The New Evangelization: Saint ALIVELaurence Tiblis
On November 15, 125 high school sophomores from St. Hubert Catholic High School for Girls in Philadelphia visited The Miraculous Medal Shrine. The students expected to hear the story of how Our Lady appeared to St. Catherine Labouré to entrust her with the creation of the Miraculous Medal.
What they didn’t expect was to hear the story from St. Catherine herself—or rather, from Victoria Rose Bonito, a professional actress who portrays St. Catherine for Shrine visitors. These students were the first to witness the performance of St. Catherine Labouré, what the Shrine calls, “Saint ALIVE!”
Why a Live Action Saint?
As part of the New Evangelization, recent popes have asked all Catholics to enliven the faith in new ways-to cut through the noise of modern life and energize the faithful in their love of God and the Church.
Pope Francis recently acknowledged the power of the saints, saying to an audience on the Feast of All Saints, November 1, 2019: “The memory of the saints leads us to raise our eyes to Heaven, not to forget the realities of the earth, but to face them with more courage and with more hope.”
The Miraculous Medal’s very-own St. Catherine Labouré had been on the mind of Mary Jo Timlin-Hoag, Chief Executive Officer of the Central Association of the Miraculous Medal (CAMM), since joining CAMM in January 2018.
“We were having conversations about how we could bring the message of Our Lady and the promise of the Miraculous Medal to a younger generation. We discussed how young adults communicate today and discovered that two things resonate with them: short videos and first-person storytelling.”
The Shrine already creates popular videos for evangelization, and while effective, videos have become status quo. “Videos are everywhere and have been done many times over,” she says. “We’ll continue to produce lively, instructional videos, but we also want to break through with something new and far reaching.”
Consulting with Shrine Director Fr. Michael Carroll, CM, they looked to first-person storytelling. “From spending time at historical sites like Gettysburg and Independence Hall, where live actors recreate historical scenes, I know how inspirational a story is when told in first-person,” Timlin-Hoag says, without masking her excitement. “It becomes an interactive experience. We decided to do that at the Shrine to let people interact with the saint who brought us the Miraculous Medal.”
Would it be possible, Timlin-Hoag and Fr. Carroll wondered?
During the Miraculous Medal Feast Day Mass at the Shrine in November, the pews were filled with Miraculous Medal devotees and Vincentian Priests and Brothers. At the pulpit, Fr. Carroll welcomed a special guest, and from the right vestibule at the Shrine, St. Catherine Labouré appeared. Standing below the altar, the saint began speaking in her native French, transitioning into a French-accented English. With passion, she shared her experience of meeting Our Lady.
Bonito—embodying St. Catherine—recognized that most people at that Mass knew the Miraculous Medal story well. She wondered if this new approach to telling the story would even leave an impression.
The response was universal:
“You made me cry,” one attendee told her. “I won’t forget you.”
“You know Catherine,” another attendee told her. “You have her in your heart.”
This didn’t surprise Timlin-Hoag; rather, it reinforced the power of a first-person narrative. “The Vincentians know quite-well the story of St. Catherine and the Miraculous Medal, yet they reported afterward that hearing it from the saint herself put the story in a new perspective. They were mesmerized,” Timlin-Hoag says, “and that is exactly what we want.”
What does a “Saint Alive” do?
Each weekday, Bonito arrives at the Shrine as her normal self: a professional actress, talented writer, wife, mother, and a valued member of the Shrine team. However, moments later, donning an 18th century Daughter of Charity seminary* habit and adding a Parisian-peasant accent to her voice, she is no longer Victoria Rose Bonito, but St. Catherine Labouré (for more on Bonito, see the article below: “God Winks” ).
St. Catherine greets and welcomes Shrine visitors, introducing herself and offering to share her experience with Our Lady and the Miraculous Medal. She’s always busy escorting Shrine visitors, discussing important features of the sacred landmark, and answering questions.
The Shrine is a popular destination for pre-arranged group tours, pilgrimages, and retreats, and St. Catherine can act as each group’s tour guide. Adding depth to their experience, guests don’t just learn about the Shrine and the saint; they encounter St. Catherine and her simple, yet profound devotion to Our Lady.
What’s more, St. Catherine Labouré is on the move, traveling to parishes, schools, retreat centers, and retirement communities, to share her story far and wide. In this spirit, a one-woman play, called The Secret Saint: Catherine Labouré and the Miraculous Medal, is in development, relating the story of her childhood, youth, time in seminary (when she was visited by Our Lady), life as a Daughter of Charity, and the creation of the Miraculous Medal.
The versatility in how Victoria tells St. Catherine’s story is one of her greatest assets. “Victoria [Rose Bonito] can alter her performance to speak to any audience,” Timlin-Hoag notes, “whether it is kids, young adults, adults, or seniors.”
Faith Alive, One Person at a Time
Timlin-Hoag is more than pleased at how St. Catherine Labouré has been received. “The reaction to St. Catherine has been tremendous,” she says. “Victoria [Rose Bonito] has a way of portraying the saint that is realistic and pulls people into the story. People are drawn to the performance.”
Perhaps the greatest thrill for Timlin-Hoag is seeing the success of St. Catherine in engaging young people. “Today’s grade-school and high-school students aren’t known for having long attention spans, but they remain captivated by St. Catherine for her entire performance. They also jump at the chance to take ‘A Selfie with the Saint,’ which we didn’t plan; the young people asked for it.”
