‘Cross and Light’ to bring powerful message

Can a former agnostic and New Ager tell the story of God’s love and forgiveness so powerfully that viewers can’t help but spread the Good News to others?

Catholics in the Omaha archdiocese will get to answer that question for themselves as the musical play “Cross and Light” provides the finale to ArchOmaha Unite, an archdiocese-wide gathering in Omaha June 8, the eve of Pentecost.

The event will be a daylong celebration of the Catholic faith in unity with people from across the archdiocese, including inspirational speakers, music, interactive exhibits, parish displays, and a question-and-answer session and Mass with Archbishop George J. Lucas. 

“Cross and Light” tells of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection, and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost through modern song and multimedia visuals, and plumbs the depths of sadness and the heights of joy of the Gospel story.

“We hope that audience members will be inspired in the same way as the first disciples: that the missionary flame will burn in their hearts, prompting them to be messengers of the Gospel,” said Deacon Tim McNeil, chancellor for the archdiocese and member of the planning committee for ArchOmaha Unite.  

The production is the result of founder and executive producer Kelly Nieto’s journey into the Catholic Church and the inspiration she received from God.

For the first 35 years of her life, she wanted nothing to do with God and hated the Catholic Church, she said.

But amid the trappings of success – as Miss Michigan and a Miss America third runner-up, a successful musical comedienne opening concerts for the likes of Garth Brooks, a wife with two children and a beautiful home – Nieto felt emptiness.

She sought to fill the void with New Age practices, including astrology and séances, until one day, struggling with the potentially terminal illness of her mother,  “I fell to my knees and bartered with ‘whoever was listening’ to keep her alive,” she said. “I said, if you keep her alive and show me the truth, I will give you my every last breath.”

Her mother recovered, and Nieto soon gave in to God’s promptings, becoming a born-again Baptist and two years later a Catholic.

Nieto said her purpose became clear the night before she became Catholic in 2000, while praying the Stations of the Cross, through an “inner knowing, a vision that God put on my heart of Christ’s crucifixion, of his love and mercy being poured out over the world in a musical way.” It would become her mission.

In 2002 Nieto began producing her play using the music of other composers, and in 2009 was inspired to write the original music that makes up the repertoire today.

“I believe these songs are supernaturally given because their impact is so intense,” she said.

Originally presented in churches, “Cross and Light” eventually spent two years on the stage of Music Hall in Detroit. In 2015, Nieto took the show on the road to dioceses throughout the United States and Australia, where more than 140,000 people have experienced the show’s impact.

Cast members like Kenny Watson, a Christian who has portrayed Jesus for the past six years, also feel that impact in their own lives. 

“It affects me in a dynamic way and causes me to be a lot more conscious of my actions,” he said.

“Putting myself in that role and having to think about being a leader, having something to say and having others look toward you – it gave me a new vision of what it is to lead men and women in faith. I view it as being on mission at all times.”

“Our mission is to immerse people in Jesus’ love, mercy and sacrifice,” Nieto said, “to see who he truly is, what he’s done for us and how he now calls us to live.” She hopes it will “inspire people to go out and proclaim the beauty and truth of the Gospel to the world.”

The production is true to the biblical story, unlike “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” she said. “We are in obedience to the magisterium in what is proclaimed throughout the show.”

The program has a powerful effect on its audience, Nieto said.

“You’ve never experienced anything like it,” she said. “This music and this production will open your heart and draw you into this deeply moving journey to the foot of the cross where you feel intense pain and sorrow, and then the joy of the resurrection like you’ve never experienced it before.”

Among cast members bringing those emotions to life is actress Ashley Rozanski, a Catholic, who portrays Mary Magdalene.

“In the first act I’m crying in sorrow over the passion … and watching Jesus go through this incredible act,” Rozanski said. “And in act two, I’m the one who gets to bring the audience to the joy of the resurrection.”

Mary Magdalene’s message is that no sin is too great to be forgiven by God’s love and grace, she said. 

“People come to the performance one way, and leave forever transformed,” Nieto said. “By the end of the performance, there’s a very beautiful call for people to give their lives to Christ – you can literally sense the Holy Spirit at work.”

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