A Priest for All Seasons

Leonardo Defilippis on his play about St. John Vianney

Leonardo Defilippis is founder and director of St. Luke Productions (www.stlukeproductions.com). He spoke to CWR about his most recent play.

You recently completed a tour of North America during the Year for Priests (2009-2010) performing Vianney: The Drama. Was it generally well received?

Leonardo Defilippis: Yes. I would say, overall, it was the largest response that I have ever seen, and not only for our organization in the 30 years that I’ve been performing. I think it was one of the largest responses ever to a Catholic drama in North America. That sounds like a bold statement, but we’ve done some research, and we haven’t seen anything like it. To have reached 80,000 people in 150 performances is overwhelming.

The aspect of getting the Church involved, from chancery leadership to the pastoral center to the laity, was quite remarkable. To have performed for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, to have had connections in many dioceses with the vocation directors and the seminarians: it became more of a collaborative celebration.

Did you take any liberties with the facts for the sake of character development or dramatic effect?

Defilippis: Not really. We stuck very, very close. One of the marks of our organization is that I try to stay as close as possible to the historical sources of every saint that I portray. If it’s a religious, we want to make sure that the religious order is happy with the text and that we’re not giving the story the “Hollywood treatment.” Particularly with John Vianney, I had to make sure about accuracy: the play deals with the patron saint of parish priests held up as a model by the Pope himself.

Oh, we might shift a scene here or there [in writing a script]. But even in the chronology, I keep it pretty much all the same. [Maybe we condensed] a few parts at the very beginning in John Vianney’s childhood, but it is still taken from the historical sources. Practically every time in the show when the Curé of Ars speaks, it is directly from him. Imagine hearing a sermon about not working on Sunday; many priests and bishops have not preached on that. Every sermon in the script, his catechism lesson for the children, even the funny lines that are peppered in there to lighten the seriousness, are quotations, also. He had quite a sense of humor, but he was very direct, just like a farmer would be. He was a man of the earth but also a man of the cloth.

John Vianney grew up in post-Revolutionary France, which had been devastated and totally secularized. Did you get feedback from audience members about parallels to the “soft persecution” of the Church in the Western world today?

Defilippis: Yes, I think it resonated for many. [But] it was an eye-opener. The reality is that most people do not know history, particularly the French Revolution. I thought that a lot of people could see the parallels with what’s happening in our society today, with our political system. Obviously they associated the more severe forms of persecution with Communism and the violence against the Catholic Church that we see around the world.

Did any dioceses help promote or advertise the drama?

Defilippis: It was surprising. We went to many, many dioceses. We had to decline many diocesan invitations, too, because we just couldn’t go there physically. You’d think that the more conservative dioceses would have us come and would be more supportive or more attuned to the Curé of Ars, or desirous to know him in a better way or to celebrate his life. But in retrospect, a lot of times we found greater interest in those dioceses that have been through really tough times because of scandals caused by priests or a lack of attention to vocations. Some of those places are now experiencing a renaissance of the faith, be it a renewal in priestly formation at the seminary, or a reinvigoration of the bishops.

In most cases the laity have never heard of the Curé of Ars. Maybe 15 percent of the Catholics in the US know who he is. Of course, the Year for Priests helped make for more awareness. Many priests do not know him either. He is just someone they may have read about in the seminary. Sometimes that is true even of the pastor of a parish named after St. John Vianney! You would want to know your parish’s patron saint! [The drama] reinvigorated some of these priests to want to know him more. If they were open in any way or had a humble heart, they got drawn in. It has created an enthusiasm, a greater dedication. I found many bishops reading some of his works during the Year for Priests, but also in preparation for seeing the show. To be honest, too, some of the greatest resistance to the performance came from the clergy themselves.

What would you say to the argument, sometimes heard, that St. John Vianney was too eccentric or severe to be an example for priests today?

Defilippis: During the Year for Priests some clergy wrote articles to the effect that he was anti-woman, or that he was too rigorous in the moral realm. We’re still having a crisis of moral confusion, with some who are active in the Church in favor of contraception, abortion, euthanasia or homosexuality. But John Vianney is a firebrand. He heard more confessions than any other priest in Church history. One of the arguments against him is that he was “too closedminded,” yet he is probably one of the priests most sensitive to evil; he’s very aware of the sinfulness and weakness of man. And how many people he brought back to the Church! How much of God’s mercy flowed through him!

You’ve seen the reports about how many Catholics do not believe in the Real Presence in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Well, if you don’t believe in the Real Presence in the Eucharist, you cannot believe in confession: that Jesus, through the priest, will heal your sins. What John Vianney does is to bring a deep understanding of what the priesthood is. That is probably one of the greatest crises that we have today: understanding the priesthood. What I learned is that the mystery to Christianity is the priesthood; the sacraments don’t come first: it’s the priesthood. As John Vianney said, “If a priest truly knew what it meant to be one, he would die out of love.” Or my favorite line, “Oh, how great is the priest,” because he is completely associated with Christ. Even a simple, bumbling country priest has a power that the Blessed Virgin Mary does not have.

Certainly, the Curé of Ars was completely dedicated to social justice also, as that term is understood in the documents of Vatican II. He implemented many programs, not only in his parish but in the region, to protect the poor and the vulnerable, particularly women who were being abused. He is a guardian of the Church’s mission, for sure. He is completely obedient to the Church in every manner.

In your drama about Maximilian Kolbe you also portrayed a fictional Franciscan confrere who gave another perspective on the saint’s life. Who are the main secondary characters in Vianney?

Defilippis: In Vianney, I think that the character who’s in the play almost as much as he is is the Devil. As I studied the saint’s life, I saw the story unfold. It’s the battle between the Devil and John Vianney.

