For the teens in a local Franciscan Mystery Players group, everything is a prayer — from their performances on stage to their interactions with the audience members afterward.
The group of about a dozen teens, based out of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Blackwood, visit various parishes across South Jersey — and occasionally travel to other areas — throughout Lent to perform their adaptation of Scriptural stories about Jesus’ healing ministries. The plays are silent, aside from some narration by adult leaders and a bit of music.
“It’s not so much a play as it is about Christ and the people that they reach out to,” said Deacon Bob Foley, who has served as the director of the Players for two years. “We don’t even necessarily call it a play all the time. We call it a meditation.”
Each “meditation” is bookended by a prayer circle — the teens first pray together amongst themselves before beginning their performances. Once the meditation is over, they invite members of the audience to join them on the steps of the sanctuary.
“They’re wrapping things up with another prayer circle, but this time they’re praying for needs of individuals that come up,” Deacon Foley said. “And some of those moments are just unbelievably moving. The things the kids pick up on and [that they] are able to pray with these people, to me, that’s one of the most moving parts of the whole experience — seeing how they interact with these people. And some of them have some really difficult things going on in their lives.”
Foley, who was first introduced to the players when his oldest son was involved, said he never tells the teens what to say when they pray in the circles — and encourages them to simply be present to the people.
“The way that I approach it with them is that when you’re in the prayer circle and you’re praying, you can say as much or as little as you’re comfortable with saying,” Deacon Foley said. “You don’t have to be profound or anything in these circles. The fact that you’re there and you’re praying with these people is enough and it means the world to them.”
Most of the players are between grades 8 and 12, Deacon Foley said. Some of them are reluctant to participate in the prayer circles at first — but once they do, they often “blossom,” he added.
Gabe Arasim, 15, who often plays Jesus in the meditations — a role that he calls both “nerve-racking” and “inspiring” — is one of them.
“My first year, for the whole year I did only one,” Gabe said. “I just didn’t feel comfortable doing it until the last play when someone actually volunteered me to do it, and I heard several moving stories during that first prayer circle, and since then I’ve pretty much done it every play.”
Gabe recalled one moment when an older woman who appeared to be in severe pain — struggling as she walked toward the front of the church — approached the players with a surprising prayer request.
“What she asked us to pray for wasn’t herself,” Gabe said. “She asked us to pray for her son who was dealing with a drug addiction, and that really touched me a lot.”
And Deacon Foley remembered a time when the teens — who are normally joined by an adult in their circles — took matters into their own hands when the adult had to step away to handle an electrical issue.
“The youth called up the next person and they ended up finishing the line all by themselves, and it was just them taking on that, ‘Come on up, we’ll do this with you,’” he said.
Deacon Foley says he’s witnessed a transformation in many of the teens from the time they started with the players until the time of their graduation from high school — when they typically “graduate” from the group as well.
“The first year it may be, ‘wow, I liked the ice cream [that the group enjoys together after the performances] and I had a lot of fun,’” he said. “By the time that they’re getting ready to graduate, many of them are really hitting much more spiritual aspects that they’re saying, ‘Oh, do you remember when we were at this church and praying with this person and you said this and I said that?’ and how those things affected them. But you can definitely see those changes in them as they grow.”
Amanda Woods is a writer from Saint Andrew the Apostle Parish in Brooklyn, New York.