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Richmond Catholic Theatre group to perform at World Youth Day, possibly in front of Pope Francis

By JUSTIN MATTINGLY Richmond Times-Dispatch |

Five members of the Richmond Catholic Theatre rehearsed earlier this week in a nearly empty Saint Benedict Catholic School. The crowd was about 3 million fewer than the one they’ll be performing for at the end of the month.

The theater group received a rare invitation to perform at World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland, on July 28 and 29. Among the millions expected to attend is Pope Francis.

The seven-person cast, made up of young adults, will perform “The Jeweler’s Shop: A Meditation on the Sacrament of Matrimony, Passing on Occasion into a Drama,” which was written by Pope John Paul II.

“It’s important to me that this is quality theater because this is a ministry and should be treated as such,” said Christine Arena, the managing artistic director for the theater group.

In its first formal rehearsal, the group focused first on staying loose — reciting popular fairy tales while tossing a baseball in a circle. Then they took to rehearsing the actual play in the empty library and bare hallways of the school.

The play is one of 40 acts that will be performed at the weeklong event.

The selection came as a surprise to Christine and Richard Arena, the husband and wife who founded Richmond Catholic Theatre. While the group was less than six months old at the time, Richard Arena had the thought of applying and seeing what would happen.

They found out June 10 — nine days before their one-year anniversary — that they were chosen to perform. Now, with little time to prepare, it’s full steam ahead to get ready for the performances in Poland.

“We just trust the actors and trust the Holy Spirit,” said 27-year-old Christine Arena.

The three-act play was written in 1960 by Pope John Paul II, who then went by his birth name, Karol Wojtyla. It was written as part of Poland’s underground theater and helps better understand the late pope’s theology, Christine Arena said. The play focuses on marriage and doesn’t require a set.

“The Jeweler’s Shop” is the theater group’s first production, but the all-volunteer cast has performed it at various events, including the annual Acts of Faith Festival in Richmond in December.

“That was a great opportunity, but this is even more humbling,” said Richard Arena.

Although the two performances will be the highlight of the trip, the group is also looking forward to having the week of retreat.

“World Youth Day is still so much bigger than what we’re going to be doing,” said Richard Arena, 25.

World Youth Day is organized every three years. This year’s event runs from July 25-31 in Poland, the birthplace of Pope John Paul II, the founder of the pilgrimage celebration.

The group will have to balance the stress that comes with such a big performance with being in “retreat mode.” It will rehearse once in Poland before going live in front of millions.

Group members said they weren’t nervous about performing in front of high-ranking members of the Roman Catholic Church, including possibly Pope Francis.

“Pope Francis is like the nicest guy, so even if he says something bad (about the play), it would still be nice,” Richard Arena said lightheartedly.

Adam Stynchula, 22, of Richmond, said he’s more nervous of what his peers will think of the performance.

Katie Yankoski, 28, also of Richmond, added that she’s not nervous of the audience because she’s in youth ministry, but is out of her comfort zone as she normally doesn’t do theater productions like “The Jeweler’s Shop.

The cast agrees that the play, although 56 years old, is one that can still resonate with people today.

“I think they’ll be impressed with young people taking something up that’s important and that promotes culture,” Richard Arena said.

The cast will fly to Poland next Friday.

“It all kind of comes together,” said Yankoski.

(804) 649-6243

Twitter: @jmattingly306

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