When the U.S. bishops called upon writers and artists to employ their skills and talents in the defense of religious liberty during the period of preparation for the Fortnight for Freedom campaign for prayer and special events in June, actor and producer Leonardo Defilippis responded by saying, "I’m not just going to talk about it. I’m going to give you a saint."
In July, Defilippis brought to life St. Maximilian Kolbe in Phoenix in the one-man play Maximilian: Saint of Auschwitz (StMaxDrama.com). The multimedia production has since been kindling a brush fire of renewed faith among audiences during the first leg of its nationwide tour.
"Audiences are connecting the dots. They’re seeing the parallels between the life and times of St. Maximilian and our own lives, as the Church faces unprecedented attacks against religious freedom in America," Defilippis said.
The play features not only Defilippis’ genius for making saints come alive, but presents the life and times of the Polish saint who made extensive use of the mass media to spread the Gospel. St. Maximilian volunteered to die in place of a stranger in the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz.
In 1917, St. Maximillian founded the Militia Immaculata — "Army of the Immaculate" — a worldwide Catholic evangelization movement whose purpose, in the words of the saint, is "to do all you can for the conversion of sinners, heretics, schismatics, and so on … for the sanctification of all persons under the sponsorship of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Immaculate Mediatrix."
"Maximilian grips and draws each viewer into the biblical and cosmic battle between good and evil. For all people in our difficult times, this drama positively glows as a powerful statement of hope," said Conventual Franciscan Father James McCurry. The habit Defilippis wears was given to him by Father McCurry, who serves as minister provincial for the Saint Anthony of Padua Province in Ellicott City, Md.
The play is both theatrical and cinematic, as Defilippis plays all the characters with quick costume changes, against a rich background of film imagery. "As far as I know, no other theater company has done anything like this," he said.
Written by Defilippis, the play is the product of prayerful immersion in the study of the saint’s life, which began years before the first version of the play was staged for World Youth Day in 1993.
In usual fashion, Defilippis sheds his own personality and offers himself as an empty vessel for the saint to come alive: "It’s prayer that makes the saints real to me. It helps me to be open and vulnerable to the point where I’m just an instrument."
The solid script, fine acting, impressive special effects and rich orchestral music offer both a spiritual and sensory feast.
"Maximilian is possibly one of the finest pieces of religious drama created in this century," novelist Michael O’Brien wrote for the Nazareth Journal.
A revert Catholic, Defilippis founded Saint Luke Productions 32 years ago and has since been writing, acting and producing plays and short films for DVD on the lives of saints, including St. Francis, The Passion According to Luke, St. Augustine, St. John of the Cross, The Gospel According to John, Vianney and the feature film Thérèse.
The former Shakespearean actor said: "Maximilian is a saint for our time. He had to deal with every attack thrown at the Church and at the family. He battled socialism, communism, secularism, population control, obsession with sexuality and more.
"This is what happened just before World War II, and this is what’s happening today. His life offers for us a great source of hope and strength. It’s a privilege to personally witness people get energized by the saint himself."
Defilippis takes delight in young people’s reaction to the play: "They’re excited. They see somebody who’s not afraid to stand up for his faith."
After performances, Defilippis continues to meet contemporaries of the saint: "I meet survivors from the concentration camps; people who served in Hitler’s army; people who were in gulags and under the Vietcong. Some of them weep in my arms after performances. Those who see the signs of the times are afraid history is repeating itself. I’m compelled to tell them what St. Maximilian would tell them: ‘Have no fear. The Immaculata loves you very, very much.’"
The 30th anniversary of St. Maximilian’s canonization falls on the eve of the Year of Faith (Oct. 11-Nov. 24, 2013), as declared by Pope Benedict XVI. Maximilian was canonized by Pope John Paul II on Oct. 10, 1982.
"It’s providential. Our faith is being tried in so many ways these days. People are asking: What can we do in the face of great evil? St. Maximilian shows us how," Defilippis said.
There are plans to stage Maximilian in as many public theaters as possible. So far, most of Saint Luke Productions’ plays have been booked in Catholic churches. "We really should be casting our nets to wider audiences," Defilippis said.
Groups of churches have successfully collaborated in sponsoring other Saint Luke Production plays at major public theaters. Defilippis hopes that more of this will happen with Maximilian.
His encounter with a journalist after a recent performance at a town hall in Panna Maria, Texas, made Defilippis reflect on the need to make the production more available to the general public. The journalist introduced himself as an atheist to Defilippis. Impressed by the play, the journalist wrote a thoughtful, well-researched article about the saint and the play.
"His article reflected a deep interest in the saint and his faith. How many more people of various faiths or no faith would find it easier to come to a performance at a public venue? We need to open wide our doors to those who would not choose to step into a church for one reason or another," Defilippis stated.
Defilippis added, "St. Maximilian Kolbe has a powerful yet cautionary message for all of us — to not take the freedoms we cherish for granted, but, rather, to defend them with our lives."
Father Paul Sullivan, director of vocations for the Phoenix Diocese, saw the play for the July Fortnight for Freedom event in Phoenix. "Defilippis masterfully portrays a saint whose fidelity, piety and courage is a model for us during this time when there is a creeping opposition to freedom to live the faith that so many saints shed their blood for," he said. "I pray that Maximilian: Saint of Auschwitz will continue to inspire others, as it has inspired me."
Jo Garcia-Cobb writes from Mount Angel, Oregon.