The “very little ones” (as Timlin-Hoag calls K-3rd graders) are, of course, wide-eyed at seeing the saint in her habit and hearing her French accent. “The very little ones ask St. Catherine the funniest questions,” Timlin-Hoag recalls, “like ‘Did you have a dog growing up?’ or ‘How many brothers and sisters did you have?’ It is very cute.”
Seniors, too, enjoy St. Catherine’s story and are sometimes surprised at her connection with the elderly. “Many people don’t know,” says Bonito, “that St. Catherine’s life as a Daughter of Charity was spent working in facilities that took care of impoverished and sick seniors, who were forgotten by society.”
Young, old or in-between, Timlin-Hoag knows that spreading devotion to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal is about reaching hearts, one person at a time. “St. Catherine may tell her story to groups at the Shrine, but each person in that group connects to the story for a different reason,” she says. “St. Catherine is reaching one person at a time, and that is the best way to share the Faith—heart-to-heart.”
*New members of the Daughters of Charity do not enter a “novitiate,” but rather, enter a formation program called “seminary.”
Actress and Writer Victoria Rose Bonito on portraying St. Catherine Labouré
As told by Victoria Rose Bonito
People often ask me what led me to take on the role of St. Catherine Labouré. I can only smile, and reply, “God winks.”
God winks because in His wisdom, He knows where He is leading us, even if we don’t recognize where the road is headed. I never imagined I’d be portraying St. Catherine Labouré, but now that I am, it is clear to me that I was being led to this role, at this time, and at this amazing Shrine.
The clues were everywhere. In eighth grade, I decided to take St. Joan of Arc as my personal patron saint. Since St. Joan was French, I decided to study French as my foreign language in school. Family and friends were dubious about my choice of foreign language, saying that I’d never use it in my life. I can only laugh now because St. Catherine Labouré spoke French, and knowing the language has been invaluable in researching the saint.
I had decided early on that I wanted to study acting and be a professional actress, however, God was directing me where to study. In high school, I saw a one woman show portraying the life of St. Theresa. I was moved to see a solo show about a saint, and I said to myself, “I want to do that one day.” I discovered that the actress studied at DeSales University, a Catholic institution, and my decision was made.
After years of study, I graduated from DeSales University with a bachelor’s degree in both theater and English (interestingly, St. Francis DeSales influenced St. Vincent de Paul, who founded the Daughters of Charity). After working as an actress in mostly Shakespearean productions, I earned a master’s degree in theater from Villanova University, an Augustinian university. Next, I taught undergraduates in DeSales’s and Villanova’s theater departments, while continuing to earn professional acting roles.
My life seemed set. I was married with two beautiful children and a solid acting and teaching career. However, God had different plans. My acting mentor heard that The Miraculous Medal Shrine was having auditions to hire a full-time actress to portray St. Catherine Labouré. I’ll admit, I knew about the Miraculous Medal, but I had never heard of St. Catherine Labouré. I was surprised to find that she was the vessel that Mary chose to give the world the Miraculous Medal, and I was instantly intrigued. Still, I had reservations, but my mentor encouraged me to audition, reminding me that I had nothing to lose.
As it turned out, I had everything to gain.I was among many actresses who auditioned, and when I was offered the role, I felt immense joy. Soon, I learned that there was no script for the role, and in addition to acting I was also expected to write the saint’s first-person narrative. It seems that my degree in English would be coming in handy. God winked again.
With passion, I dug into studying the saint’s life and soon realized that I was dealing with an inherent contradiction. You see, St. Catherine would have protested at having her own story told from her perspective. She was a humble French peasant, who never sought fame or notoriety. In fact, St. Catherine kept quiet about her apparitions of the Blessed Mother for forty-six years, telling only her confessor.
Yet, telling her story from her perspective is an effective tool in spreading devotion to the Miraculous Medal and its power. While St. Catherine was shy about calling attention to herself, we can be assured she would not mind hearts being enlivened with faith through her story.
What impresses me most about the Miraculous Medal story is that Mary chose St. Catherine, a lowly peasant girl who, at the time, could barely read (she did learn later in life), and entrusted her with a sacred mission. It reminds me that we are all called to be saints in our own lives, and that what God values in each of us is not what the world values. Our Lady saw something in St. Catherine that human eyes could not perceive, and she trusted her to carry out her mission..
That is one of the many things I love about St. Catherine Labouré—that even after being gifted these visits by Our Lady, she remained humble, kind, and devoted to her charitable work. In fact, she spent most of her life ministering to impoverished elderly men who the world had abandoned. She could have become an instant celebrity because of her apparitions; rather, she spent her life tending to the physical and spiritual wounds of the “least of these.”
When she was caring for these sick older men, it is recorded that she always asked them, “Do you have enough?” I think of that often because portraying St. Catherine Labouré is a great responsibility, and there are times when I’ve asked myself, “Do I have enough to do St. Catherine justice?”
Then I ask her in intercessory prayer to rid me of my doubt and share with me some of her strength and resolve.
I remind myself that I’m supposed to be here…that God winks…and we need to trust He’s leading us where He wants us to be.