Back in 2014, Leonardo Defilippis was attending a Napa Institute conference when he ran into an old friend, the Most Rev. Kevin W. Vann.
Defilippis’ friendship with the bishop of the Diocese of Orange dated back several years, to when Vann was a priest in his native Springfield, Ill., and later when Vann was ordained and installed as bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth in Texas, in 2005.
When he ran into Defilippis at the Napa Institute gathering in 2015, Bishop Vann had been running the Diocese of Orange for three years. And the diocese was in the very early stages of transforming the former Crystal Cathedral into a Catholic center for liturgy, the arts and culture.
As president and founder of Saint Luke Productions, the longest-running Catholic-focused theater group in the U.S., Defilippis was in a unique position to help Bishop Vann develop artistic programs at the Christ Cathedral.
“Let’s do this!” Defilippis recalls Bishop Vann as exclaiming.
And thus were the seeds sown for the Christ Cathedral Drama Series, which in October will raise the curtain on its third season at the Freed Theater at Christ Cathedral Campus. The first season launched in January 2015 with “Faustina: Messenger of Divine Mercy,” based on the diary of St. Faustina Kowalska.
“We’re taking on the greatest stories ever told, really,” says Defilippis, who after years as a Shakespearean actor embarked on a spiritual journey that led to him becoming a Catholic and, in 1980, founding Saint Luke Productions in Battle Ground, Wa. “It’s been a beautiful thing.”
As Defilippis sees it, the Christ Cathedral Drama Series — four productions that run through Spring 2018 — fills a critical gap on O.C.’s cultural scene.
“Live drama is an art form that until now hasn’t been utilized much for religious purposes in Orange County,” he says.
Saint Luke Productions specializes in depicting real-life stories of Catholic saints, along with stories such as the Passion of Christ, the short final period in the life of Jesus that culminates in his crucifixion. The productions are intimate and include a lot of audience interaction.
“You’re a participant seeing this (real-life character) brought to life,” Defilippis says. “Seeing these live productions is very impactful. The audience feels like they are there, experiencing their lives.”
Defilippis, 64, researches and writes most Saint Luke productions, which last from an hour to an hour-and-a-half. He also assumes most of the lead roles, and hires fellow Catholics to round out the casts.
“Stage actors don’t have many opportunities to express their faith through characters,” Defilippis says. “We have to find (actors) who are committed to the Catholic Church’s mission and who can represent the Church and its teachings.”
Productions like the Christ Cathedral Drama Series are vital to the cathedral’s mission to develop into a magnet for Catholics around the world, says Defilippis, who in addition to stage productions has directed and produced Thérèse, the first motion picture distributed solely by an independent Catholic film company.
“We’re hoping this will lead to more consistent things,” Defilippis says of season three of the Christ Cathedral Drama Series. “If interest starts to grow, more tourists will come to these productions, just like they go to Disneyland. We are committed to entertaining and educating both Catholics and non-Catholics alike.”
One of Defilippis’ favorite roles is that of St. John Vianney.
“Did you know he’s the patron saint of priests?” Defilippis asks. “Priest know that, but many, particularly older priests who went through the seminary when things were not taught as well as they are today, don’t know him very well or the details of his life.”
Defilippis’ one-man theater production, “Vianney,” opens amidst the chaos of the French Revolution.
“His story mirrors the secularization, materialism and anti-religious sentiment of our own day,” he says. “It’s a powerful tool for the evangelization of our contemporary culture.”
Here’s the lineup for the third season of the Christ Cathedral Drama Series, with more detailed information available at stlukeproductions.com/ccds.
Maximilian, Saint of Auschwitz
Oct. 13, 14, 15
This multimedia production tells the story of St. Maximilian Kolbe, with chilling footage from Poland and Germany during World War II. It’s a story about standing firm in the face of persecution.
Tolton: From Slave to Priest
Jan. 26, 27, 28, 2018
The story of Father Augustus Tolton, the first African American Catholic priest. The story has special resonance today as it centers on the message of reconciliation and healing.
The Passion according to Saint Luke
March 16, 17, 18, 2018
The production features the entire cast of the Easter story, and the script is taken directly from Scripture. The play is accompanied by a lyrical score and a few simple props.
The Confessions of Saint Augustine
May 17, 18 and 20, 2018
St. Augustine of Hippo is one of the most popular and influential saints, and this production tells his story of conversion.