ST. PAUL, Minn. (CNS) -- Entering the church's sanctuary with Gregorian chant, four soldiers take down a cross from the altar and stand beside Jesus as Mary bears a candle, representing the light of Christ.
Jesus then instructs the congregation, "Take up your cross and follow me."
The soldiers guide Jesus through each Station of the Cross, followed by a reflection and part of a hymn. During the 14th Station, Jesus is taken down from the cross, with the group recessing out with his body.
For 20 years, youths from across the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis have brought Christ's Passion to parishes by re-enacting the Stations of the Cross.
Servants of the Cross, a family apostolate, began in 1998 with nine youths, and now approximately 50 young people between ages 6 and 23 take part.
"It's not a performance for us; it's a prayer," said Patti Knecht, a parishioner of St. Peter in North St. Paul, who has directed the Living Stations since the group's inception.
"This is not a show. This is our offering to the Lord to commemorate his suffering and death for us. And if we can bring it in a new way, this prayer, we're doing his work."
Youths play the essential roles in the Living Stations: Jesus, Pontius Pilate, Mary, Mary Magdalene, John the Beloved, Simon of Cyrene, Joseph of Arimathea, the men of Jerusalem and the weeping women.
The characters don't speak, but a lector and cantor guide their actions.
After seeing a re-enactment, one man wrote to Knecht saying he'd attended Good Friday services before, but Servants of the Cross' program moved him to tears and brought Christ's death to another level.
A teenager once told her that the Living Stations gave him hope and not to stop the re-enactments.
Responding to parish requests, Servants of the Cross planned to perform four re-enactments on Good Friday, March 30, at four churches.
The day is like a retreat for participants, said Knecht, whose five children have all been in the program. She's anticipating the day when her 5-year-old grandson will be able to participate.
The re-enactments are a large group effort, she noted, with youths and their families spending hours to practice each Sunday.
"We start early and end late," she told The Catholic Spirit, archdiocesan newspaper. "(The group) solidifies these kids as friends and as peers and the body of Christ. The world is hard; it's a hard place to grow up. It's a hard place to find people who are willing to hold each other up in faith and say there are people who want to walk the walk."
Joe Hoffman found a supportive faith community in Servants of the Cross in 2002 as a high school freshman. Now 29, Hoffman is co-directing Living Stations with Knecht.
Over the years, he's portrayed different figures, including Jesus.
When he was deployed to Iraq in 2008, he missed Living Stations for the first time since joining the group.
"Missing that aspect really hit home for me the importance of the group and what it brought to my life," said Hoffman, a parishioner of St. Peter with his wife, Stephanie. So, he returned the next year and told Knecht he had a passion to lead the group for the next generation, which includes his own children, ages 5, 3 and 5 months.
"I want to continue to see it grow so that someday my kids and other kids in the community can reap the benefits from this group that I had growing up (and) now as an adult."
Hoffman, who's in the Marine Corps, said Servants of the Cross has aided in his formation as a husband and father.
"I know how it impacted my life as a youth and a young adult and it helped keep me close to the Catholic faith," he said. "I want to give that gift to other kids within the community, so just being able to go and spend time with kids from 5 years old to their mid-20s and help keep them focused and take that little bit of time throughout the Lenten season to guide them down a path to becoming good, strong Catholic adults. I'm just trying to give back because I received such a gift from this group when I was younger."
Hoffman, who likens his role to that of a coach, said the biggest impact is witnessing how the Living Stations re-enactments affect audiences.
"It gives me goose bumps just thinking about seeing these people. There are people who'll walk out just weeping, or they just look so refreshed," Hoffman said. "It almost feels like a reset for some people; they come there to reset and truly understand what the Lenten season is about."
In addition to the Living Stations, group members do service projects, Bible studies and go on retreats together.
A core group of people have been involved since the beginning, but anyone is welcome to join at any time, Knecht said.
The group is dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Immaculate Heart of Mary and has devotions to several saints.
"Living the Catholic faith is a lifestyle. It's not just on Sundays; it's every day," she said. "And it's with people you walk with on that journey. And we're called to do that. That's why God gave us friends and the faith."
"It makes me very proud to know that (youths are) doing this for their faith, and it's just such a strong community," Hoffman noted.