March 31, 2017

‘He sees it as a prayer’: Parishioner’s powerful Passion portrayals bring to life the depth of Christ’s love

For more than 30 years, Bill Fike of St. Christopher Parish in Indianapolis has portrayed the parts of the Passion story, adding dramatic and emotional life to the events that led to Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for humanity. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

For more than 30 years, Bill Fike of St. Christopher Parish in Indianapolis has portrayed the parts of the Passion story, adding dramatic and emotional life to the events that led to Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for humanity. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

The reactions come immediately, powerfully.

There’s the time a small boy reacted to Bill Fike’s angry outburst as part of proclaiming the Passion story—a moment when Fike vividly conveys the venom of the crowd toward Jesus as he stands before Pilate.

“Someone told me they heard the little boy tell his mother, ‘He’s so mean!’ ” Fike says, smiling at the memory.

A short time later, Fike’s smile takes on a different measure of delight when he shares how his role in bringing the Passion story to life affected a college student who had given up on his faith.

“Something hit him, and he came back to church,” Fike says. “That makes it worthwhile.”

Fike can also tell you the story of how his role led him—a longtime bachelor—to find the love of his love and get married.

Yet, mostly, the 62-year-old member of St. Christopher Parish in Indianapolis wants to talk about the most moving love story he has ever known—the time of Holy Thursday and Good Friday when Jesus Christ let himself be betrayed, tortured and crucified to redeem mankind.

“As Christians, there’s a tendency to live our Christian faith with Christ’s sacrifice just being a given. It’s almost theoretical,” he says. “But the story is just as real today as it was when it happened.

“Every year when we observe the Passion, it’s a way to see the sacrifice that Christ made for us in a new light.”

And that’s exactly what Fike will do again on the weekend of Palm Sunday at St. Christopher Church. Indeed, this will be his 33rd year of adding dramatic and emotional life to the events that led to Christ’s death.

“It’s moving, it’s mesmerizing, and it gets people ready for Holy Week,” says Father Paul Shikany, pastor of St. Christopher Parish. “You can hear a pin drop when he does it.”

‘People feel the impact’

While Fike’s efforts often have a profound impact on people, his interpretations of the various people in the Passion story also leave their emotional and personal mark on him.

“I think we can all relate in some way to most all of the characters in the Passion story,” he says. “I can be Judas who betrays Christ. I am Peter who believes he won’t deny Christ but inevitably does. I am the fearful Pilate who is caught up in his selfish motivations.

“I am certainly the man crucified with Christ who realizes his own sins and pleads that Christ will remember him. We are all these characters in some way at some time in our lives.”

Father Michael Welch witnessed the impact that Fike’s Passion portrayals had on people and their faith for 30 years—during the time he served as pastor of St. Christopher.

“I’ve had so many people say to me through the years, ‘That’s the first time I’ve heard the Passion,’ ” says Father Welch, who is now retired. “His interpretation can make you stop and say, ‘I never experienced that.’ I might be the woman in the garden making accusations of someone—when she confronts Peter. I might be Peter realizing I wasn’t living up to what I wanted to be. People feel the impact of Peter denying Christ three times.”

For Fike, it’s all part of his focus of letting “the power of the story and the power of Scripture speak to us where we are.”

And every year, he finds new meaning in the story—even as he prepares for his 33rd year of sharing the Passion.

“To me, it’s always fresh,” he says. “I start working with it on Ash Wednesday every year. That’s my Lenten sacrifice. It’s something that occupies a good portion of my mind during those entire 40 days. Each year, it brings new meaning to Christ’s Passion and sacrifice.”

A different kind of love

While sharing the Passion is a gift of love for Fike, he never expected it would lead to the love of his life.

The life-changing moment came in 2000 when he received a phone call from Colette Shanahan, who at the time was the associate director of programs at Our Lady of Fatima Retreat House in Indianapolis.

“She had heard me do the Passion the year before, and she asked if I would be able to do it for a retreat group at Fatima,” he says.

She adds, “When I saw him do it, it was an experience that was completely new. I found it very moving, and I thought it would benefit people at the retreat house. He came to Fatima to meet me, to talk about it. I really had a sense that this was a significant moment. He seemed like a really nice guy.”

They met again for lunch. A year later, they were engaged. On April 27, 2002, they were married.

“Certainly, the greatest gift and reward I’ve had from doing the Passion is meeting Colette,” he says. “She’s been the greatest blessing of my life.”

She notes, “We don’t always know what purpose our lives will have. We had both made peace that maybe we’d never get married. We both feel that God is working through us. We both have been changed by our marriage.

“In marriage, you’re called to look to the good of the whole. Ultimately, our goal is to help each other get to heaven. We also help each other see our blind spots. I have a lot of admiration for my husband. He makes me want to be more generous, more kind and more open with people—because that’s the way he is.”

‘He sees it as a prayer’

Their marriage has also offered her a close-up view of the process that he goes through to share the Passion story with people.

“He doesn’t see it as being about him. He sees it as a prayer,” she says. “He’s so open to the movement of the Holy Spirit. He sees himself as this transparent vehicle through whom God works to reach people today.”

It helps that he has a soothing yet expressive voice that has allowed him to make a 40-year career as a voice-over talent, narrating films, commercials and documentaries for such outlets as the History Channel, Court TV, Animal Planet and Discovery.

But that’s only a small part of the equation that makes his efforts regarding the Passion resonate so powerfully with people. It also goes beyond the fact that the longtime lector at St. Christopher rehearses his delivery of the Passion all throughout Lent—and that he has memorized the three versions of the story in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke that rotate every three years.

What’s most important, he insists, is “trying to understand it and give it meaning. It’s about praying the Scripture and letting it settle down inside of me—and then to get out of the way so that God is speaking to us.”

Two moments always contribute to the physical and emotional exhaustion that Fike feels after six Masses during the Palm Sunday weekend.

One involves the moment during the Passion when he is part of the crowd yelling at Pilate, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

The other occurs when Christ is hanging on the cross, near the end of his life, and Fike portrays one of the people mocking Jesus.

“The thing about our crucifix [at St. Christopher] is it’s one of the few crucifixes that show Christ as still being alive. His eyes are open. Where I stand when I’m wagging my finger at him, I’m looking directly in his eyes. That scene can be very difficult at times. It can be very powerful for me.”

The reality and depth of Christ’s sacrifice overwhelm him in such moments, leading him to a deeper appreciation and reverence for one other gift that Christ gave on Holy Thursday.

“Every week, we celebrate the Passion and death of Christ in the Eucharist,” Fike says. “I think that’s the whole reason that Christ gave us the Eucharist. So we don’t forget. So we remember.” †

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