Play about Bl. Seelos hopes to further his cause
Personal sufferings, disappointments and a strong prayer life gave Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos an uncanny ability to identify with fellow Catholics as they confessed their troubles.
That came across Nov. 18 in the play, “Seelos: Doctor of Souls,” written and performed by local actor Casey Groves at St. Mary’s Assumption Church, home of Blessed Seelos’ national shrine.
“I believe certain people have an ability to connect to God and connect to God’s power that other people don’t have,” he said. “I think clearly he (Seelos) had an intense sensitivity, a compassion to understand people’s suffering and a very powerful prayer life which allows him to intercede to God for others.”
Groves immediately sets the tone of Seelos’ healing ministry through the voices of real people claiming healing through Seelos’ intercession to God. These same voices return at play’s end with prayers of thanksgiving for his works.
“The intercessory prayers of the people needing help are calling Father Seelos to the church so he can share his story with us,” Groves said.
Inspired to write play
Groves’ parents suggested he write a play about Blessed Seelos, in part, because of his portrayal of another, recently canonized Catholic priest – Father Damien – who cared for lepers in Hawaii.
As he researched Father Seelos’ life, he learned of New Orleanians’ strong devotion to him and was intrigued enough to submit a formal proposal to write a play in January 2011 to Father Byron Miller, vice postulator for Seelos’ sainthood cause. Shortly after, he was commissioned by the Seelos Center.
Groves spent 1 1/2 years writing “Seelos” and getting feedback from Father Miller, a consultant and collaborator, who encouraged him to read “The Cheerful Ascetic.” Others suggested he read “The Cumberland Years,” a book detailing Blessed Seelos’ days living in Cumberland.
“There were a lot of drafts,” he said. “It wasn’t always easy.”
Groves also took cues on the play’s form from “Syringa Tree,” a play in New York where the lone actress played multiple characters. In “Seelos,” he performs 28 characters and uses only a chair, a suitcase and its contents as props.
The result is the journey of Blessed Seelos’ priesthood, intertwined with the seven sacraments and humor, something Father Miller insisted upon. Accounts where Blessed Seelos’ intercessory prayers prompted recovery from illness are retold, including that of Simon Sell, who fell from scaffolding but survived.
Sell’s great granddaughter approached Groves after a performance of the play in Pittsburgh and told him, “If Father Seelos had not healed Simon Sell, I would not be here. My grandfather was born after the healing.”
Seeks meaningful life
Groves is fortunate to meld his master’s degrees in religion and fine arts (acting and playwriting) in his career.
“I try to do meaningful work as an artist and actor. This is very meaningful to me – both Damien and Blessed Seelos.”
Groves had performed Damien in high school and hadn’t really given it a second thought until 2000 when he noticed actors in New York exploring spiritual themes. He reread the Damien script and was so moved, he knew he had to bring it to life. He pitched the idea to a nun with a devotion to Father Damien who happened to be artistic director at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in New York. She offered free space at the church – which doubled as an off-Broadway theater – for two weeks. Groves has since performed the play more than 150 times, including in Hawaii after Father Damien’s canonization.
Walking in Father Damien’s shoes stirred a social justice vein in Groves. While teaching acting/theater at St. Peter’s College in New Jersey he wrote “Excavating Katrina,” a play exploring themes of racism and loss surrounding Hurricane Katrina; and a play about the bombing of Nagasaki in the Catholic district of that town.
“Doing the play about St. Damien helped me to become more conscious of sufferings in the world and what you can do to alleviate them, and people being ostracized and separated.”
Reflecting on his attraction to portraying saintly people – he has also performed in a play about St. Thérèse de Lisieux – Groves thinks he’s seeking the powerful sense of solitude he experienced backstage performing Damien at De La Salle.
“It was very meditative moment,” he said. “It was like this kind of darkness; this really rich, silent space. Doing that play was a very powerful experience for me. Getting a master’s degree in religion, I had no intention of being a priest, but maybe trying to reconnect to that experience of being Damien. I was trying to enrich (my faith) and bring it together with my interest in theatre. It’s powerful to take on these characters and mix those two things.”
Groves admires Blessed Seelos.
“It’s beautiful how he could really hear people with compassion,” Groves said of Blessed Seelos. “I think in some ways it (his own sufferings) helped him hear others’ sufferings – their physical sufferings, their soul ailments and to be able to find a way to bring that to God who really is doing the healing.”
A theater near you
Groves thinks 2013 is a perfect time to launch “Seelos,” considering the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops named him a person to emulate during the “Year of Faith.” He anticipates launching a tour during Lent. Early preview performances in New York, Pittsburgh and Annapolis, Md., where Blessed Seelos served as a priest, garnered attention.
“I want to perform it all over the place,” he said. “Father Byron wants me to perform it 150 times or more like I did with Damien to get the word of Father Seelos’ life out there.”
Groves thinks audiences will identify with Father Seelos’ life, especially his challenges.
“My hope and goal was – through the course of the play – some intercessory healing would happen for everyone watching,” he said.