in the witness and work of Archbishop Romero. After 30 years it still lives in his legacy.

Romero’s prophetic task may have been cruelly cut short by the machinations of the wealthy and greedy of his own country, but he remains a hero for all those, without number, who still go hungry in body and soul – an enduring symbol of both justice and hope.

It was Jesus Christ who said “You know that among the pagans, their so called rulers lorded over them and their great men make their authority felt. This is not to happen with you, No; anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:42).

As he continues to echo these words through how he lived and through his ministry, Romero will not be forgotten. Oddly, he has not yet been officially deemed either “martyr” or “confessor” by the Catholic Church.

I wonder why?

Fr. Tom Stack, Milltown Parish, Dublin 6

(Published in the Irish Times, March 30th 2010)