Much has been made in recent weeks of actor Shia LaBeouf’s reported conversion to Roman Catholicism. To label Mr. LeBeouf, who was reared in a household he has characterized as “hippie Jewish,” a true convert to the ways of the Church of Rome may be premature. Time will tell whether the actor, a self-described “unintellectual feeler,” truly ascents to the Church’s well-defined moral codes or is primarily attracted to its aesthetics. As the latest in a long line of Hollywood bad boys to encumber his life through misbehaviors both legal and domestic, however, he certainly qualifies as a Prodigal Son for our times, perfectly suited to the nation’s fractured and fractious religio-political culture and the clamoring of its louder voices for soundbite saints of one kind or another.
Catholic social media outlets were the first to capitalize on LaBeouf’s new-found religious fervor, which came to light in late-August by way of reporting on the Fox network. A lengthy interview with Bishop Robert Barron, founder of the popular Word on Fire Ministries, soon followed, during which the actor related how he’d come to appreciate the beauty of the Mass while preparing to play Padre Pio in a soon-to-be-released biopic on the 20th-century Catholic mystic and saint. “The Mass is an immersive experience,” LaBeouf suggests in his breezy back-and-forth with Barron—just the kind of sacred drama, presumably, in which an actor acknowledged for his visceral instincts might find interest.
It was, of course, the so-called “Tridentine” or “Latin Mass” of the pre-Vatican II Church that Padre Pio himself, who died in 1968, would have prayed, a rite suffused with the pageantry of grand opera dating from the 16th century. Bearded and dressed in an oversized hoodie that together lend him a vaguely “monastic” appearance, LeBeouf proceeds early in his exchange with Barron to identify the ways in which the older, more “traditional” rite is superior to the pared-down vernacular liturgy that Catholics nearly universally experience in their parishes today. For a self-described “street tough,” with no formal training either in his own art nor in the ritual practices of the Church, LaBeouf displays remarkably little hesitancy in denouncing the reform-minded bishops of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) as bureaucratic rule-makers intent on “activating” the laity at prayer by robbing priests of their ceremonial “agency.”
Exactly what “agency” LaBeouf seeks to return to the Catholic clergy by means of a pre-Vatican II Mass in Latin or any other language is unclear, given the antiquity of the Church’s teaching that only through the graciousness of the Holy Spirit, in fact, working on behalf of the entire People of God, is any priestly action accomplished. Frankly, one senses that in tone and content his pronouncements may have been cribbed from some of the more outspoken members of Hollywood’s fringe group of traditionalist Catholics with whom he confesses close friendship. Among the latter, apparently, is the sedevacantist Mel Gibson, a Latin Mass enthusiast openly critical of Pope Francis and of any representative of the Deep State-like “parallel, counterfeit church” he imagines as conspiring to debase the whole of Catholic Christianity by debasing its worship.
Though never explaining precisely why, LaBeouf compares the modern Mass of “guitars and stuff” as something akin to “being sold a car,” by which he apparently judges it deficient in the area of “mystery.” “A really good Mass,” according to actor, “[should seem] like a secret being shared with you,”—presumably by a clergy charged with preserving its cultic quality.
Clearly hoping to nuance LaBeouf’s off-the-cuff comments on liturgy without coming off as pedantic, Bishop Barron is quick to note that the Church itself, through its decades-long efforts at liturgical reform, admits that the clergy-centered “theatricality” of a Mass inherited from the Baroque Era reduced its lay participants to the role of mute spectators. Yet Barron himself, who finds at least in the incense-induced “mystique” of an older Mass-form something praiseworthy, likewise assesses any mode of worship that is “wide open to view and under bright light” to be, “by definition,” lacking in sanctity (emphasis mine).
As a distinguished theologian, historian, and bishop of the Church, however, Barron must certainly recognize the caution with which any attempt on the part of Christians at distinguishing between the “sacred” and the “profane” must proceed. Nothing less than the reality of the Incarnation makes this so. Should all the art and artifice of the Church’s accumulated means of evoking the mysterious be stripped away, no matter how outwardly alluring, there would still remain at its center the bright-as-midday Mystery of infinitely greater proportions embodied in the person of Jesus, “Sun of justice” (Malachi 4:2), a divinity, Scripture tells us, unrestricted to temple-dwelling or to ministering remotely to those he comes to save. As a student of Vatican II and gifted exploiter of modern mass-media for the purposes of evangelization, Barron must also appreciate the council’s reasons for wishing to relieve sacred liturgy of those historical accretions that had rendered its form and meaning “far from clear to the people to today” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 62).
Nevertheless, one assumes it was only for the most pastoral reasons that the bishop chose to use the vast reach of his media ministry to bring to light—with little visible editing—Mr. LaBeouf’s admittedly colorful conversion story. There are times in the interview when LaBeouf’s “street toughness” lapses into modestly-offensive street language, as when the actor, forgetting his company and audience characterizes as “douchey” the behaviors of some in the filmmaking business.
