Oct. 30-Nov. 5, 2003
Drama and Devotion
By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer
Actor has made sharing the lives of saints through the movie industry his vocation
Leonardo DeFilippis, actor, producer and evangelist had no idea that when he started acting 23 years ago, he would turn his talents toward a spiritual focus that would become his life’s vocation. Since then, DeFilippis has produced and acted in plays, videos, movies and workshops that are based on the beauty and truth of the Catholic faith. “We believe there is nothing more important to our future than the renewal of the culture and the family to Christian values, and no more effective way of reaching people than through the dramatic arts,” said DeFilippis in a press statement.
DeFilippis recently brought his current production to Syracuse –– presenting a one-man drama on the life of St. Maximilian Kolbe, known as the Saint of Auschwitz. The play depicts the life of Raymond Kolbe who was born on Jan. 7, 1894. Raymond was the second of three sons born to a poor but pious Catholic family in Russian- occupied Poland. One of his brothers became a priest and both of his parents were members of the Third Order of Franciscan lay ministers. His father later ran a religious bookstore and then enlisted in the army to fight for Polish independence from Russia. He was hanged by the Russians as a traitor in 1914. His mother subsequently became a Benedictine nun.
When Raymond was 12, around the time of his First Communion, he received a vision of the Virgin Mary that changed his life. “I asked the Mother of God what was to become of me. Then she came to me holding two crowns, one white, the other red. She asked if I was willing to accept either of these crowns. The white one meant that I should persevere in purity and the red that I should become a martyr. I said that I would accept them both,” said Kolbe. For the rest of his life, Kolbe’s deep devotion to Mary and great love of Christ accompanied him in his journey through a life of sickness and great suffering. The Immaculata was his inspiration, and Kolbe always had a pocketful of miraculous medals on hand to distribute to those in need of spiritual hope. When DeFilippis was asked why he chose to tell the story of St. Maximilian, he said that he was impressed with Kolbe’s devotion to the Blessed Mother. “Maximilian exemplifies the battle between good and evil,” said DeFilippis. “Not with vengeance and hatred, but as a patron of peace. This is a story of real inspiration in one of the darkest hours of civilization. He was a beacon. He gave so many people hope.”
Kolbe entered the Franciscan seminary in Poland in 1907. He took the name Maximilian during his final vows in November 1914. While still in the seminary, Kolbe and six friends founded the Immaculata Movement –– devoted to the conversion of sinners, opposition to Freemasonry, spread of the Miraculous Medal and devotion to Our Lady and the path to Christ. In 1941, Kolbe and several of his brothers from the monastery were arrested by the Nazis and sent to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. While at the camp, although severely malnourished, frail from tuberculosis and weakened by continuous beatings, Kolbe nonetheless cared for fellow prisoners, celebrated Mass and heard confessions in secret. After one severe beating and lashing, he was left for dead but fellow prisoners managed to smuggle him into the camp hospital where he spent his recovery time hearing confessions.
Toward the end of July 1941, there was an escape from the camp. Camp protocol required that ten men be executed in retribution for each escaped prisoner. A camp commander at Auschwitz ordered prisoners destined to die of starvation to fall in line. Kolbe came forward and declared himself ready to go to death in the place of another man who had a wife and children. During his weeks in the starvation bunker, Kolbe could be heard leading the rosary and singing hymns to the Immaculata with other prisoners. After more than two weeks of starvation and dehydration, Father Maximilian was killed by a lethal injection of carbonic acid on Aug. 14, 1941 –– the eve of the feast of the Assumption. The next day his body was cremated. Four million people died at Auschwitz in four years time. The story of St. Maximilian Kolbe is important to DeFilippis because he said a lot of people don’t realize that six million people died during Hitler’s reign in addition to the Jews. “Maximilian is a modern saint. He was a forward thinker who had technological vision. Part of his mission was to spread the good news,” said DeFilippis. Kolbe was successful in that endeavor. “He was the largest printing press apostle in Poland. He also organized the largest monastery, not only in Poland, but also in the entire world. He was a very influential person in terms of clergy,” said DeFilippis.
During the homily at the canonization of St. Maximilian Mary Kolbe, on Oct.10, 1982, Pope John Paul II quoted John 15:13; “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for friends.” The man whose place Father Kolbe took was present for the beatification on October 17, 1971. He lived to be 93 years old and spent the rest of his life visiting countries around the world to talk about Father Kolbe’s saintliness. While DeFilippis was in town, he also talked about his next project –– a movie being released on the life of St. Therese of Lisieux. “It’s pretty exciting,” said DeFilippis. “This is the first movie on a saint done by a Catholic organization. Hollywood or Hollywood-connected independent filmmakers have produced most movies done on saints for the big screen. This film is being made at the request of the Carmelite nuns and produced entirely on private donations,” he said. DeFilippis said that St. Therese is the most popular saint in the world. She is a saint of the modern age and her autobiography, which has been printed in over 60 languages, is one of the most popular of the last century. “There is such reverence for her,” said DeFilippis. “She is accessible to everyone –– those of us who are weak, inconsistent in our faith and bumbling through life. We wanted to honor St. Therese in film because she’s is a model of purity and humility for our youth. She can give incredible confidence to our youth.”
DiFilippis explained that Catholics do not have a strong presence in the motion picture industry, which is a wonderful means of evangelization. That is why he has chosen to produce faith filled productions. “I was in the secular area of the theater and had a change of heart,” said DeFilippis. “I chose to focus on the Scriptures and the saints because there is an enormous amount of illiteracy about these subject matters. Also, I chose this work in order to do as the Holy Father said –– not to make films as merely illusion or entertainment, but to make things that are a work of beauty, truth and joy.” While DeFilippis knows that this movie will attract Catholics, he strives to let people know that St. Therese broke the boundaries of other religions –– Muslims, Buddhists, Orthodox and Protestants as well. “Because Therese is the universal patron saint of missions, she is not just for the private little world of Catholics,” said DeFilippis. “She goes beyond that. There is a great devotion and attraction to her.” “But what I am really praying for is that we can reach out to young people with this movie. People in the movie industry think that our youth have no spiritual depth. By hitting our website, the youth of the world can show the industry that they are interested in their faith and interested in a spiritual leader who was their age –– an ordinary girl with an extraordinary soul,” he said.
For more information on this film that is scheduled to be released in the spring, visit www.theresemovie.com.