Leonardo Defilippis wears many hats well.
He is an acclaimed actor, producer and director of award-winning films and videos, including the feature-length Thérèse; he is also the founder and president of Saint Luke Productions and Luke Films, which will celebrate their 30th anniversary on Oct. 18, the feast of St. Luke.
Defilippis’ latest production is the made-for-television program Vianney Speaks, which is co-produced with EWTN and premieres on EWTN on Oct. 14 and 15.
Vianney Speaks grew out of Vianney, Defilippis’ highly praised play about the life of St. John Vianney, the patron of parish priests. Defilippis has performed it for more than 100,000 people, from prelates to prisoners. He performed the play for the U.S. bishops’ 2009 assembly during the Year for Priests at the invitation of Cardinal Francis George, at that time the conference’s president. The play has the support of dozens of dioceses, 50-plus cardinals and bishops, and equal numbers of vocation directors.
Before embarking on his third-year tour of the play, Defilippis spoke about the new television drama and how it significantly differs from his play.
Why did you decide to make Vianney Speaks for television?
Basically, the drama became so powerful and impactful. Never had I seen a play, secular or religious, that had this kind of impact on people and how it transforms them. The majority of Catholics did not know John Vianney, and many priests do not know him well.
Is the television program very similar to the stage play?
It has a different purpose than a historical dramatic battle that happens in the life and journey of John Vianney.
The stage version is like a normal play. It has sophisticated lighting, many different characters (integrated and interacting with Vianney through a rear-screen projection).
You see parts of the Mass, John Vianney weeping at the altar, preaching, hearing confessions, attacked by the devil, encountering all the villagers, and all the priests against him. There is tons of history in it — and how he ends up transforming and converting the entire village.
It’s quite an interaction. It shakes people up because the live presence does something in the encounter. You can’t film that experience.
How did you change the approach for a very different experience?
In the play we use only a piece of his sermons, vignettes in the context of his life. His preaching in the very beginning was very strong and to the point. He was not afraid, like a lot of people in our culture would be. He was not worried about popularity or human respect or embarrassment about our teachings or about Christ.
John Paul II said of John Vianney: “He is the priest par excellence. He is the model for all priests.” We thought, Why don’t we get his sermons out? It’s never been done before. This is a historic opportunity.
So we took the entire sermons, the whole nine yards. People can hear his words uncensored and unedited, so they can absorb it.
How many sermons are you doing in this television program?
We are doing three sermons. In the evolution, I also integrated his prayers. Instead of a snippet, I took his whole prayer — his crying out to God in the chapel, staying up all night in vigil. It was common for him to ask for God’s guidance, mercy and inspiration. He never thought of himself as a preacher or speaker, so he was always asking for God’s help.
Yet because of your work with the movie Thérèse, you’re not just presenting John Vianney standing up and talking, are you?
I did this in a cinematic way and filmed it like a movie, so it’s not just filming him as a priest saying his sermon in the church. We integrated everything into it, so it has the background feeling of the historical place of Ars, his kitchen, the church; and we also integrated music into it like a film score.
But it’s not a movie. It’s like an hour-long meditation. It’s as if you’re going to a mission in a parish, but you’re not listening to the popular mission priest. You’re actually going to Ars to a priest who was never able to travel or leave his parish. But this is an opportunity for him to reach out to the world.
What do the sermons you chose focus on?
In one, John Vianney reflects upon the enemies that are really within us. We have exterior enemies, but also interior enemies that lie within us, that try to distract and destroy us from focusing on the reality of salvation, the purpose of our earthly life as we prepare for eternity. It’s a very powerful sermon that a lot of times most of us haven’t thought about at all.
Of course, he has the incredible sermon on Mary Magdalene, on how we can be a bad tree and get to be a good tree bearing much fruit. He goes into who she was, what she was and how she transformed.
And, in a sense, that’s our age. But an age completely addicted to this sexuality can be transformed and converted.
The last one is about the love of God. There is sin, but there’s a real hope and focus on why this whole thing makes sense in the first place, which the world is not focused on. The world lives in complete insanity because the only sanity is love, which welcomes God and neighbor. We’re all Pharisees. John Vianney is the type of priest who’s not afraid to expose all of that.
Do you see parallels in John Vianney’s times and ours?
John Vianney had to encounter hostility in post-revolutionary France. We forget John Vianney was accused falsely of every sexual scandal possible, which is an old trick of the devil.
What’s so powerful about John Vianney now is it’s the perfect balance to the priestly scandals. You’re dealing with the patron of priests, who is going to reveal what the very nature of the priest should be and do. He’s the model not just of the parish priest, but of all priests.
He relates to us because he brings out the very nature of Christianity and the priesthood. We’re living the French Revolution now — there is no Enlightenment; reason is thrown completely out. The Church has been there in these different situations in history. But he is the rock of reason and sanity, the rock of the cross. He is that sign of contradiction to the world — and a sign of hope.
He also brings out another important thing not displayed much in our world: the presence of evil, the devil. He makes The Exorcist look like nothing.
The devil is much more furious than some little soul he is attacking. You’re dealing with a battle of a man converting thousands and thousands of souls. John Vianney is the remedy so relevant to our society. Most people don’t believe in the devil. Most Catholics don’t believe in the Real Presence because they’ve been led astray by the devil. But John Vianney helps you understand the true presence of
God by basically putting a focal point on confession, the key to breaking the paralysis of blindness and sin to see the presence of God in the Eucharist.
He is the greatest confessor in the history of the Church. He heard more confessions than any other priest in history.
He was able to convert every single soul in his village. All the bad marriages reconciled; all the drunkards. They were all living in harmony, one mind and one heart in the parish. God used him through much suffering to bring all souls to Christ and into the Church. Everyone came from all over Europe to be near this priest and village of holy people.
So, in the midst of a terrible time, God gave us an echo of what really shall be. And God didn’t choose a professor or one of the best preachers. He chose the lowliest person to confound the proud. The dumbest seminarian is now the patron saint of all of them. That’s God’s sense of humor. He chose the littlest child. John Vianney, through pure grace, becomes one of the wisest priests God has given us.
Because he chooses the weakest vessels, echoed always in the Scriptures, it gives people hope God can use me too. That’s another reason John Vianney is so relevant today.
I think the Pope (Benedict XVI) created the Year of the Priest on the 150th anniversary of John Vianney’s death to show how important it was to inspire priests — and all laity too — to look to John Vianney, so not one scandal, difficulty and cross will shake them and nobody will be paralyzed by sins.
Any thought of an eventual major movie version?
That’s more in the planning stages, because it will have to be one of the bigger productions, like an epic film, with special effects, thousands for a cast. We’ve never really had anything like that from a Catholic entity. It could have an international impact.
If the Church got behind this, there could be quite a lot of conversions. I particularly ask people to pray for that. It has to have purity about it so that God could use something very magnificent. It would give people a lot of hope. You would need major support of the people.
What do you hope the television version will accomplish?
If one opens to his words, like Christ, then this particular program can create an immense amount of conversion. It has a real evangelical mission.
The DVD will be available from Saint Luke Productions and EWTN. It can be used in homes and by parishes. It’s a powerful mission: listening to him.
Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.