Portraying saint a chance to share message of God's mercy, says actress
By Joanne Fox
Catholic News Service
(CNS photo/courtesy of St. Luke Productions)
SIOUX CITY, Iowa (CNS) -- Besides the challenge of portraying St. Faustina, actress Maria Vargo said she also was drawn to the role by the opportunity to share "the message of God's mercy for every soul."
"I have had a devotion to Divine Mercy and have been praying the chaplet of Divine Mercy for a long time," Vargo explained. "I have experienced and continue to experience God's mercy personally and I understand the great gift that it is."
Vargo travels the country portraying St. Faustina in a multimedia drama, "Faustina: Messenger of Divine Mercy." The saint had a special devotion to God's divine mercy. The chaplet is a series of prayers focusing on the gifts of his mercy, especially shown through the passion of Christ.
Vargo was in Sioux City in mid-March to perform the one-woman drama, which is directed by Leonardo Defilippis of St. Luke Productions, based in Battle Ground, Wash.
St. Faustina was born Helena Kowalska in 1905 to a large peasant family in Poland. After a vision from Jesus encouraged her to become a nun, the young woman entered the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy. She took Maria Faustina as her religious name and spent the rest of her life doing menial labor at the convent.
In 1930, Sister Faustina began having mystical visions. Jesus appeared to her in a white garment, with rays of white and red light emanating near his heart. He asked her to paint his image with the message, "Jesus, I trust in you." That was the beginning of a mission that turned into a devotion for the church -- the Divine Mercy.
Sister Faustina kept a diary of her visions until her death from tuberculosis in 1938.
Blessed John Paul II beatified her in 1993 and canonized her in 2000. He also made Divine Mercy Sunday a church-wide feast day to be celebrated the Sunday after Easter. The late pope, along with Blessed John XXIII, will soon be canonized himself -- on Divine Mercy Sunday, which this year is April 27.
Vargo, a Hollywood-based actress, researched the part of St. Faustina for the St. Luke production.
"I was surprised to learn that Sister Faustina was a joyful person, a great storyteller, and that people were drawn to her," she told The Catholic Globe, newspaper of the Diocese of Sioux City. "She was fearless and not afraid to speak the truth to others. She had a lot of determination and spunk!
"The way she spoke to Jesus was so intimate and affectionate, but also courageous and free. She never minced words with him, asking him for mercy for even the most hardened."
Vargo spent a week living with the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy in Dorchester, Mass., in preparation for the role.
"Several of the sisters I stayed with were Polish, so I got a real feel for that culture," she said, but "apart from just a few words" she doesn't speak Polish like the saint.
"I am meeting so many Polish-American communities on tour. They are so hospitable, and they love their three modern saints -- the holy triangle of Faustina, John Paul II, and Maximilian Kolbe -- so much."
Prior to taking on this role, Vargo characterized herself as an active Catholic, attending Mass regularly. But now she has "a much deeper understanding of sacrifice," she said. "I think that comes from the hard work involved in presenting this drama night after night in different locations."
Vargo said she always believed prayer could change the world. "But portraying Sister Faustina has taught me that everything we do in life is a prayer, and that sacrifice has great meaning in the eyes of the Lord, especially in union with praying the chaplet," she said, referring to the Divine Mercy chaplet.
Performing the life of a saint has its challenges, she admitted. "Portraying a saint and a real person who had so many holy characteristics" means having "to always remember that I need to be prayerful as I pour myself into this role," she said.
Another challenge, Vargo continued, is taking the message she is portrays on stage and keeps in her heart "off stage."
"I realize that all of us are called to holiness, and that it is only through humility and love of God and neighbor that we can achieve our goal of closeness to God." With those challenges comes great satisfaction, Vargo noted.
"The greatest joy is that I get the chance to bring St. Faustina -- an amazing woman who loved the Lord so much -- alive and face-to-face to audiences," she said. "She is such a friend to us -- not a plaster, holier-than-thou statue. She was a normal person of our modern times, who experienced the same temptations we do, yet through the darkness she trusted in Jesus."
For Vargo, the experience of traveling the country and bringing this message of the power of God's mercy to an age and culture in need of it has gone beyond what she ever imagined.
"I feel so humbled by the way God is using the talents he has given me," she said. "I love performing and it is a joy to be playing a role in which I wholeheartedly believe every word that I speak."
- Fox is managing editor of The Catholic Globe, newspaper of the Diocese of Sioux City.