The 5 1/2-foot sculpture lay on the altar, cushioned by two pillows, one at the head, the other at the feet. Cradling the bronze-toned piece, a couple of men slowly handed it up to helpers on a scaffold. For parishioners at St. Justin Martyr Roman Catholic Church, it had been a two-year wait for the corpus — sculpture of Christ — for their bare, wooden sanctuary cross. Except for the handful of staff members present this rainy Friday afternoon, few would see the unusual piece until the weekend Masses.
In keeping with Father Mike O'Brien's vision, the specially commissioned work embodies both the agony of Christ's crucifixion and the hope of the resurrection.
"I didn't want just an ordinary corpus,'' said O'Brien, head of the parish of 800 families, mostly from Seminole and Largo.
Patricia Meyer had never seen anything like it. She saw the corpus for the first time at the 8 a.m. Sunday Mass.
Parishioners were awed when a red drape was pulled back for the unveiling, she said. "I think it was like a prayerful quiet.''
"We told people to come up and do what you want, take as much time as you want,'' O'Brien said of the unveiling, which was repeated at each weekend Mass.
"People came in wheelchairs, people came with walkers, people genuflected, people crossed themselves. It really was incredible. It was neat.''
Mike Neveu got his first look at the image of Jesus at the 11:30 a.m. liturgy.
"It almost brought tears,'' he said. "You could see the pain and suffering on one side and the freedom and the release on the other side when he was looking up to the Father. It was kind of overwhelming. I had not seen anything like it in other churches we've been to. I would recommend it to anyone, not only to see something artistic, but moving, spiritually."
O'Brien, 58, a priest for more than three decades, said the new "Grace and Glory" crucifix conveys both the agony of Jesus recounted in the passion narratives of Matthew, Mark and Luke and the reigning Christ, as portrayed in John's account.
It wasn't an easy concept to convey. The first artist selected for the project, a frail Land O'Lakes woman in her 80s, eventually told O'Brien that she was having difficulty completing it and asked to be released from the commission.
O'Brien and a parish team turned to Gianfranco Tassara in Milwaukee, Wis.
"We spoke several times,'' said Tassara, whose studio, Inspired Artisans, specializes in religious art.
Drawings went back and forth.
"The feelings of suffering we tried to accomplish by certain marks on the body, flagellation, the crucifixion,'' Tassara said.
The scars and a nail through the wrist were confined to the right side. The left side, O'Brien said, was designed to be "more pristine.''
"There are more muscles and more strength and the (left) hand is raised toward heaven,'' Tassara said.
That image resonated with Meyer. "I saw the hopeful, almost joyful, side of Jesus returning to the Father,'' she said. "The left hand was so powerful to me. I felt that I, too, could reach out to the Father."
During the project, there was also discussion about how to portray Jesus' face. Eventually, O'Brien said, it was decided that while there would a crown of thorns, the face would show no suffering.
Tassara brought photographs of a clay model to Seminole to show O'Brien and the parish committee. At the time, he was also installing a carved wood corpus that his company had created for Holy Family Catholic Church in St. Petersburg.
An approved clay model was eventually shipped to Ecuador, where the final fiberglass sculpture was formed. Back in Milwaukee, the piece was finished with bronze powders and glazes.
"I think it was not an easy project,'' said Tassara, whose company has completed 500 projects in its 15 years. "Father and the committee, they knew what they wanted, so sometimes it makes it more difficult. But in the end, it turned out well.''
The work was the subject of O'Brien's weekend homilies.
"I prepared them for all they were going to experience,'' he said.
"Some parishioners did not know what medium we were going to be using. Some thought it was going to be carved wood, some thought it would be flesh-toned. Most Catholics grew up with bronze or metallic crucifixes, so the bronze just seemed to fit well with the wooden cross we have. Some parishioners said that I had said at one time that (bronze) made it more acceptable to all people. There is no ethnicity or race. Jesus is for everybody.''
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.