Decidedly more offensive to many, however, may be the way in which Barron’s well-meaning interview video has been subsequently dispersed in snippet form by one right-leaning Catholic news source or another eager to appropriate its contents to their cause. Predictably, one of the first to seize upon its element of Novus Ordo-bashing as a way of demonstrating the inherent supremacy of the Latin Mass Rite was Taylor Marshall, a convert to Catholicism himself and flagrant denouncer of Pope Francis, who’s made something of a cottage industry out of promoting a parallel Church of his own, entirely dismissive of the bishops of Vatican II, let alone of their prescriptions for worship. “Can you imagine the ‘Kumbaya Mass’ having attracted LaBeouf to the faith?” he asks his followers with a smirk in one video, revealing an astonishing lack of familiarity with the musical dimension of the Eucharist as it is currently celebrated within the larger Church of everyday Catholics from which he absents himself.
A “pearl of great price,” comparable to the one described in Matthew 13: 45-46, is how John A. Monaco, writing for Crisis magazine, defines the exotic-seeming ritual that spurred LaBeouf to spiritual transformation. Monaco stresses that LaBeouf’s interest in Catholicism was a result of his experience with the Church’s traditional liturgy and apparently involved no “pastoral program” or “bishops’ conference initiative,” presumably like those on which the Order of Christian Initiation of Adults (OCIA) is built. (Details on this matter are sketchy, though it appears that the actor was dispensed from the fulfilling the requirements of the catechumenate to which prospective Catholics of lesser celebrity normally adhere.) An even sharper tone is taken in One Peter Five, a website explicitly devoted to the reassembling of “Christendom”—or at least of some contemporary version of the Latin Church sufficiently Latinate in its approach to prayer. Its editor T.S. Flanders offers Mr. LaBeouf as a figurehead for the “traditionalist movement” that is afoot in certain corners of the Church today that aims at reviving what is described as “the primacy of adoration in the liturgy.” In the National Catholic Register, the Catholic faithful learn that there are no fewer than nine lessons to be drawn from the LaBeouf story, one clearly being how uninspiring the actor has found the Vatican II liturgy as compared to the Tridentine, whose words he claims not even to understand.
“We could attract countless others to the faith of Mr. LaBeouf’s age-group and temperament,” seems to be the underlying trust of such commentary – if only the Latin Mass were restored to its place of primacy within the liturgical life of the Church. Such thinking, however, dismisses the experiences of those millions of catechumens throughout this country, at least, who are in no way disappointed to have found Christ himself in parish settings where sacred worship, music, art and architecture more in keeping with the aspirations of Vatican II are celebrated. To be sure, people become Catholic for all sorts of reasons. Certainly some young people and others find in the Latin Mass reason enough to pursue membership in the Catholic Church. The great majority, however – unaware even of the extent of the squabbling that persists among those engaged in the Church’s interior “liturgy wars” – are not moved to join its ranks on the grounds of its age or beauty, but precisely because of its expressed willingness to align itself with the “joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the [people] of this age” (Gaudiam et Spes 1). Rightly, then, the whole of this vast, complex, and diversified Church of ours should rejoice at Shia LaBeouf’s entry into our fold by way of his unique introduction to the Mass in Latin—but no less at the “Catholicizing” of those many others happy to glorify God in the language of their birth.
 Sedevacantism (from the Latin sede vacante, meaning “the chair is vacant”) is the notion, held by a minority of radical traditionalists, that there is currently no valid pope. Typically, they believe that the Second Vatican Council and all the popes since the election of St. John XXIII in 1958 have been illegitimate (usually based upon the idea that they are some combination of freemasons, communist infiltrators, or modernist heretics). They also typically reject the sacramental validity of the reformed liturgical rites. Mel Gibson’s father, Hutton Gibson, who died in 2020 at the age of 101, was one of the earliest and most prominent advocates of sedevacantism.
 Formerly known as the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA), the US bishops recently voted to change the English translation of the Latin name. (Source: https://catholicphilly.com/2021/11/news/national-news/bishops-ok-updated-rcia-norms-now-called-ocia/)
Image by Brent humanartistvendingmachine. Flickr. License: Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0).
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Michael E. DeSanctis, Ph.D., is retired professor of fine arts and theology at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Building from Belief: Advance, Retreat and Compromise in the Remaking of Catholic Church Architecture (Liturgical Press, 2002) and Renewing the City of God: Catholic Architectural Reform in the United States (Liturgy Training Publications, 1994). He also has an article soon to appear in the October 2022 issue of Worship journal entitled, "An Architecture of Pardon and Consolation," which examines new and reconfigured place of Catholic worship that embody the theology underlying Pope Francis's 2016 "Year of Mercy."