AUBURN — St. John Vianney died 150 years ago, but actor Leonardo Defilippis recently brought his memory to life for an audience of more than 500 at St. Mary Church.
Defilippis performed his one-man show, "Vianney," at the church March 19. The play chronicles the life of St. John Vianney, patron saint of priests, from his formative years as a young boy to his death after several decades as the beloved Catholic pastor in Ars, a tiny town in France.
Defilippis, founder of Saint Luke Productions, took "Vianney" on the road in August 2009, just two months after Pope Benedict XVI designated June 2009 through June 2010 as the Year for Priests. When the year ends in June he will have performed the show before 145 audiences, and he’s already performed before hundreds of priests and seminarians and thousands of laypeople.
"It’s a little intimidating in the sense that it’s a unique responsibility (of performing for the clergy)," Defilippis told the Catholic Courier in an interview March 17. "You see these priests very humbly when you see priests or bishops crying, challenged, thought provoked, or you see young seminarians on fire."
Defilippis said he hopes the play will help people better understand the priesthood, without which Christianity would not exist, he said. His play also has helped Catholics who’ve drifted away from the church return home, which he said is an unexpected yet welcome benefit of his efforts.
"Somehow they come, and they are touched and healed in a sense," he said.
The main reason for "Vianney," however, is to promote awareness of the play’s namesake saint and to commemorate the Year for Priests, he added.
"Most people don’t know who (St. John Vianney) is, so we’re creating awareness (of) the incredible complexity of love and sacrifice that this incredible saint did for the souls of the church, and this amazing outpouring of himself to save others," Defilippis said. "He’s just a wonderful human being, one of the great sacrificial saints, but also one who did so much good for people."
Father Frank Lioi, pastor of St. Mary, said his parish is very active in promoting priestly vocations, so he jumped at the chance to host "Vianney."
"Vocations have been an important reality in the parish, and so this is an expression of that," he said, noting that more than 40 men who’ve been ordained since 1868 once called St. Mary their home parish. "We’re really proud and honored to have (Defilippis) here in Auburn and the Diocese of Rochester."
Father Lioi and his parishioners worked hard to spread the word about the Auburn performance of "Vianney," and their hard work paid off. By the time the performance began at 7 p.m. March 19, cars lined all the streets around St. Mary and the church itself was packed nearly to capacity.
"It was a huge success, so we’re very pleased," Father Lioi told the Catholic Courier after the performance.
Defilippis played the roles of many of the show’s characters, including the titular saint, and at times used previously videotaped segments featuring some of his own performances and those of a few other characters, including a narrator. Those segments played on a large screen in the middle of the set, so Defilippis could interact with those characters as if they were performing alongside him.
In the opening moments of "Vianney," a priest persecuted during the French Revolution tells a young John Vianney, "Be a priest. Save many, many souls." The shepherd Vianney clings to this call and pursues a seminary education, even though many of his peers and teachers taunt him and call him stupid, especially as he struggles to learn Latin. Satan himself taunts Vianney as well, and even after Vianney is ordained he continues to belittle the priest, telling him he’s not good enough and will never succeed.
St. John Vianney perseveres, however, and after many struggles is able to bring the residents of Ars — and indeed many surrounding areas — back to the Catholic faith, which angers Satan to no end.
"This is really a battle between sin and grace, or good and evil," Defilippis said. "Satan does exist. He’s real. Most people don’t believe that, and this show is really making people aware."
Defilippis’ performance was rewarded with a lengthy standing ovation, after which Defilippis dedicated his performance to Father Lioi and all of Rochester’s diocesan priests. He urged those in the audience to support their priests and be open to priestly vocations in their own families.
"We need a renewal in our church, and we need it here. We have many challenges, as all dioceses do, because we need priests," Defilippis said. "Without the priest there is no church, there is no Eucharist, there are no sacraments."
The performance resonated with audience members of all ages. Vivian Sinicropi, who’s belonged to St. Mary for 60 years, called the performance, "marvelous," and fellow longtime parishioner Henry Romano said "Vianney" was "very well done."
"I think it was choreographed beautifully, and I was amazed that one person could do it all," Romano remarked.
Fifteen-year-old Anthony Faiola, who attended the play with three fellow students from Auburn’s Tyburn Academy of Mary Immaculate, also was impressed with the one-man show’s quality and message.
"It was great," he said.Tags: Cayuga County News, Holy Orders