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CURRENT ISSUE:  March 5, 2007VOL. 45, NO. 5Oakland, CA

Salesian High students revive Mystery Play tradition

A Salesian High student enacts the carrying of the cross by Jesus.

Eighteen-year-old Liam Thompson is a “heavy” in the annual Lenten production by the Franciscan Mystery Players. As “soldier number two” he places the crown of thorns on the head of Jesus and roughs up the Son of God. The Salesian High School senior has had the role for the three years.

He is one of 13 students and one alum at the Richmond school who breathe life into a dramatic recreation of the Passion of Jesus Christ on the Friday evenings of Lent.

“It is a very reverent evening,” Thompson said.

The students’ performances harken back to medieval Europe when biblical stories were represented through tableaux. In some places, the mystery play was actually a series of plays on the major events in the Christian calendar from creation to the Day of Judgment.

The Richmond school production is based on a model of the Passion Play begun by Father Fred Pompei, a priest of the Diocese of Syracuse, N.Y. over 25 years ago. According to his brother, Franciscan Father Francis Pompei who adopted the project, the dramatization was intended to help parishioners experience the passion of Jesus during the Lenten season.

The mystery play ministry spread across the country and has been performed by students in numerous high schools. It began at Salesian five years ago. Two students – a male and a female -- provide the narrative; the rest of the students act out the journey of Jesus to the cross in pantomime. The performances are about 90 minutes long and conclude with a prayer service.

The students put on their costumes over their street clothes in front of the audience and then remove them at the end, donning sweatshirts with the face of Jesus on them for the prayer service.

The Franciscan Mystery Players, directed by Salesian teacher Art Reardon, began this year’s Lenten performances on Feb. 23 at St. Cornelius Parish in Richmond and the following week at St. Patrick Parish in Rodeo. They will continue their mystery tour at St. Ambrose in Berkeley on March 9, St. John the Baptist in El Cerrito on March 16, St. Callistus in El Sobrante in March 23, and St. Joseph in Pinole on March 30. The March 9 performance will take place at 7:30 p.m. while the other performances will begin at 8 p.m.

The Salesian mystery players only perform on the Friday nights during Lent. Because it is a ministry, there is no cost to the audience, although a free-will offering is requested “to keep us on the road,” Reardon said. “We also request a stipend to cover expenses from the parishes.”

Thompson, a Methodist, said audiences “seem to benefit from the message of Jesus dying for us. I think it helps people in the Lenten season to grow in faith.”

That transformation is also at work in Thompson. “It does help me grow closer to Christ through His Passion,” he said. “It is a good thing that we do.”


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