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Theatrical Debut Portrays Devotion to Divine Mercy Promoted by John Paul II
BY Joseph PronechenStaff Writer
Editor's note: This has been updated from the print version.
Divine Mercy and St. Faustina, the Polish nun who received the message from Jesus, are taking to the stage.
On Oct. 5, Faustina’s feast day, St. Luke Productions’ theatrical drama, Faustina: Messenger of Divine Mercy, debuted.
Premiering in St. Benedict, Ore., the stage presentation will be traveling the country in coming months.
"This is the hour of mercy, the time of mercy. It is the ultimate answer. That’s why we see the importance of this play in these critical times," said Leonardo Defilippis, the actor, director and co-founder of St. Luke Productions, which also made the feature film Thérèse.
Indeed, it seems divine Providence chose this latest production. Defilippis had another saint in mind, but the timing did not seem right. So the production company prayed for guidance.
"A number of people who had worked for us had a real love for St. Faustina, and, occasionally, we’d do the Divine Mercy Chaplet," Defilippis recalled.
Faustina was the first saint of the new millennium, promoted by John Paul II, who will be canonized on Divine Mercy Sunday 2014. Plus, Defilippis had been performing Maximilian: Saint of Auschwitz. All three — Faustina, John Paul II and Maximilian — lived very close to each other in their homeland of Poland, and all were beacons of light for the faith.
"You have Maximilian leading us to Mary, and Faustina leading us to Jesus, and John Paul II opening the door for these two incredible movements that are going almost parallel," Defillipis realized. "It was clear Faustina was the saint we should be doing."
St. Luke’s highly successful production of Vianney — about the patron saint of parish priests, St. John Vianney — inspired the dramatic form of the new play.
In Faustina, characters interact with each other in two dimensions: Actress Maria Vargo portrays the saintly sister onstage, while others — pre-filmed — appear on a screen.
Explained Defilippis: "This opened the door to all the characters so crucial for telling the story — Jesus himself, her confessor, the evil one, the sisters, mother superior and others. This [theatrical approach] opens the story to another realm … trying to help us enter into the person of Faustina and the living person of Jesus so we’ve actually met them."
Additionally, his wife, Patti, the scriptwriter, added story lines to link the message to today’s society.
"It’s going to have a couple of threads to help us see that we need it right now in our culture," Defilippis said. "There is urgency because people are feeling it’s a very dark time. That’s why Faustina, this hidden woman, is unveiling probably one of the most important messages in the history of the Church."
The play is "a very personal encounter for people," he added. "I’m praying it will do exactly what she wanted and Jesus wants, and it will being souls back [to God] — and others will become merciful to others."
"If people’s hearts open, it will lift them to another realm, so that when they come out [after the play], they will partake of other riches — read more, pray more, go to the sacraments, help others and be merciful to others," he said. "I see God’s providence in all this."
Others involved with Faustina also believe it will affect those with open minds and hearts.
Actress Maria Vargo herself is touched by the message and this role. "It’s God speaking through this character, and that’s the responsibility I have as an actress: to be 100% committed with my heart, soul and mind to honor that."
There are other reasons why she believes this is no ordinary part. "I feel God has been preparing me for this role my entire life," Vargo said.
Born and raised Catholic and named Maria in honor of Mary, she credits her parents, Deacon Ed and Terry Grotpeter of St. Louis, as "beautiful, loving examples of Christ, who have a lot to do with how this turned out. I always remember as a child seeing the things they did for other people. They were bringing Christ to everyone they met."
Vargo went to Fatima and Lourdes and had a deeper conversion in her life during those Marian pilgrimages, she said. Then came the point in her life where her constant prayer was to ask God what he wanted her to do with the gifts he has given her.
At the faith-based G.K. Chesterton Theatre Company in Los Angeles, someone suggested that she audition for St. Luke Productions and this play.
Because she had never toured before and was then busy singing at different churches, helping people with disabilities find employment and leading a children’s choir, she prayed for discernment.
"God gave me a sign of a red rose — the sign I asked for — and it came on Divine Mercy Sunday," she recalled.
To prepare for her role as Faustina, she spent time with Faustina’s order, the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy, at their motherhouse in Dorchester, Mass.
"It was a great time not only to study Faustina, but to see these sisters and their prayer life and be a part of that," Vargo said. "I kept in mind ‘Jesus, I trust in you’ [the phrase Jesus told Faustina to include in the Divine Mercy image and the Divine Mercy Chaplet] — really trying to feel those words in my heart."
"We have to do that every day: constantly training ourselves to trust in the Lord," she added. "And this whole process has to be one of trust. I really have to turn everything over to the Lord and trust he is going to be my director through this. Constantly, we have to meditate on his trust and mercy and the love he has for us."
Actor Jonathan Roumie, who plays Jesus, also has an inspiring connection to Divine Mercy.
After he saw the miniseries Jesus of Nazareth when he was young, he thought that the ultimate role to play would be of Jesus Christ.
"I always wanted to, but I never could have imagined how it would come about," he said.
Even after he got into acting, he always maintained a deep connection to his faith as a longtime lector at Mass and volunteer in a ministry helping the homeless and needy.
"But just having an opportunity to humbly step in his sandals is something I couldn’t have anticipated," he shared.
Looking back to eight years ago, he said, "I think it was preordained, in a way," that he would be portraying Jesus in this new play.
Back then, while living in New York City, where he grew up, he had been searching for a Divine Mercy image for his apartment.
Then, one day, he recalled, "on top of the mailboxes where people put things someone else might want to take, there was an icon of the Divine Mercy." He brought it with him to St. Luke Productions.
Roumie said his acting preparation was prayerful. "I had to get out of my own way and offered it up as almost a prayer," he said, "and to pray that the Spirit moved through me to tell the story the way it was meant to be heard."
The play already has the support of those with great devotion to the Divine Mercy.
"The Marian Fathers, as the official promoters of Divine Mercy, are 100% behind this project," said Father Michael Gaitley of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, based in Stockbridge, Mass.
People who see this play are "going to experience Divine Mercy in a wholly unique way," he added. "The drama of mercy and the life of Faustina and our own lives will meet in that experience."
Father Gaitley thinks "this play is going to be a powerful vehicle for helping people to really experience in their hearts what it means that God is infinite mercy and love."
Msgr. Joseph Betschart, a Portland, Ore., diocesan priest and president-rector of Mount Angel Seminary, an apostolate of Mount Angel Abbey, where the play premiered, found the dramatization to be an evangelization tool: "Not only did it tell the story of St. Faustina and her life, but it also powerfully proclaimed the message of Divine Mercy that Our Lord entrusted to her in a way that is inspiring and relevant to people of our time. The production is a great example of the New Evangelization and using media to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ and his love for us all."
Joseph Pronechen is a
Register staff writer.