The Way of the Cross: A Passion Pilgrimage Through Song – Our Wicked Problems

Tuesday, March 15, 2022 12:30 pm EST

Led by Grammy® Award winner and Director of the Notre Dame Folk Choir Dr. J.J. Wright, this series will introduce The Passion, a new artistic production combining Scripture with original poetry and set to original music. Through Christ’s Passion, we learn to encounter suffering and incarnate love, to behold one another in our “not-enoughness.” As we enter the upcoming Lenten and Easter seasons, we invite you to journey with the Folk Choir and some of our closest collaborators through the development, rehearsal, and performance process of The Passion. Along the way, we will explore the Passion and Resurrection in light of the most pressing issues on the minds of our students, including the clergy sexual abuse crisis, the role of women in the Church, and climate change. In May, the choir will make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where they’ll walk in Jesus’s steps through the Passion and record this new work at the Jerusalem Music Center. This session was recorded on Tuesday March 15, 2022.

Register to join the series and to stay informed about future performances from choirs of Notre Dame.

The second virtual event in the Notre Dame Folk Choir’s The Way of the Cross series contemplated the concept of wicked problems in the context of the Folk Choir’s Passion performance. This event was moderated by J.J. Wright, and he spoke with three other collaborators on the Passion project: Kim Belcher, Tristan Cooley, and Eric T. Styles. They discussed the theory behind wicked problems, as well as some social issues specifically applicable to their interactions with the Passion story. The event concluded with an opportunity for questions from viewers and answers from the panel.

Wicked problems, a term derived from design theory, are “complex, multi-valent problems that are difficult to define due to their scope and [are] inherently unsolvable,” as defined by Cooley. These problems have no clear driver of the issue or a determinant solution. Wicked problems can act as a lens through which to understand the Passion, a perspective the Folk Choir used in creating their performance. While climate change and the clergy sexual abuse crisis were not wicked problems plaguing Jesus’ world, there are striking parallels between the experiences of Christ and the Apostles and the human experience today. 

Belcher and Styles brought unique perspectives to the conversation using theological research and interactions with students at Notre Dame to better connect wicked problems and the Passion. Belcher studies how, through faith, communities can construct plans to tackle their problems. Styles interacts daily with students who came to Notre Dame because they love the Church and wanted a community tightly-knit through Catholicism;many other students, however, feel disconnected from the Church and tend to disagree with the Church’s stance on wicked problems. As rector of a men’s residence hall, he recognized the challenge for both the Church and its ministers to “speak to the contemporary moment ever new, while drawing forward the ancient story.” By recognizing wicked problems as what they truly are, and having honest conversations about them in the context of the Passion, the Church and young people can find common ground on shared values and ambition to unearth a solution, then move forward together to fix the issue.

To further explain the concept of wicked problems, the speakers provided examples relevant to the current global climate. Wright broke down the clergy sexual abuse crisis into two parts that combine to create a larger problem: the abuse itself and the lack of responsibility to follow that has been institutionalized for many leaders in the Church. This is a wicked problem because there is no clear solution, so by reflecting and looking at the issue through mercy and forgiveness, the Catholic community might be able to find a way to move forward. Belcher also provided insights on the role of women in the Church, clarifying that the real underlying issue is that the work done by laypeople — women and men included — is often invisible next to the work of parish leaders. First we must understand the wicked problem in full to then work toward a solution — in this case, making the invisible work of laypeople visible. 

Cooley said, “This Passion depicts a Community working through acute pain collectively and with conversation and listening as their main tool.” The panel emphasized how key collaboration is to understanding and overcoming wicked problems. While differences in faith, politics, and experience can divide us, examination of wicked problems through the lens of the Paschal Mystery can unveil the solution that is best for mankind. 

To close the second event in this series, Styles emphasized how the Passion can be put to use for an audience member, specifically students, grappling with wicked problems. To this, Styles stated that expanding one’s problem-solving imagination while cultivating one’s understanding of their relationship with faith and the Passion, one can “see how the ancient tradition is not only relevant but maybe even vital to making sense of life.”


  • Wicked problems — “complex, multi-valent problems that are difficult to define due to their scope and [are] inherently unsolvable” with no clear driver or determinant solution — act as a lens through which to understand the Passion, 12:52.
  • A major challenge for the Church today is appealing to a generation of young people with more perspectives and shared experiences than ever before. The Church must remain steadfast to its story while “speak[ing] to the contemporary moment,” and the Passion provides an excellent framework through which to do that, 26:56.
  • There is no determinant solution to wicked problems; however, in staying with them long enough, one can hope to find a solution. This same solidarity model is application to one’s faith: if one sticks with faith long enough to experience suffering, reflection, and growth, when the next roadblock or temptation to abandon Christ occurs, one will have a belt of “interior tools” to manage that temptation, 35:19.
  • The Passion highlights the impact lay people can have on a community and a Church through characters like Mary Magdalene. In viewing the issue of women’s role in the Church through the lens of the Paschal Mystery, the problem becomes more clear and a goal emerges: “to make visible that invisible work that women and actually all laypeople are doing” in their parishes, 51:47.
  • While differences in faith, politics, and experience can divide us, examination of wicked problems through the lens of the Paschal Mystery can unveil the solution that is best for mankind, 56:38.

  • Wicked problems are “complex, multi-valent problems that are difficult to define due to their scope and [are] inherently unsolvable.” — Tristan Cooley, 12:52
  • “The best berries are deepest in the briar so but, of course, to journey into that — the heart of those brambles — is to gradually take on more and more discomfort as those thorny, woody vines pull you in … The fact, the matter is you’re in it and it’s wicked.” — Tristan Cooley, 15:37
  • “The church as a memory-holding community is both light and darkness, or light and betrayal, at the same time. That’s a real challenge for us institutionally. I’m really moved by the Passion as an opportunity to speak to the contemporary moment ever new, while drawing forward the ancient story.” — Eric T. Styles, 26:56
  • “With problems that you can’t solve, what can you do [is] you can just keep coming back to them kind of wholeheartedly.” — J.J. Wright, 28:31
  • The Folk Choir’s Passion is not aiming to provide solutions to wicked problems, “but it does present an artistic representation of what it looks like to follow after the Paschal Mystery, which is to say how to stay with the trouble of the passion.” — Tristan Cooley, 34:10
  • “Our tradition actually encourages us to see that the world was made good, and yet we experience the principalities of evil.” — Eric T. Styles, 36:29
  • In this Passion, “[Mary Magdalene is] such a powerful character and the decision to highlight her as a main narrator from the beginning” emphasizes her important role in this story. — Kim Belcher, 50:11
  • “The work that we need to do in the church right now is to make visible that invisible work that women and actually all laypeople are doing.” — Kim Belcher, 51:47
  • “This Passion depicts a community working through acute pain collectively and with conversation and listening as their main tool.” — Tristan Cooley, 54:49
  • This Passion is “another way for the student to see how the ancient tradition is not only relevant but maybe even vital to making sense of life.” — Eric T. Styles, 1:00:05

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