Last week, Bishop Robert Barron released a video interview with Hollywood actor Shia LaBeouf, who recently embraced the Catholic faith. Their wide-ranging conversation enthralled me. LaBeouf plays Padre Pio in a forthcoming film, and the immersive preparations for the role of the saint led to a profound conversion for the troubled actor. In his conversation with Bishop Barron, he told the dramatic story of his life, from personal failings and controversy to what he calls “his salvific journey.” For me, the brutally authentic exchange was a happy break from the faux dialogue in so much of the Church lately.
LaBeouf speaks with raw, unassuming language about the transforming grace of conversion. His experience is both extraordinary and ordinary: extraordinary because his story—of experiencing the love of Christ through others while a suicidal “exile”—is dramatic; ordinary because he simply submitted to the grace available to each of us. His words are peppered with unintended humor (“I don’t know the dismount prayers to the rosary” or “Pio is like Elvis, in the best way”), and yet the insights he expresses are similar to those of the great spiritual writers. He notes how several priests, sisters, and brothers ate with him, laughed with him, and taught him the faith: “They weren’t trying to sell me anything.” His story is also a powerful witness to the power of reading the Gospels, where he encountered a Jesus who was meek but not weak, a Jesus who modeled authentic masculinity. I hope the Church is listening.
At a time when so many Church discussions are about competing ecclesiologies, I found it refreshing that LaBeouf seems blissfully unaware of the civil war that is raging within the Church. He has no prior connection to the structures of the Church, and so his relationship with the Church is spiritual and personal—one might even say mystical—not institutional, and his faith is primarily about a relationship with God.
This is also true when it comes to LaBeouf’s comments on liturgy. LaBeouf’s critique of the common expression of the Novus Ordo and his attraction to “the Latin Mass” (by which he seems to mean the extraordinary form), has garnered a disproportionate amount of attention. But refreshingly, LaBeouf does not engage in the liturgy wars, but rather simply explains why he personally is drawn to the old Mass (disclaimer: I personally prefer the Novus Ordo and am not a regular TLM-goer). The Holy Father has been critical of those who attend the old Mass as a way of rejecting Vatican II. But LaBeouf has no connection to the pre-conciliar Mass. In fact, he had literally no experience with the Mass or the Church prior to his study of Padre Pio in preparation for the film.
Rather, the actor is drawn to the old Mass because of its intrinsic merits. It was a major path to his conversion due to the mystery it conveys. When he goes to a beautiful liturgy, he tells Bishop Barron, “it feels as if a profound secret is being shared.” He speaks about the role that “emotion” played in connecting him to the beauty of the faith as expressed in the Mass said by Padre Pio. The old Mass moved LaBeouf “from belief to connection.” Indeed, it is in the Mass that the realities of our faith take form and matter.
By “emotion” or “feelings,” I do not think LaBeouf means emotivism, which is a deadly hallmark of our time, but rather heart speaking to heart. In the Mass, heaven comes down to earth—and this reality reaches into the heart. I suspect few Catholics experience this aspect of the Mass on a regular basis, but it is important.
Whether or not LaBeouf is aware of the liturgical war being waged from the Vatican, he gets why transcendent beauty matters. Beauty invites the soul into the mystery of the Triune God. The irony in all of this is that Cardinal Roche (prefect for the Dicastery for Divine Worship) and his entourage want to attract outsiders to Mass through an imposed conformity to the Novus Ordo, which is often celebrated in a less than sublime way. LaBeouf’s story of conversion suggests there are flaws in this strategy.
The actor says that “Padre Pio saved my life.” And as Bishop Barron rightly observes, no doubt Padre Pio was actively involved in LaBeouf’s spiritual journey. God’s beautiful providence in the actor’s life is a reason for all of us to hope that grace can be found at unexpected times in our lives. The Church would do well to listen to LaBeouf and how the Holy Spirit moved in his life. His story gets to the heart of the matter.
The above comes from a Sept. 6 story in First Things by Jayd Henricks, former executive director of government relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.