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Vianney: The Drama | An Interview with Leonardo Defilippis | Carl E. Olson | August 3, 2009 | Ignatius Insight

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The one-man drama, Vianney, produced by Leonardo Defilippis and Saint Luke Productions will premier at Saint John Vianney Parish in Houston, Texas, on August 4, 2009, the feast day of the Curé of Ars. Carl E. Olson, editor of Ignatius Insight, recently spoke by phone with Defilippis about the new drama and the Year of the Priest.

Ignatius Insight: You obviously started working on this drama long before "The Year of the Priest" was announced. Was that a providential alignment? How did it come about?

Defilippis: I had an interest in Saint John Vianney, the Cure of Ars, for a long time. I got interested in him through another movie script; someone had wanted me to play him in a movie. So what that did is it got me reading about his life in more detail. That was about twelve years ago. Then I kept that it in the back of my mind; I got so busy with filming Thérèse, but I always wanted to do something about him somehow, somewhere.

About two years ago I did a scene at a church after another performance, to experiment and to see what the reaction would be. It was the scene where he first meets the devil, which is a rather dramatic scene. That got people's interest, and I was playing with it, so to speak, from a performance standpoint. Then I starting doing that after each performance to see how many people knew of him and how many didn't know about him. That developed and I kept planting seeds.

As time went on, about a year and a half ago, I realized that his anniversary was coming up. I was thinking of opening the drama earlier in order to build to build up to Vianney's 150th anniversary. And I knew the Pope would do something because Blessed John XXIII did a huge encyclical [Sacerdotii Nostri Primordia, August 1, 1959] on John Vianney, so I knew Pope Benedict XVI wouldn't ignore him. But then he did something totally unusual in the history of the Church in declaring this year to be the year of the priesthood. This didn't surprise me too much, but I think it took many people by surprise, and I think the reason is that the majority of people in the United States do not know who St. John Vianney is. I would guess that only ten to fifteen percent of all Catholics in the United States have ever heard his name.

Ignatius Insight: I had known the name for many years, but I knew very little about his life prior to writing a piece about him five years ago for Our Sunday Visitor. And it was fascinating; I was especially intrigued by the supernatural battle he waged for so many years, and his amazing fortitude and holiness in the face of evil.

Defilippis: He had, as John XXIII called it, probably the most crushing ministry of all time. And yet a lot of Catholics in this country, even the elderly, haven't heard his name. And yet he is one of the most famous saints in all of the Church. I once did a polling at a Catholic school after a performance, and I asked, "Whose feast day is it today?" And no one in the group knew, not even the teachers. And then I said, "Raise your hand if you've ever heard of St. Thérèse." Maybe a quarter of them. "How many have heard of Saint Francis?" Maybe a quarter. "Saint John Vianney, the Curé of Ars?" Two people raised their hand. And that really reflected the general state of things around the country.

And most priests don't know who he was either. He's not on their radar. They don't know the history and the story. They might have a small glimpse from reading the Office. There is a large group of priests who, due to bad formation, know very little about the saints. And the laity are the same. So when I started doing some promotion of this drama with the bishops and others, I found that there wasn't a relationship between most priests and St. John Vianney. So it was God's providence when the Pope named the year of the priest, because even now some people don't sense or know that the year is based on the anniversary of the death of St. John Vianney. It was remarkable that Benedict chose the Feast of the Sacred Heart [June 19th] to be the opening of the year of the priest, because that really is the symbol of the priesthood, the pouring out of love and one's life for souls.

And then next year will become the elevation year, something that will be unbelievable in the history of the Church, for St. John Vianney will become the patron saint of all priests in history. So this ignorant, peasant priest, a farmer priest, will be recognized in a way that he would not have ever wanted, because of his tremendous humility.

Ignatius Insight: What strikes me is how Pope Benedict emphasizes the humility and holiness of not just St. John Vianney, but of many saints who are rather obscure and unknown to many people. The Holy Father's manner of catechizing in this way has been profound.

