By Karen Mahoney
Special to your Catholic Herald
ST. FRANCIS – Leonardo Defilippis, actor, founder and president of St. Luke Productions, is heeding Pope Benedict XVI’s message to rebuild strong spiritual identities.
In honor of the “Year for Priests,” Defilippis is performing “Vianney,” a one-man drama, in the Milwaukee area Sept. 8-12.
To most Catholics, and even some priests, St. John Vianney is one of the more obscure saints. Little is known about this uneducated priest of the French Revolution era.
St. John Maria Vianney, commonly known as the Cur of Ars, the patron of priests, was born to a destitute family in Dardilly, France in 1786. As a child, he worked in the fields and helped his father and sisters tend sheep.
He struggled with his studies after entering the seminary when he was 20, and nearly gave up. However, his desire to become a priest and save lost souls helped him to persevere.
At 29, he was ordained and assigned as a parish priest of Ars, a tiny village. Because many residents didn’t attend church, he made home visits and convinced them to attend Mass.
He prayed for hours before the Blessed Sacrament and spent up to 18 hours in the confessional, taught catechism and, during the night, was tormented by the devil. Despite the spiritual battles, Vianney knew that the toughest nights meant that the next day would be the opportunity to save another soul.
“I really grew to love him and realized how powerful he is and unique in that he is the only saint that is completely tied to the structure of the church,” said Defilippis in a phone interview with your Catholic Herald. “He took care of everyone — boys, girls, elderly, taught religion, was tied to chanceries, bishops, and was the greatest confessor of all time. He was the biggest dispenser of all sacraments of any priest in history and the only one to convert a whole parish.”
Defilippis, who is known for his work in “Thrse,” “John of the Cross,” and “Maxmillian: Saint of Auschwitz,” worked on “Vianney” for two years. Hefelt it providential that it coincided with the “Year for Priests.”
“When the Holy Father announced this, it gave a boost to the Vianney movement,” he said. “And soon he will elevate him as the patron saint of all priests in history. He will have a very high honor, the highest honor in the church, up there with Mary and Joseph in the upper room. He is a patron saint but was really just a dumb, ignorant, peasant priest and now he is has this high honor. But if he were still here on earth, he wouldn’t want it. He was very humble.”
Most challenging in the multi-media presentation is portraying the intense spiritual battle as the devil tried to stop his ministry from his first breath as a newborn baby.
“The devil tried to destroy all Catholicism right after he was born and during the French Revolution, Catholicism was basically decimated,” said Defilippis. “But he persevered, eating just a potato a day, and often getting little or no sleep. Finally, at the end of Vianney’s life, the devil said, ‘You have defeated me.’ That is quite a remarkable statement.”
Since the “Vianney” tour began, Defilippis has been astounded by the number of young men and women attending the sold-out productions and becoming excited about religious vocations.
“I think a lot of people don’t understand the priesthood, and even some priests don’t understand their own identity and their own sacrament,” he said. “People are understanding what a priest means and the importance of vocations. Young people are excited and engaged and are showing an incredible love for the church and the priesthood.”
By portraying St. John Vianney’s life, Defilippis prays that dignity for the priesthood will be restored.
“The priesthood is an incredible calling and it is a ministry to do good in the world,” he said. “I pray that it helps renew the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and confession. People are hungry to have good priests and I am hoping that by hearing St. John Vianney’s powerful sermons in this play that it will bring renewal to our faith. John Vianney was afraid of no one and his sermons show that.”