For most of the year, Joseph Rauti stores his crown of thorns in his bedroom closet.
But every year, just before Good Friday, he takes his crown out and places it on his head in anticipation of his annual performance in Toronto’s Little Italy.
It’s a heavy physical and psychological burden, but for the last 46 years, Rauti has played the role of Jesus on his way to the crucifixion.
“It’s a privilege for me to play Jesus,” Rauti says.
“I carry the cross, it’s heavy, and even though I’m old now, I want to feel the pain that Jesus felt when he died for us.”
For the 76-year-old Rauti and the world’s two billion Christians, Good Friday is one of the holiest days on the calendar.
Calls from Italy
In cities around the world, pilgrims walk in the steps they believe Jesus would have taken before he was crucified.
Rauti doesn’t take his responsibilities lightly.
Rauti has played the role of Jesus on Good Friday at St. Francis of Assisi Church for 46 years. He had a stand-in for him one year due to a hip injury.
“Jesus represents happiness to me,” he says.
“I want to remember how Jesus suffered, so I can endure my own suffering,” he adds, almost painfully.
Rauti’s youngest daughter, Angela, knows the dedication her father has to his faith, and says that despite his happy-go-lucky demeanor, he has had his share of pain.
Joseph Rauti’s eldest daughter, who is 52 years old, has special needs. Rauti is uncomfortable sharing her name or any specifics about her ailment.
But he says that she has difficulty communicating, and that he and his wife have cared for her in their Toronto home her entire life.
Nonetheless, he says his faith, and his dedication to playing Jesus every Easter, sustain him.
“Jesus represents happiness to me. It’s important to me that the whole world celebrates Jesus.”
His efforts have won him fans halfway around the world. Because Toronto’s CHIN radio broadcasts the Crucifixion and the Stations of the Cross to Rome, he says, “I have people I don’t even know calling me from Italy.”
A reminder of life struggles
To prepare for his role as Jesus, Rauti says he eats and drinks very little and secludes himself in order to approximate the conditions Jesus endured in the days leading up to his death.
Father Jimmy Zammit, the pastor at St. Francis of Assisi Church, describes the days leading up to the reenactment as a very intense time for Rauti “as he tries to get control of himself so he may indeed be Jesus in our midst in his own way.”
For Rauti, the struggle that Jesus endured throughout his life is a reminder that not everybody has a pleasant life.
“God did not have a nice life, and we’re supposed to suffer, too, like him.”
The fact that he’s getting on in years is not lost on Rauti, who started playing Jesus in 1968. “Each time, though, I feel nervous and excited.”
When asked about one day passing the torch — or the cross — to someone younger, Rauti insists, “I can never retire.”
Young people today, he says, don’t have the focus to take on the responsibility.
“When I die, I take the cross with me”, he says.
Father Zammit says that once the time comes, Rauti won’t need the cross or the costume for Jesus to recognize who he is.
“I think that Joe has grasped that Jesus is in each one of us. It’s really up to us to allow Jesus to shine out and to come alive in us,” says Father Zammit.