Defilippis: Absolutely. The media, even the Catholic media, didn't really pick up much on how when Benedict announced the year of the priest, he made the connection between the Sacred Heart of Christ and the heart of St. John Vianney, the patron saint of all priests. He really is a complete symbol of the image of God in the heart of the Church.

Ignatius Insight: Let's talk about the structure of the drama itself. How is it structured? Is it strictly chronological? Are you focusing on a certain number of key events? How do you approach it?

Defilippis: This has probably been the most difficult and challenging work I've ever done. Technically, artistically, and probably spiritually as well. The Gospel of John is very demanding also, because it is so enormous. But this drama will take a look at Vianney's whole life, while focusing in on the French Revolution, the diabolical presence, the working of the devil in his life, the battle he had with the devil throughout his life, and how St. John Vianney has to persevere through incredible resistance from evil, from the evil one himself.

I follow that pattern, but at the same time we have this incredible theme: "What is a priest?" And we'll answer this by showing how he wants to become a priest, a shepherd with the desire to save souls. I base this on his great challenge, "If a priest truly knew what it meant to be a priest, he would die out of love." Which means that many priests don't realize who they are and what they are doing. This is the great discovery of John Vianney. So you'll see this incredible desire to unveil the mystery of the priesthood, as well as the opposition coming at him. At the end it comes to him what it truly is, because he tries to escape; there is a lot of beautiful music, including a section called "The Vianney Theme," which is this beautiful, dignified music filled with longing.

Then we have the presence of St. Philomena throughout the whole drama, who counterbalances the devil. The mystery of the presence of the angels and saints is there at the same time. There is also a theme of the salvation of souls, which is the history of the Bible, in a sense, which is this incredible struggle of, so to speak, the people of our world, who are so steeped in sin and apathy and immorality, that they cannot be changed. But the incredible heart of this story is that John Vianney does not give up; he is truly the bulldog. When he grabs on, he does not let go. And there is no priest quite like him in history in that way.

You see the incredible resistance he faced: the apathy, the selfishness, what he called the "frenzied hunt for pleasure." There are a lot of issues with the villagers, until he eventually transforms Ars, and there is the line, "Ars in no longer ours." He converts an entire parish, so he knew that when someone died, they were prepared for heaven. You'll also see how he goes through the mockery and lies of those against him, until he finally wins them over to Christ through his penances, his sufferings, and, as you said, his fortitude and perseverance. And it's all based in humility. If he was proud in any way, he would have been dead.

Once he transforms the town and parish, he begins to have another problem, because he cannot get any rest. He was hearing confessions for fifteen or sixteen hours a day. So the temptation changes; he wants to go live in a monastery and escape. Finally, there are the scenes with the devil, when the devil reveals himself and really goes after him in violent intensity. And then, finally, he says his last sermon, and then he dies the beautiful death he does. There are a lot of themes happening in this story.

In addition, not only will we have incredible music for all of this, we are also going to be doing something that we haven't really done before, and that is we are going to create a film of the other characters, and they will appear throughout the drama. So Lindsay Younce, who played Thérèse, she's going to be Catherine, and there are a number of other actors who are going to play some of the other roles: the revolutionary, the devil, villagers, all sorts of characters. And there is going to be a big focus on the sacrament of Confession, which is a huge dramatic challenge. It will hit hard, but it will be beautiful and extremely moving.

Ignatius Insight: How long is the entire production?

Defilippis: It will be about ninety minutes long, the same length as my live dramas of Maximilian and St. John of the Cross.

Ignatius Insight: It sounds as though you already have a lot of scheduled appearances. Is it filling up quickly?

Defilippis: Well, I've been performing for about thirty-five years as an actor, and I have never, ever seen a response like this in my life. What we did was a bit different. Since this is the year of the priesthood, I didn't want to give isolated performances, but wanted it to be part of a diocesan movement. Since this will be the only show in the world of this kind, we are going to take a different approach, and it has created an incredible firestorm, so that we are already booked throughout the rest of 2009, and we are working toward going to Rome, to perform at the culmination of the year of the priest in 2010, with plans to keep performing this throughout the following year. And we are already getting requests from other countries, to come to other parts of the world to perform this drama. This has really taken on a life I've never seen before; in fact, this really is about a sacrifice of ministry, just like the life of St. John Vianney.

