- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 20, 2009

How can an ascetic Catholic cleric who survived on one potato a day become the patron saint of the world’s priests?

St. John Vianney (1786-1859), who started out as an obscure pastor in the hamlet of Ars in Southern France, was considered too stupid for a more prestigious parish. In ordinary times, he would have been rejected for the priesthood, but this was post-revolutionary France, when there was an acute clergy shortage for an unchurched and apathetic population.

I saw the life story of this unusual man acted out last month at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting in Baltimore. Fifty-six bishops showed up at a performance of “Vianney” and saw actor Leonardo Defilippis put on a mesmerizing show.

“It’s a great honor to be here,” said Mr. Defilippis, who had been invited to perform by Chicago Cardinal Francis George. “I don’t get to perform in front of bishops very often.”

Even for bishops, John Vianney is a dusty name from seminary days. Considered a dolt by his superiors, the saint knew he was not qualified to be a priest. His new parishioners made things as difficult for him as they could; moreover, the devil visited him nightly, seeking to discourage the minister.

Wearing Vianney’s crooked smile and ragged cassock, the actor showed how the saint plugged on anyway, maintaining his holiness and preaching passionate sermons until locals repented. By the time he died 150 years ago, Vianney was spending 15 hours a day in the confessional because of the enormous crowds that thronged Ars just for a word from him.

I wish I could say the cardinal paid for Mr. Defilippis to appear there, but the actor raised the funds himself for the Baltimore trip.

He and I go back 28 years. In the summer of 1982, I was between jobs in Portland, Ore., looking for freelance work. I had heard of this 30-year-old Catholic actor who gave mesmerizing one-man plays on the Gospel of Luke. He had just filled the city’s largest auditorium with his new play on Saint Francis, marking the 800th anniversary of the saint’s birth.

I interviewed him at a cheap restaurant on Hawthorne Boulevard and paid for his lunch because he was poorer than I — he was performing for free so his homeless friends would not have to pay to attend. My article, which appeared later that year in Christianity Today, transformed his career, bringing his talents to the attention of Protestant audiences nationwide.

Years passed and we kept in touch as Mr. Defilippis got married to Patti Slover, an actress he had worked alongside at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival. They began producing their seven children, along with more plays. Four of their offspring are named after characters in dramas of Catholic saints, such as John of the Cross and Maximilian Kolbe, produced by their theater company, St. Luke Productions.

“Vianney” has been booked at churches and seminaries in more than 40 dioceses and there’s a move to translate it into French and Spanish. What’s drawing the multitudes is the play’s emphasis on the inner spiritual warfare, discouragement and feelings of inadequacy that, the play points out, originate from the devil. The challenge is to believe in God’s love and care nevertheless.

The play “has inspired a lot of guys in seminaries,” Mr. Defilippis told me, “encouraging them not to give up.”

The Defilippises are planning to go to Rome in June, hoping to perform before Benedict XVI. After all, 5,000 priests are expected to be there from June 9 through 11 at the close of the Vatican’s “Year of the Priest.”

Sounds like just the right international stage for this production.

Julia Duin’s Stairway to Heaven column runs on Sundays and Thursdays. Contact her at jduin@washingtontimes.com.

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