The executioners stretched his arms. They held his hands and wrists against the wood and pressed the nails until they stabbed his flesh.

Then, with one heavy hammer smash, they drove it through – pain bursting through him like a bomb of fire Deacon Rich Stanula, left, helps fasten Jesus, portrayed by 18-year-old Nick Salerno, who was born with cerebral palsy, to the cross during the youth group’s Living Stations at St. Anne Parish, Pleasant Prairie, Friday, April 11. Also shown are Mark Salerno, whose hands can be seen supporting his son from behind the cross, and two Roman soldiers, played by Dean Hellwig and Aaron Ziehr, far right. View or purchase photos. (Catholic Herald photo by Allen Fredrickson)in his brain.  

The portrayal of nailing Jesus to the cross brought most of the audience at St. Anne Parish in Pleasant Prairie to tears, as 18-year-old Nick Salerno was fastened to the wooden cross during the youth group’s performance of Living Stations last Friday.

Nick, stripped to his shorts and covered in red makeup to depict the scourged and beaten Jesus, traveled the path of the Via Dolorosa, simultaneously carrying a cross of his own. Born with cerebral palsy, he uses a wheelchair, has no control of his limbs and aside from making spontaneous sounds, is unable to speak. He relies on family and caregivers to accomplish the daily tasks of living.

Despite his challenges, Nick sustains a 4.0 GPA at Central High School in Salem, through the use of eye movements that operate a computer system; similar to the one used by Stephen Hawking, author and former Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge.

Beads of perspiration dotting his brow, Mark Salerno lifted his son throughout the hour-long performance, gently laying him on the floor to represent each of the three times Jesus fell. At the end, he cradled his son in his arms, and as the audience wept, laid him in the tomb.

“He really wanted to do this and was so excited – we are very proud of him. When Nick was first born, we worried and thought we would be teaching him, but he is always teaching us,” he said. “He plans to attend college to become a veterinary radiologist.”

For Nick, who communicates through moving his head from left to right, the opportunity to play Jesus was exciting.

By answering yes and no questions, and with his dad’s help and computerized equipment, Nick said he felt his involvement in the production brought him closer to Jesus and his faith, and that he liked wearing the red cloak for Jesus’ sacrifice.

Caressing the face of her son, Mary, played by Nick’s 14-year-old sister played by Nick’s 14-year-old sister Victoria, assimilated into her role, a personal view of one who has watched her older brother struggle.

“I am so proud of him and all that he has accomplished,” she said. “I think that being a part of Living Stations has strengthened my faith and allowed me to see more of what it was like for Jesus. I am very affected by this, we all are and I am happy that I was in this production.”

Performers applaud the April 11 Living Stations production at St. Anne, Pleasant Prairie, featuring Nick Salerno, who portrayed Jesus with the help of his father Mark. View or purchase photos. (Catholic Herald photo by Allen Fredrickson)This was the first time youth ministry director Richard Sosa participated in Living Stations and the first time for St. Anne Parish as well. More than 20 youth acted or sang in the production, including Deacon Rich Stanula and several adults. Using a combination of Scripture passages and various versions of the Stations of the Cross, Sosa included real life, age-appropriate meditations.

“I think sometimes we can read the Gospel, but it doesn’t necessarily come alive in our hearts,” he said. “Lent is a beautiful time to reflect on the incredible gift God gave us and to renew our spiritual life. The Living Stations are a very real way to see God’s love. Seeing the Passion of our Lord played out, combined with beautiful sacred music, personally is one of the most powerful Lenten reflections.”

Because Sosa believes it is difficult for youth today, who often struggle with self worth and finding their purpose, and fitting in; the Passion of Jesus Christ demonstrates God’s love is personal and extraordinary.

“It is courageous, it’s unconditional and it is eternal,” he said. “Watching Jesus take up his cross, is an example for youth and old alike.”

In addition to choosing Nick to portray Jesus, Sosa chose 12-year-old Carter Hellwig to play one of the members of the crowd. Hellwig also has cerebral palsy in a similar form.

Using various eye gazes to communicate the answers to yes and no questions, Hellwig said he was excited to be in the production, and that it boosts his faith and helps him to understand.

For Zachary Shaber, 11 and homeschooled, portraying Simon of Cyrene was educational.

“I find it very interesting and I find it cool that I can act out something that happened a while back,” he said. “I am aware a little more about what happened now. It has helped my faith, but of course, I am not a priest or on that kind of faith level.”

When Sosa realized he was a bit over his head in tackling the direction of Living Stations, he called upon Annemarie Ryan, eighth-grade St. Joseph Academy student. Ryan, who has participated in several plays, served as director of the production.

“This was a lot of fun to do and a lot more interesting than I thought it would be,” said Ryan, who also sang during the performance. “I think it is cool how Rich incorporated real life crosses and situations into this. It has brought me closer and has given me more understanding as to what is going on, and why Jesus did certain things for us.”

This is a good way for children to live their Lenten journey explained Andrea Giganti, mother of two performers, 9-year-old Diana and 7-year-old Tadeo.

“When you are that young, you sometimes miss what is happening during Holy week and this helps to relive that,” she said. “And it is good for us, too. We have such busy days and every year, you promise to spend your 40 days a certain way, and then you say, ‘Oh man, I don’t have time to pray and focus on what is coming.’ This helps me too and the kids really appreciate it and are glad to have been involved.”

At the end, Sosa’s gesture moved the audience to their feet, as he walked over to Nick and planted a single kiss on the top of his head.

“I really wanted to choose him for this role,” said Sosa. “I see him every weekend at Mass and he sits in the front row by the piano with his family. He has lived with this cross, called cerebral palsy all his life, yet he is filled with so much joy. Nick seemed perfect to play the part of Jesus and carry his cross for one evening. God calls on the weak to lead the strong and Nick’s portrayal of Jesus is a powerful way to lead this congregation into Holy Week.”

Brushing back tears, Kathy Uhl, a member of St. Peter Parish in Kenosha said the production was a blessing to St. Anne.

“I have a son with cerebral palsy and watching the father carry his son was really emotional,” she said. “It was nice to be here and so beautiful to watch. It was the perfect way to enter into Holy Week. I was able to relate to the words, to the crucifixion. It was just so prayerful and really blessed me.”

Sosa believes the opportunity to pray through the Stations with the youth was a call from God to bring his love and mercy to life.  

“These kids have so much joy and are a blast to be around. Their energy is infectious,” he said. “I think I’m learning that no matter what is happening in life on a particular day, good or bad, always be joyful in what you do. Always trust in God’s plan even if you don’t understand. Nick Salerno, especially, is one of the most joyful kids I know. Yes, he is in a wheelchair and yes, he has some serious challenges, but what I am learning is that joy and acceptance of God’s love is for everyone. Once we realize that God loves us, each personal, it will be his strength and his spirit that carries us forward.”