Jesus at a crossroads

by Luigi Pullano

by  SAL DIFALCO

Giuseppe Rauti reflects on Good Friday procession

Playing Jesus for 50 years is bound to get you some press. While not a household name, 80-year-old Giuseppe Rauti—who has donned the Messiah’s raiment at Toronto’s St. Francis of Assisi Church every Good Friday save one since 1968—lists a CBC documentary, a Globe and Mail profile and countless CHIN TV appearances on his résumé.

The humble Rauti has in his own way become a comforting fixture in Toronto’s Little Italy and at his parish. And his passion and devotion to the task —if not his loaf-and-fish multiplying or thespian skills—have won him fans around the world.

Born in Chiaravalle Centrale, Catanzaro, Calabria, Rauti came to Canada in 1958, married in 1961 and worked for the City of Toronto as a handyman before hanging up his tool belt 20 years ago.

Asked how he came to take on the Jesus role, he recalls seeing his first College Street Good Friday procession and feeling that it lacked the spectacle and gravitas of those he’d experienced in Italy, not to mention the spirituality.

“Back home the processions were more dramatic and emotional,” he says. “People wept; the feeling was powerful. I approached the organizers and told them I wanted to try it that way. They accepted. The people liked it. One year turned into two, then three. More and more people came, old and young. And now, 50 years have passed.”

While Rauti eschews extremes—like getting nailed to a cross as some zealots do during crucifixion reenactments—he does take measures to intensify and make his performances more authentic. “I fast three days before the day, limit my water consumption and speech as well,” he says. “And during the procession I carry the wooden cross with no padding on my shoulder. It’s important to represent the sacrifice of Jesus.”

In a lighthearted moment, Rauti admits the fasts not only replicate the sufferings of Christ but also have the added bonus of obviating any needs for a bathroom break during the three-hour procession. “It’s not easy with a cross,” he quips, but quickly reasserts how seriously he takes the role. “It matters,” he says.

Rauti plans to perform in this year’s procession but sees the end of the road for his Jesus. And passing the torch—that is to say the cross—grows more daunting by the day. He worries about his potential replacement. “Young people today are distracted,” he says, pointing out their absorption with smartphones and technology. “They might not want to take on such a responsibility.”

The procession will continue, he believes, but he wonders about its relevance. That said, he’s gratified that Father Jimmy Zammit, St. Francis of Assisi’s pastor, has worked hard to maintain the tradition despite a recent waning of interest.

Asked about the impact the role has had on his own faith, Rauti admits that it has intensified. He has tried to embody Christ-like virtues in his day-to-day life, particularly humility, he says. “It’s important to remember how Jesus suffered, so we can endure our own suffering.”