OGDENSBURG, N.Y. — On the evening of Dec. 5, the Second Sunday of Advent, those gathered in the pews at St. Mary’s Cathedral experienced the birth of Christ as if it were 2,000 years earlier in Bethlehem.
More than 250 attended the first mystery play of the Advent season, presented by the players based at St. Mary’s Church in Clayton, N.Y., on the St. Lawrence River, near the Canadian border. It’s the second year for the group, founded in 1999, to perform “The Birth of Jesus: A Franciscan Christmas” — a mystery play that creator Francis Pompei, OFM, describes as his personal favorite.
“It was after Midnight Mass in the early 1990s that I experienced what had inspired St. Francis to bring the crèche alive in Greccio,” Francis said. “When Francis prayed and meditated about the birth of Jesus, he realized the first Christmas was a mess. Then, Francis realized that God is with us in the mess, and he wants to share the joy of Jesus’ birth. That is what the mystery play is all about — helping people to see the meaning of Christmas.”
The Christmas mystery play is not a pageant, but attempts to portray the events surrounding the Lord’s birth as real as possible, according to Francis, who marked 25 years as a Franciscan friar earlier this year.
An article about the Clayton group, which also presents “The Sorrowful Mysteries,” appeared in the Dec. 9Watertown Daily Times. Francis said last Advent was the first time in more than 10 years that the Christmas mystery play had been performed. This season, meditations were also led in Utica, Lowville, Clayton and Watertown, N.Y.
Earlier this year, Francis traveled to Pax Christi Church in Littleton, Colo., to train the 13th group of Franciscan Mystery Players.
Unlike the other groups of mystery players, founded at parishes with existing youth ministries, the Pax Christi group is unique in that the play was used to “jump start a youth group at the parish where none of the kids knew each other,” according to Sandy Rieley, who asked Francis to begin the group.
“Using the Franciscan Mystery Player spirituality as a way to gather a group of kids together has really changed the faith of the youth in our parish in a very short period of time,” Rieley said. “Spirituality and prayer life is first and foremost a priority in our youth ministry because of it.”
Though the group won’t begin presenting their mystery play — “Jesus the Healer” — until Lent 2011, it has already served as a strong foundation for the parish, making friends out of young people who were once strangers. Reiley said the youth are already involved in a mission group, regular youth gatherings and an outreach to the poor — with the mystery play kids as the leaders.
“The parish is really getting excited and beginning to notice the young presence,” Rieley added. “They come to Mass together as a group — but they’re not a clique. They keep their eyes out for new kids and invite them to sit with them and pray with them.”
She said, “I knew that if we could ground it in the Franciscan Mystery Play spirituality, the ministry would grow.”
In November, Fran gave a retreat for the group and did some “fine-tuning” to prepare them for their launch in theDiocese of Colorado Springs and Archdiocese of Denver. The group works in tandem with Reiley’s previous parish, St. Michael the Archangel in Aurora, Colo., which performs “The Way of the Cross.”
— Rebecca Doel is communications coordinator of Holy Name Province.