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Parish dedicates Living Stations to young man who'd played Jesus in past and dies at 33


HAM LAKE, Minn. (OSV News) -- When Josh Ritter was in high school, he wanted to play Jesus in the Living Stations the Church of St. Paul in Ham Lake presents every Lent. He did this twice, in 2007 as a high school junior, and again in 2008 as a senior.

Years later, after a stint in the U.S. Navy in California following high school and his return to Minnesota in 2018, he again would serve as a reminder of Christ's life, but in a more unusual way -- by dying at the same age.

A little before 2 a.m. Nov. 26, 2023, he called his mother, Marian, and they talked for about half an hour. These conversations were commonplace, and Marian cherished them. But this one would be their last. Sometime between the end of the phone call that early Sunday and the following Monday, Josh suffered a brain aneurysm and died at his home in Coon Rapids. He was 33.

That he died at the same age as Jesus was not lost on the Ritter family, which includes Marian's husband, Gary, and their other three children. Father Jim Livingston, pastor of the Ham Lake church, also acknowledged it at Josh's funeral Mass Dec. 5.

A month after the funeral, it was time to start preparing for this year's Living Stations, which youth of the parish have presented in the main church every year during Lent since 1995.

Gary and Marian helped start it with Barb Skillings and a handful of other volunteers. Skillings and the Ritters are still involved.

This year's presentation took place for three consecutive evenings March 13, 14 and 15. The Ritters, the cast and volunteers dedicated it to Josh and to Adam Christoffel, who played Jesus in 1999 and 2000 and died just two weeks after Josh.

This year, 130 young people from seventh through 12th grade stepped forward to put on the presentation, which includes the standard 14 Stations, scenes showing the life of Jesus before the First Station, plus the final scene, the Resurrection, known as the 15th Station.

Despite the Ritters' grief of losing their son, the thought of stepping back this year didn't cross their minds. As they pondered the upcoming preparations and hours of work ahead, Gary and Marian took the matter to prayer, and Marian voiced an answer that spoke for them both.

"I'm doing it because I know that this is where Jesus wants me," she told The Catholic Spirit, the news outlet of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. She and her husband took on their normal roles -- Gary narrates and Marian works on costumes.

The couple are bonded to this annual tradition and to the youth who participate.

Josh was one of them. Starting at age 5, he played other parts (younger children are sometimes allowed to be in it, if their parents are involved), and was developing an interest in playing the role of Christ.

There are no auditions for the role of Christ. Selection for the role is not based on acting ability, Skillings noted. Rather, the person who is picked -- this year, it was senior Tim Klimisch -- earns the role by displaying faith, virtue and character. The person selected is the one who lives in the most Christ-like manner.

A team of parish leaders, including youth ministers, gathers to discuss possible young men for the role. Once the team comes to an agreement, someone, often Skillings, reaches out to the boy who has been chosen.

Josh "was very gifted in voice and guitar," Skillings recalled. "And he loved praise and worship, even from (when he was) a little boy."

The parish's current youth minister, Joy Carlson, is a year older than Josh, and the first year he played Jesus, in 2007, she played Veronica, who wipes the face of Jesus in the Sixth Station. She remembered the "sincerity" and "humility" he brought to the role. "This performance is so much more than a performance. It's really a prayer," she said.

Gary and Marian said that when playing Jesus, Josh felt the heaviness of the cross -- literally.

One year, the cross used for the presentation broke during a rehearsal within days of the performances. A teen offered to make one, and it arrived just in time for the first performance.

The cross was made of oak, and life-sized. "It weighed a ton," Gary said.

No matter. Josh carried it the first night and never complained, even though it landed on him during at least one of the three falls of Jesus portrayed in the Stations, which caused an injury to his back.

One of this year's soldiers was Joe Brounstein, also a senior. Part of his role was pounding the nails into Jesus' hands and feet during the crucifixion scene.

"Stations is a really incredible experience," Brounstein said. "It's a chance for me to grow deeper in my faith and to evangelize to other people about the love of God. My conversion story actually happened through (the) Stations. Just acting out the passion and death of Christ is so different from just reading it in the Bible. You're experiencing it, you're feeling it, you're in it. And it has so much more meaning that way."

He called it "the biggest kind of evangelization thing that I do all year, and I love it, and that's why I keep going back."

Father Livingston saw it for the first time in 2017, less than a year after becoming pastor of the parish. "It just took my breath away," he said. "It's among the most powerful things that happen here."

Before practices in the church on Sundays, cast members and adult volunteers have 45-minute prayer gatherings in the chapel. People are invited to write down prayer intentions. After that, they spread out in the main church and take some time to pray for those coming to see the event.

The Ritters' youngest son, Dominic, helped this year. In 1999, he played baby Jesus in the opening scene when he was just 7 weeks old.

Skillings, 76, is driven by a passion that likely will never go away.

"It's really all about the teens," she said. "They touch my heart. I feel called. And, as old as I am, I still feel connected, (still feel) pretty close to them. I want them not to just know about Jesus. I want them to know Jesus, to come (to him), to want his love and to love him back."