It's become a movement, so that certain bishops are actually using this drama to the extent where I will perform it for all of the priests in their diocese or archdiocese. Francis Cardinal George is one of those; we are performing this for his entire presbyteral council. Some bishops are having this for their seminarians. So it creates a focus on Vianney; some parishes are using it for renewal. Some are using it in conjunction with the sacraments, having Adoration prior to my performance, with Confession afterward. The play will be used as a means of preparation throughout the year, and after.

Is it easy? No [laughs], it's very hard. But I've never seen a reaction where the bishops are getting on board like they are. In some cases, the bishop is going to come to every performance, sometimes five, that I do in a diocese, to show that they are behind their priests and their patron saint. I've never seen anything like that before in my life.

I think the key to this is that St. John Vianney both symbolizes and embodies the marriage between the shepherd and the flock, because they eventually truly marry him, and he marries them. There really is that spiritual bride and bridegroom dimension to it. And his death scene—what they did is so moving, it's unbelievable.

I have priests who are helping me in so many ways. I have priests who are making me the old vestments. The conviction of some priests for this drama has been astounding. There are many priests who really understanding the meaning of St. John Vianney.

I really pray in all sincerity that this drama will really help renew the priesthood and the Church, that it will inspire people, and touch the hearts of everyone who sees it. I hope the drama will give people hope, because the spiritual battle is so hard, and, in a sense, it looks as if the devil is winning, especially when we are apathetic, indifferent, and just giving up. I think St. John Vianney is the perfect example of what is needed for our time; he is an incredible saint.

Saint Luke Productions
Vianney Drama
| Info, schedules, contact, much more

Related Ignatius Insight Articles and Excerpts:

Letter of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI Proclaiming a Year for Priests on the 150th Anniversary of the "Dies Natalis" of the Curé of Ars | Pope Benedict XVI
The Blessed Virgin Mary's Role in the Celibate Priest's Spousal and Paternal Love | Fr. John Cihak
The Priest as Man, Husband, and Father | Fr. John Cihak
St. John Vianney's Pastoral Plan | Fr. John Cihak
Satan and the Saint | The Feast Day of St. John Vianney | Carl E. Olson
Who Is A Priest? | Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P.
Women and the Priesthood: A Theological Reflection | Jean Galot, S.J. | From Theology of the Priesthood
The Real Reason for the Vocation Crisis | Rev. Michael P. Orsi
Pray the Harvest Master Sends Laborors | Rev. Anthony Zimmerman
Priestly Vocations in America: A Look At the Numbers | Jeff Ziegler
Clerical Celibacy: Concept and Method | Alfons Maria Cardinal Stickler | From The Case for Clerical Celibacy
The Religion of Jesus | Blessed Columba Marmion | From Christ, The Ideal of the Priest

Leonardo Defilippis is Founder and President of Saint Luke Productions. After years as a Shakespearean actor, he embarked on a spiritual journey that led him to found Saint Luke Productions in 1980. He has since performed live for more than a million people throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe in venues that include churches, major theaters, civic centers, penitentiaries, schools, cloistered convents, and World Youth Day in Denver and Rome. He has also produced films and videos that have won numerous awards. His work has inspired vocations and his audiences have included children, dignitaries, church hierarchy, prisoners, students, and concentration camp survivors. Leonardo's life has been filled with risks taken for the mission of spreading the Gospel through drama. The biggest risk was the directing, production and distribution of the feature film Thérèse. His production, Vianney, tours the U.S. as a dramatic contribution to the Year of the Priesthood, declared by Pope Benedict XVI . On the Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6, 1983, Leonardo married his beloved wife Patti. They have been blessed with seven children.

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