For the past 30 years, Leonardo Defilippis’ dramas on Christ and the saints have been wowing audiences and winning souls.
His current drama is “Vianney,” which he wrote and which was produced by his company, St. Luke Productions, in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the death of St. John Vianney.
Register correspondent Celeste Behe spoke with Defilippis about his play, which coincides with the Church’s Year for Priests, his life as a Catholic and his work.
You began your acting career in secular theater. What was your experience there?
Well, the theater is not very conducive to the Catholic faith. In the arts, if you have a scandal, you get a raise; you don’t get fired like you do in normal society. But I was fortunate to have worked with great people in a company that played Shakespeare.
I learned the discipline of theater and how to work with my voice and my body, to play the roles that I do today. And Shakespeare, in a sense, really does have many spiritual elements in his work. I believe that God was preparing me then for what I’m doing today, just as he’s done with so many other people throughout history.
Tell us about the conversion you underwent while you were with the Shakespeare company.
I was about 25 when I took a fancy to helping a certain young lady who was having huge problems, among them drug addiction. I was experiencing a moral dilemma in my own life, but still I felt the need to reach out and help her. I came to realize that I couldn’t solve the problem of her addiction, so I was led to pray for her.
In a sense, her troubles led to my own conversion, because I began to look at my own life. That’s when I said to myself, Wow, I’ve abandoned something, and I’ve got to relearn it.
At that point I started thinking about the priesthood. I was facing the same dilemma that Pope John Paul II faced when he was younger: whether to be an actor or a priest. Then I was asked by a priest to do my first one-man show “The Gift of Peace,” and I thought, Well, maybe this is what I’m called to do.
Your portrayal of St. John Vianney is deeply affecting. Is the role difficult to play?
It is a very demanding role. We do something in the show that requires a lot of coordination, and that’s not normally done in theater: We use video clips to bring certain characters to life so that they interact with the audience. And the play itself is intense.
Some of it is very frightening and some is very sweet, which makes it as overwhelming for me as it is for the audience. After a performance, I feel beaten down; I can’t stand up straight. I feel the emotion that St. John Vianney had in his life, very much so.
The drama made history this past November when it was performed at the Fall Assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. How was the play received?
This was the first play ever done for the bishops; we also performed “Vianney” for Cardinal Francis George at his [archdiocesan priests’] convocation, and we’ve done it for the major seminaries. So far, nearly 80 bishops and cardinals and more than 1,500 priests and seminarians have seen the show, and the response everywhere has been very positive.
Priests say that they’ve gone to confession after seeing this play; they’ve been humbled. Some of them have been shaken up and challenged because the play shows a priesthood they’re not used to, maybe because they’ve looked at the priesthood as a job and not a vocation.
St. John Vianney suffered for 30 years from satanic attacks. Have you had any experiences with the diabolical since taking your play on the road?
In preparing for this role, I spoke with an exorcist who warned me to be ready for possible satanic attacks. Although we haven’t had furniture flying around the room, we certainly have had difficulties with “Vianney” which we did not encounter with our other productions.
During one of our opening shows, while our technical assistant was trying to fix a video malfunction, the picture on his computer screen kept alternating between two different images of the devil. It was scary.
Another time, we had sound issues with my microphone, and the audio wasn’t working except for the voice of the devil, which came across perfectly. There was no technical explanation for this. Many of us working on “Vianney” have also inexplicably felt tension or despair.
We have to constantly remind ourselves of what we are up against and stay focused on prayer.
How have young people reacted to your play?
Last night, we did a performance, and we had a lot of teenagers in the audience. It took them a while to settle down and put away their cell phones, but once they were engaged, they really got into it.
It’s remarkable to see how this has inspired young men to consider the priesthood; you can see it in their eyes, like a mother can. They’re thinking, I should be a priest, and I shouldn’t be afraid.
The play also affects young girls, like one 16-year-old. She didn’t cry during the show, but when I said, “Let’s honor our priests,” and everyone stood up and began to clap, she started really weeping.
I think that if those girls who see the play have a vocation to marriage, they may be more open in their family life to the priesthood. That’s where the priesthood comes from — it comes from the mother and the father.
What makes this particular production so powerful?
There’s something spiritual and very mysterious here; I can’t even explain it. But I do know that in our daily lives we often do not recognize Christ because we’re distracted and not present to God.
During the face-to-face performance of “Vianney,” St. John Vianney becomes real to audiences, almost alive, as the incarnation of Christ should impact us. The audience surrenders to the saint’s life story, and when that happens, God touches their very beings. They come to recognize Christ in the Curé of Ars.
You feel that it is this drama’s “real sense of in persona Christi that is convicting priests.” Can you describe one priest’s encounter?
The pastor of a parish in the Archdiocese of Seattle invited us to do an afternoon show. He was so moved by the play that, when he celebrated Mass later that day, he began to cry during his homily and again at other parts of the Mass. He was so convicted by the play that he seemed like St. John Vianney himself, in utter humility and vulnerability before God.
In real life, this would happen to St. John Vianney during the celebration of the Eucharist. So this priest, who had the entire congregation crying and praying along with him, declared “Vianney” to be the single most important event that the parish had ever hosted in its history.
I can only imagine that Christ’s love for his priests is being manifested through this weak little play. It truly is a movement of the Holy Spirit, especially during this Year for Priests.
Celeste Behe writes from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
For information on the play and where it is scheduled to be performed, visit StLukeProductions.com.