I also put in St. Philomena, who is crucial to the story. I include her particularly because she becomes, so to speak, his “best friend.” An important feature in his life is the deep, spiritual relationship that he has with a female saint, with this little 13-year-old martyr. Dramatically, it contrasts the Devil, who is pure evil, with the innocence of a child. “Unless you become like a little child, you shall not enter the kingdom of God.” Of course, he had a great devotion to the Blessed Mother also. She’s in the drama, symbolized by the statue, and he talks about her. The Blessed Mother is kind of in the background, but always present, and her children are active, just like today. Her Son is the one, so to speak, in the limelight.

We also portray the villagers and all the resistance [to his initial pastoral efforts] from the laity, so we have many different characters. I have never seen in a theater this interactive type of play, with other characters on a screen. I think for the audience, once they latch onto it, it is no longer a one-person show a all.

With regard to stagecraft, the oneman show has come a long way since Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight. Did the extra equipment complicate traveling?

Defilippis: Absolutely. It’s a very expensive show to have put together. People don’t realize the complexity of it, in terms of us setting it up and taking it down and making sure that all the technical things work well.

And then there are the challenges for me as an actor. Hal Holbrook just put the make-up on and said the lines. [In Vianney there is] the challenge of where to go, the “blocking,” and the pressure on the performer to hit his mark every time with music and the soundtrack, and to make sure I come out with the right costume on—because I’m constantly changing, as you know, my costumes … It’s quite complex.

The young people find this very engaging. The high school students, who are at that kind of “cynical” age that is more caught up in the culture, have been entranced by this performance.

The message is so real to them, that it resonates. Many of these kids are being tempted—obviously, you can see that in our culture—and they never hear about the Devil or know of his presence. In this play, it frightens them, because they see it as real.

We’ve had concerns about ageappropriateness too. Some things are too heavy for kids, The Confessions of St. Augustine, for example. I’ve found, though, that parents want their children to see Vianney, not just to encounter to saint, but to encounter the Devil himself. Why? The old adage says: “To scare the Hell out of them.”

All our children watch Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, in which there might be a villain or something scary, and they’re not real. But this is real. This is like looking at the Scriptures. And so I think that Vianney has created a healthy balance for children, in that they see the Devil, they get scared of him, but they also see St. Philomena—who looks like she’s their age—yet she’s fearless, not flustered by the Devil in any way. They see John Vianney go through his walk, at first a little nervous with the Devil because he doesn’t realize what’s happening, but then completely fearless. It’s so important to understand evil in our society today. That’s why Vianney opens with his famous line, his very own words: “My children, be always ready for the combat.” Because life is a battle, and it’s a battle against sin and against the one who’s tempting you to sin.

Did the first year of your tour take you beyond North America? Will the second?

Defilippis: Interestingly enough, since we were the only show like it in the whole world, we got requests from Singapore, Europe, and some places in South America. The bishops in the Philippines wanted us to come. Some bishops and laypeople were trying to bring it to Rome, too, for the Holy Father, but it was not possible to schedule a performance there. I’ve stayed in America, because there’s a lot to do here.

The play could still be performed in other languages. I have performed the drama in the Phoenix diocese, and in New Mexico and Texas, where there is a large Hispanic Catholic population. The Hispanics did come to the show, and they were very moved. But they had never heard of St. John Vianney, who is not well known in the Hispanic culture. So I realized that they took the drama itself very much to heart: they’re much more attuned to the presence of evil, the Devil. I thought: “This needs to be done in Spanish.” If done in different languages, the drama could promote vocations and understanding of the priesthood worldwide, God willing.

Last season at performances of Vianney, St. luke Productions distributed a holy card together with the program. Please comment.

Defilippis: It has a novena prayer so that people can pray to St. John Vianney for their own intentions, as a spiritual opportunity. But really, it is for everyone who att ends, so that they can get to know the saint and trust him, and go to him for intercession, and also go to St. Philomena. The idea was to promote a greater devotion, not just to St. John Vianney, but to all the saints.

Do you have plans for future productions? Who decides on the next subject?

Defilippis: By the time this interview is in print, we will be celebrating 30 years of service that St. Luke Productions has done for the Church and the culture. In those years we have stayed true to our mission of portraying the Scriptures and the saints. It is a narrow path, with subject matter—Christ and the saints— that is not all that popular, sometimes not even in the Church, much less the culture. They’re often forgotten.

Our goal is to continue that focus. But we want to branch out more. I’m thinking of launching this show in an actual theater, to see how we could bring Vianney to New York. If this was spruced up a little bit, I think that it could have a great following in New York City and have a dialogue with the artistic community there. Certainly it would be controversial, because Catholic presence there is rare, but it could plant a seed.

St. Luke Productions is unusual, in that we do both drama and film. We’re also getting involved in new media; we have a studio with recording facilities, and I want to do more radio and television programs. Right now we’re working on a documentary about Vianney: The Drama, because we’ve interviewed a lot of people—young people, seminarians, priest, bishops, lay men and women—about their experience with this production.

We’re looking at possible new dramas on Mother Teresa, Gianna Molla, Miguel Pro, Philip Neri … But we’re also looking at the prospect of a major film on John Vianney, the Curé of Ars. We want to do programs that will reach the youth, the young adults, and get them excited about the faith and encounter these great heroes, the saints.

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About Michael J. Miller 127 Articles
Michael J. Miller Michael J. Miller translated Priesthood and Diaconate by Gerhard Ludwig Müller for Ignatius Press and Eucharist and Divorce: A Change in Doctrine? for the Pontifical John Paul II Institute.