GARFIELD, N.J. — The Franciscan Mystery Players of Morris County, N.J., reached a milestone this spring. On Palm Sunday, at Our Lady of Mount Virgin Church in Garfield, they presented “The Way of the Cross” for the 300th time. One of several groups of teenagers organized by Francis Pompei, OFM, to portray the story of Jesus Christ, the Morris County Mystery Players have been on the road sharing the message and their prayers since 1989.
“The play is a meditative prayer that invites each person in attendance to interact with the Lord through the retelling of the Lenten story,” said the group’s director, Rich Wisneski. “The players — all high school students from Morris County — act as mimes to live narration read over recorded music. Beginning with complete darkness, the players use special stage lighting to help draw the viewer’s eye to the various scenes. The script for the narration, prepared by Francis, weaves modern examples amidst the ancient lessons of Christ’s passion.”
The Morris County group is one of nine Franciscan Mystery Players programs around the country. They are in California, Florida, New Hampshire, and New York as well as in New Jersey.
During the 28 years the Morris County group has been in existence, roughly 150 teens have participated in the ministry. Many of the 11 adult lay advisors were players when they were younger, and some of the current teen players are offspring of parents who themselves were players 25 years ago, according to Wisneski, who has directed the players for 15 seasons.
“Through the graciousness of four successive pastors, this group has been based at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Mountain Lakes for nearly 20 years,” he said. His group presents “The Way of the Cross” 10 times during Lent, rehearsing for four to six weeks prior to Ash Wednesday.
The participants — both young and seasoned — have found their involvement in the program valuable. Many cite the opportunity to strengthen their faith and the closeness of the people.
“Directing the Mystery Players feels like my calling — like something that God led me to do,” said Wisneski.
Reactions of Teenagers
“Being a Franciscan Mystery Player has been such a blessing to my life,” said Danny, who finished his second year as a mystery player. “I played the role of Jesus this year and it was a beautiful experience. My relationship with God became stronger than ever and I really see His love in my life every day. Mystery Play is such a special group because it’s great to be surrounded by your best friends and to be able to grow in your faith together each week. Being a part of this group is an experience that has truly changed my life.”
Analisa who completed her first year, agrees.
“Being a mystery player has helped me grow more in my faith than I ever have,” she said. “It’s amazing to see the way that I can help others, through our performance and through prayer, all while doing something that I enjoy. The people I have met through this have made my life all the better. There’s something really special about being surrounded by peers who share the same love for Christ that you have.”
“When most people think of the Franciscan Mystery Play, they think it’s just another ‘Jesus group,’” said Bella, a third-year player “I thought the same thing until I joined the Mystery Play. I realized that some aspects of it truly are a mystery. It is a mystery how such an amazing group of kids managed to find each other. It is amazing that by getting together, we have strengthened each other’s faith and given each other something to believe in.
“Mystery Play is so much more than just a ‘Jesus group,’” she added. “We are a family, and by finding a family in Christ, we have been able to bring our love and faith to others.”
“Mystery Play was where I found God, myself, and a second family,” said Katie, a fourth-year participant. “I learned to give myself fully to God since he gave himself fully to me. Mystery Play is a special group that stays with you wherever you go.”
Viviana, a first year member, said, “The Franciscan Mystery Players is a group where you can go to be the best you. It is amazing to be with other teenagers and talk about your faith and not have to feel judged in any way. Performing each Friday and Sunday feels like you are preaching to the audience in a new way. When with the Mystery Players, you feel loved and you love it at the same time. The feeling of performing is truly indescribable. I have never felt so complete in my life.”
Claire, who this spring finished her fourth and last year as a Mystery Player, said, “Being part of a group of so many strong, faith-driven people has been really rewarding for me. Having a constant support group full of people who love the same faith I do has helped me cope with many issues. It’s allowed me to make lifelong friends with people I never would have known without it. Mystery Play has always been like my safe haven. A place I could go and just let out what I was feeling and always know that I would have so many people to love and support me.
“I have been an official player for four years but I’ve been here since childhood,” she said. “My mom was in the original group and my dad is now the director. It’s become a part of my life. I can’t imagine what my life will be without it.”
