BUFFALO, N.Y. — Each Lent, parishes across the country welcome groups of high school students and a handful of adults into their sanctuaries to lead a living meditation on the Passion of Christ — the Franciscan Mystery Play.
Francis Pompei, OFM, of Buffalo, teamed up with his brother, Fr. Fred Pompei, in Syracuse, N.Y., more than 30 years ago to begin this ministry. Francis is now guardian of St. Patrick Friary in Buffalo.
“What started off as a simple desire to help local parishioners experience the Passion of Jesus ended up to be a very inspirational vehicle that the Lord has used to bless thousands of people, young and old. Since that early time back in 1976, the mystery play ministry has gone far beyond its first intentions,” said Francis, on the Mystery Players’ Web site.
Mystery Players Around the U.S.
Four New Jersey-based groups of Franciscan Mystery Players, each made up of about 16 high school students and five adult leaders, continue the Lenten tradition that was introduced to the area in 1988.
In addition to New Jersey, Francis launched Mystery Play programs in California, Colorado, Florida, New Hampshire, and Upstate and Western New York. More than 1,000 students have participated in Franciscan Mystery Plays. There are currently 11 groups with an overall 185 youth and 70 adults active in the ministry.
Although Francis establishes each group, he said, “this ministry has a life of its own.” Adult leaders and students take on the responsibility of organizing events and keeping the group active. He describes it as “lay ministry at its best.”
Each group performs at least one of five plays, written by Francis, focusing on the life of Christ: “The Way of the Cross,” “Jesus the Healer,” “The Sorrowful Mysteries,” “The Mysteries of Light” and “The Birth of Jesus: A Franciscan Christmas.”
On March 13, the Franciscan Mystery Players of St. Katharine Drexel Parish in Cape Coral, Fla., performed “The Way of the Cross” to a crowd of more than 950 at Epiphany Cathedral in Venice, Fla. They will perform at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Greenville, S.C., on April 2.
The 11 groups will have completed more than 50 performances collectively between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday.
Not the Average Passion Play
Though called Mystery Plays, they are more than just that. Francis describes them as “living meditations,” which become a prayerful vehicle for the Lord’s spirit to forgive, heal, renew and give peace, according to the Web site. “It is like traveling back 2000 years and being present at what actually happened.”
Richard Wisneski, an adult leader from the St. Catherine of Siena Mystery Players in Mountain Lakes, N.J., explained the significance of Mystery Plays to The Beacon, the diocesan newspaper of Paterson, N.J.: “‘The Way of the Cross’ is not a Passion Play as we know them today. The Mystery Play has its roots in the Middle Ages, when traveling companies used them to depict scripture passages. These early Mystery Plays were done by candle light, which gave them a unique aura and led to the ‘mystery’ name.”
Although the modern Mystery Plays Francis created use electric lighting and recorded music, Wisneski said the purpose and effect remain intact: “Preaching the Gospel and evangelizing our faith.”
Prayer is also a critical component to this ministry. Prior to each presentation, the group spends an hour in prayer together. After the conclusion of the performance, players invite attendees to join in shared and individual prayers for healing at the foot of the cross.
“Wonderful and deeply moving things are prayed for there,” Francis said on the Web site. “It has become a time of real union with the Lord; a time for healing, renewal and bonding.”
Full Lenten Schedule
Mystery Players will be performing during the coming weeks at the following churches:
Wednesday, March 18
• Trinity Lutheran (Runnemede, N.J.) — 7:30 p.m.
Friday, March 20
• Our Lady of Hope (Buffalo, N.Y.) — 7:30 p.m.
• Our Lady of the Sea (Cape May, N.J.) — 8 p.m.
• St. Francis Xavier (Fort Myers, Fla.) — 7:45 p.m.
• St. Joseph (Newton, N.J.) — 8 p.m.
• St. Mary’s (Clayton, N.Y.) — 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, March 22
• Our Lady of Perpetual Help (Oakland, N.J.) — 8 p.m.
• St. Patrick’s (Woodbury, N.J.) — 7:30 p.m.
Friday, March 27
• St. Aloysius Gonzaga (Cheektowaga, N.Y. — 7:30 p.m.
• St. Catherine of Siena (Manchester, N.H.) — 6:30 p.m.
• St. James the Apostle (Springfield, N.J.) — 8 p.m.
• St. Katharine Drexel (Cape Coral, Fla.) — 8 p.m.
• St. Mary of Mount Carmel (Utica, N.Y.) — 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, March 29
• St. Anne (Jersey City, N.J.) — 8 p.m.
• St. Anthony of Padua (Hammonton, N.J.) — 7:30 p.m.
• St. Francis Xavier (Norristown, Pa.) — 8 p.m.
• St. Isabel (Sanibel, Fla.) — 8 p.m.
• St. Peter Lutheran (Niagara Falls, N.Y.) — 7:30 p.m.
Friday, April 3
• St. Agnes (Blackwood, N.J.) — 7:30 p.m.
• St. Andrew the Apostle (Clifton, N.J.) — 8 p.m.
• Ste. Marie (Manchester, N.H.) — 7:30 p.m.
• St. Mary of the Lake (Hamburg, N.Y.) — 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, April 5
• Holy Family (Sewell, N.J.) — 7:30 p.m.
• Notre Dame (North Caldwell, N.J.) — 8 p.m.
• Our Lady Queen of Peace (Hewitt, N.J.) — 8 p.m.
Friday, April 10
• Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph (Niagara Falls, N.Y.) — 7:30 p.m.
• St. Catherine of Siena (Mountain Lakes, N.J.) — 8 p.m.
• St. Elizabeth Seton (Naples, Fla.) — 1 p.m.
As a non-profit organization, the Mystery Players do not charge admission but collect an offering to cover travel costs.
Shown in the photo above is Francis Pompei with a group of Franciscan Mystery Players from St. Mary’s Church in Clayton, N.Y.
—Rebecca Doel is coordinator of communications for Holy Name Province.