Monk’s experience inspires ‘Catholic Young Adults: The Musical,’ returning to stage in summer

| Susan Klemond | February 18, 2020 | 0 Comments

Brother John-Marmion Villa stands outside the chapel at his religious community of the Brothers and Sisters of Charity in Berryville, Arkansas. PHOTOS COURTESY BROTHER JOHN-MARMION VILLA

Popular local musical planning a July 25-Aug. 8 return

Despite his best intentions, Brother John-Marmion Villa thought the contemporary Christian songs he had been writing felt artificial. But that changed last year, when he composed the score for a musical about Catholic young adults discerning their vocations, and he wrote from his heart and his experience. 

Drawing from memories of the long path to his current life as a monk in an Arkansas monastery — including discerning priesthood in the St. Paul Seminary and discerning a married vocation — the former NET Ministries worship leader said he found his voice as a composer while writing songs for the local playCatholic Young Adults: The Musical.   

I realized that the Lord hadn’t forsaken any of those things in my life, but in some mysterious, miraculous and wonderful way, those instances were kind of the basis for the songwriting activity,” said Brother Villa, 43, a member of the Brothers and Sisters of Charity in Berryville, Arkansas   

The musical, produced by Missed the Boat Theatre and performed in November in St. Paul, was written by his friend Father Kyle Kowalczyk, parochial administrator at St. Maximilian Kolbe in Delano. It featured a mostly young-adult cast and crew and also deals with infertility, dating, parish life and other issues Catholic young adults face.

Missed the Boat Theatre announced Feb. 18 that it is planning a second run of the show July 25-Aug. 8 at the Providence Academy Performing Arts Center in Plymouth. Brother Villa recently talked about his vocation and music, connecting with the musical’s characters and writing music as a monastic. 

Growing up with three siblings in Los Angeles, Brother Villa practiced the faith — and the piano. While in college he attended a retreat led by National Evangelization Teams (NET) Ministries, a West St. Paul-based youth and young adult ministry 

Brother John-Marmion Villa

He joined NET in 1999 and traveled for a year with a team. Then he worked in youth ministry at St. Paul in Ham Lake. In 2003, he entered St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, but he left before the temporary diaconate ordination.  

Although Brother Villa knew he needed to grow more, leaving the possibility of diocesan priesthood was crushing.

“It felt like the Lord was pulling the rug out under me,” he said. I didn’t really know what the next steps were. 

In 2009, Brother Villa joined the NET Ministries staff, where among other duties, he led worship training. He bought a house and started dating.  

He learned about the Brothers and Sisters of Charity, a community started by Christian singer John Michael Talbot, and he became a lay member sharing aspects of their life outside the monastery. 

In 2016, Brother Villa entered the monastery as a brother, where he helps with the facility and online store, and cares for monastery guests. He also runs lighting and sound at John Michael Talbot’s concerts 

On recording equipment he brought to the monastery, Brother Villa plays music and writes contemporary Christian songs in his free time at the monastery, but he hasn’t been satisfied with some of his music. 

More than a year ago, Father Kowalczyk asked him if he’d write the musical’s score. Initially reluctant, he agreed to try.  

Brother Villa’s creativity thrived in the monastery’s solitude.

Silence is fantastic but also terrifying,” he said. “You don’t have to deal with other people, but you have to deal with yourself. Sometimes the Lord will turn on interior heat. 

During the next 10 months he wrote 15 of the play’s 20 songs — his first musical for public performance.  

To get the vocal range for female parts in the play’s three duets, Brother Villa recorded the male voice and emailed it to women friends who recorded their voices.  

In writing, he sympathized with the play’s characters. The way the vocal lines are written expresses my own journey with vocational discernment,” he said.  

In the song, “Letting Go, Brother Villa recognized his own surrender of priesthood, family life, wounds, anxieties and insecurities.  

“I had my headphones on and the microphone in front of me, and I found myself weeping at what I think is the profundity of the song’s message,” he said. It’s connected at least in my life right now in the monastery.” 

In the process, Brother Villa found an answer to his prayer for unleashing of his songwriting gift. He felt more creative liberty to follow inspiration while letting go of control and expectations.  

Music is an expression of Brother Villa’s relationship with God, said John Flanagan, 47, a longtime friend and parishioner at St. Joseph in West St. Paul 

The musical seems to resonate with Brother Villa’s story. There are caricatures,” Flanagan said. It’s not his story but there are elements where he definitely would be speaking from his own heart.  

Brother Villa said he’d like to compose for another musical. This year, he plans to record an album with songs from the musical and other work 

Musicals are an artform largely untapped by Christians, he said. Future projects could be aimed at using the medium of art to elevate human experience into a higher realm, Brother Villa said: “Lifting sometimes difficult, depressing gutwrenching situations into the realm of heaven and trying to see them from God’s perspective and not ours. 

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