Being involved in the Mystery Play through Lent has strengthened her faith, said Claire. “It makes my love for my religion and those around it grow each day. It keeps my perspective in line and always manage It gives me something to look forward to every weekend. I’m able to do something I love with a bunch of my best friends and to spread a beautiful message to so many people who are touched by the performances we put on.”
Feedback from Leaders
Christine Lepore, an advisor, said that her journey began with Francis Pompei, who she met at a mission.
“Fr. Francis taught the kids how to pray,” she said. “He said to ‘Praise God, thank God, and ask Him for what you need, and to have a conversation with your God.’ I joined in and learned and grew in faith along with the kids. It has changed my life and deepened my faith and given me a good friend. Fr. Francis explained and taught, prepared and prayed with kids to get them ready. On the road, we brought this healing ministry to churches in Bergen and Morris counties in New Jersey. There was a weekend trip to Western New York to share the message of healing and understanding of our lives by our God who had sent His Son, Jesus, to help us in our life and through its strife.
“We have traveled from Massachusetts to Virginia presenting the Mystery Play and meeting wonderful people, the most caring, loving friars, priests and people. The hosts have welcomed, fed and provided for us, and we have all shared good times and strong faith.
“The players have been called Ambassadors for God. His hands, feet and eyes doing, his work here on earth, hugging and holding, his people whom he loves. They’re his workers here on earth – like angels.”
Katie Pedersen, an advisor to the players, said, “The Lenten season has become more meaningful by being a player and now an advisor for FMP, because I am able to give my time and energy to a ministry that I can see impact the community.”
“I have been a part of the Franciscan Mystery Play for 15 years, the first seven of which I was a player. My older siblings were Mystery Players, and they had loved the experience, so I followed in their footsteps. The Lenten season has become more meaningful by being a player and now advisor for FMP, because I am able to give my time and energy to a ministry that I can see impact the community. The viewers give tearful thanks, pray openly together, shake hands warmly, hug one another, and share their experiences. Every year, I find something new in the meditation. I learn new things about myself, about my faith, and about others who participate. We grow closer to God, but we also grow closer in our fellowship. This brotherhood has been the highlight of my involvement. FMP is a family that keeps growing, in many ways.”
The “most special” aspect of being involved with the Mystery Plays, said Lepore, “is the praying together. We pray before we begin, and we hug. We pray before do our presentation and say thank you, help me, help my friend. Fr. Francis told us to take those thoughts and use those feelings in the presentation. We pray at the “Foot of the Cross” at the conclusion with the audience asking, thanking our God, thanking one another and many times, we all shed tears of joy remembering and sorrow. We then stand, hold hands and pray the ‘Our Father’ looking into the eyes of each player seeing the face of Jesus in each one of us. Then, we pack and leave, having shared our healing ministry with the people we have prayed with and for.
“The Mystery Play has enriched my life, helped me in my daily journey,” added Lepore, who, along with her husband, has guided the players for 28 years. “I have held it in my heart as I cared for my family, mourned the passing of friends and family, walked with my child as he served his country in a time of war, and the strife as I strolled along with my family as they grew and became adults.”
“After our group’s performances, I often hear attendees say how uplifting it is for them to see young people demonstrating their faith,” said Wisneski. “They say it give them hope for the future.”
“I am blown away by what these young people say about the Lord freely and their willingness to endure the mocking and marginalizing from their peers because of their faith,” said Francis, who is stationed in Buffalo.
Since the inception of the Franciscan Mystery Players nearly 40 years ago, more than 1,500 young people have participated in the plays. In 2009, members of many of the groups gathered to share ideas and to meet one another.
Information about the Franciscan Mystery Players can be found on the ministry’s website.
— Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province
- “Teenagers Hungry for Jesus” by Francis Pompei, OFM — Feb. 29, 2012, HNP Today
- “Franciscan Mystery Players Approach Milestone” — April 6, 2011, HNP Today
- Franciscan Mystery Players of Blackwood, N.J., YouTube Video