Leonardo Defilippis was performing in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival when a Benedictine priest challenged him to write a religious drama for a retreat.

Defilippis was a "collapsed Catholic" at the time, he said, but writing and performing "The Gospel of Luke" rekindled his faith so strongly that in 1980 he founded Saint Luke Productions to use his talents as a writer, actor, director and producer to spread the Word of God.

"I realized that this was a calling, a vocation, and not just something to do on the side," he told Our Sunday Visitor.

Focused on Christ

Since those first tours, Defilippis has performed live before more than 1 million people throughout the United States, Canada and Europe. He has dramatized the Gospels and lives of saints in churches, theaters, prisons, schools and convents, and at World Youth Days in Denver and Rome. Last year in Detroit, he performed "Maximilian: Saint of Auschwitz" for 12 cloistered nuns, then the next day for 3,400 people attending a Catholic men's conference. The dramas are also heard and seen on cassette and CD recordings, on VHS and DVD format and on cable television.

In 2004, "Thérèse: The Story of a Soul" ran for more than 70 weeks in theaters worldwide. It was the first major motion picture distributed solely by an independent Catholic film company and was supported by individual contributions raised a dollar or two at a time.

"We have a very narrow focus on Christ and the saints, something that you don't see too much in the culture," Defilippis said. "Our mission is to renew the culture through a Catholic vision focused in live and recorded dramatic arts. We want to evangelize and to make Christ seen and heard. We hopefully will inspire people to embrace their faith and create a Catholic culture for all society and not just Catholics. We want to inspire audiences to a deeper desire for the Truth of Jesus Christ."

The vision, he added, is based on the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and Pope John Paul II, who called for a renewal of family, a target audience for Saint Luke Productions. Then in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI offered a prayer intention "that Christians may use literature, art and the media to greater advantage to favor a culture which defends and promotes the value of the human person."

Defilippis and his wife, Patti, who have seven children, collaborate with writing, directing and running the productions, and performed together in the live and filmed versions of "Song of Songs."

Intimacy with audience

Throughout Lent, Defilippis is on a national tour of "The Gospel According to John," an innovative production with music, costume and sets combining the styles of both the Roman Catholic and Byzantine traditions. It is a challenging portrayal of Christ, Defilippis said.

"It is the Word Made Flesh in symbolic imagery," he said. "When I have performed it, I have seen grown men crying, and one woman knelt down and started praying. You can feel God's presence, and there's a holiness coming out of it that has nothing to do with the individuals who made it. It has to do with how God has used it."

Defilippis is the foundation of Saint Luke Productions, even though there are other trained actors who can perform the dramas. His experience at San Diego's Old Globe Theater and the Colorado Shakespeare Festival formed his ability to use multiple voices and expressions to bring several roles to life when he is alone on stage. In Maximilian, a flick of a cape transforms him from the devout priest to an evil Nazi.

"I perform solo because it creates an intimacy with the audience," he said.

In one recent performance of "The Gospel According to John," Defilippis caught the eyes of a priest in the audience when in the role of Christ he told Peter, "Feed my sheep."

"It had a profound effect on the priest, that it was Jesus looking him in the eyes and not letting him go," he said.

Next month, Defilippis will begin a tour with "The Confessions of St. Augustine," a project that was inspired by the pope's Augustinian message during his U.S. visit last year.

Saint Luke Productions is completing a drama on the life of St. John Vianney, the Cure of Ars, France, and one of the greatest confessors of all times. He had the gifts of healing and supernatural knowledge and transformed an entire parish when faith was suppressed after the French Revolution. The production will debut Aug. 4, the saint's feast and the 150th anniversary of his death.

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania. Visit www.stlukeproductions.com for more information.