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Posted December 5, 2009

Play about St. John Vianney
touring nation during Year for Priests

By Ed Langlois
Catholic News Service

PORTLAND, Ore. (CNS) -- On a recent evening in Chicago, Leonardo Defilippis felt more edgy than usual.

The veteran actor stood ready to perform a one-man play for future pastors, confessors, chaplains and bishops. His task was to bring one of the church's most ardent parish priests to life for an auditorium packed with seminarians: St. John Vianney.

The next day, he did the same for more than 400 Chicago priests.

A trained Shakespearean actor who has taken the stage for more than 30 years, Defilippis falls to his knees frequently these days as he tours the nation.

It's all for his portrayal in "Vianney," in which he plays the French country priest who in the early 19th century instilled an apathetic town with the desire to live the Gospel.

Before the Year for Priests ends in mid-2010, Defilippis will have performed his new play all over the nation. In November, he staged it for the U.S. bishops gathered in Baltimore for their annual fall general assembly and he might do the play at the Vatican for Pope Benedict XVI.

It was the pope who proclaimed the Year for Priests in part because 2009 marks 150 years since St. John Vianney's death. He also proclaimed St. John Vianney, patron saint of parish priests, as patron of all the world's priests.

In an interview with the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Portland Archdiocese, Defilippis said he finds himself praying to the saint for aid on the stage.

"You want to do this right because it's kind of an awesome responsibility," said the actor, a 57-year-old member of Holy Rosary Parish in Portland. Defilippis is known locally for plays and films in which he has played Jesus as well as saints Francis of Assisi, John of the Cross, Augustine and Maximilian Kolbe.

After years as a Shakespearean actor in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, San Diego's Old Globe Theater and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Defilippis embarked on a spiritual journey that led him to found St. Luke Productions in 1980, producing plays, films and television shows on the Scriptures and the lives of the saints.

In 2005, he released a major film on the life of St. Therese of Lisieux. The movie spent 70 weeks in theaters. Now there is talk of a Vianney film.

The saint is known simply as the Cure of Ars, meaning "the parish priest from Ars," the rural village where he spent his priestly life.

Born in 1786, John Vianney overcame many obstacles to become a priest. His father objected to his vocation, wanting him to stay and work on the family farm. His parish priest at first considered him too dimwitted for ministry. When he finally got to the seminary, he was expelled after five months because he could not get a handle on Latin.

"He is the dumbest seminarian in church history," said Defilippis, smiling at the blunt statement, as if to prove once again that God uses humble material for great works.

With personal tutoring and perseverance -- and because there was a priest shortage -- he was ordained in 1815 at age 29. But even then, superiors forbade him from hearing confessions because he seemed so unschooled in church doctrine.

In 1818, the bishop decided to send him to Ars in central France to minister to the parish's 230 families, who were disinterested in the faith. The new pastor began diligently visiting families and fasting and praying for them, a practice he would keep up through his life.

The Cure of Ars wore a ragged cassock. Eating only a potato or two a day, he led a life of poverty that earned him the respect of many, including his bishop.

The pastor sold off the rectory's fine furniture, giving the money to the poor. He opened a free school and an orphanage.

Once the ban was lifted against him hearing confessions, Father Vianney began spending 16 to 18 hours per day in the confessional. Kings, queens and bishops came to Ars to confess to the simple country priest. An estimated 100,000 pilgrims per year visited the town.

St. John Vianney, who was canonized in 1925, "is one of the most incredible saints in the church, but not that well known," Defilippis said. The actor hopes to change that and perhaps help open some people to a vocation along the way.

The drama is frightening in parts, suitable for those 9 and older. Defilippis includes scenes, some violent, that illustrate the priest's claim that Satan made almost nightly visits to him.

Steven Lichtman, who helped get the play organized in Oregon, said he thinks people "will be brought into the story and will come away inspired to pursue their faith with a new -- or renewed -- zeal."