In our increasingly secular world, one would not expect a religious conversion to necessarily be breaking news. Yet when actor Shia LaBeouf shared in an interview with Bishop Robert Barron that he had decided to enter the Catholic Church after his experience playing Padre Pio in an upcoming movie, the story made headlines from Fox News to the Today Show.
Opinions on the story abounded, with Catholic Twitter providing many representative examples. Many rejoiced at the news and prayed for his continued conversion of heart. Some were skeptical of the timing, with allegations of sexual assault by him coming out the same day. The fact that his conversion seems to have been inspired at least in part by a profound experience with the Traditional Latin Mass has predictably provoked both positive and negative reactions. (I should note, too, that all my knowledge of the story has come from the surrounding commentary – I haven’t seen the interview itself, for reasons I’ll make clear below.)
The story has garnered many responses. But should it? Should we pay more attention to someone’s conversion simply because he was in the Transformers movies? Thousands of people enter into the Church every year.
As a former RCIA director, I’ve witnessed many myself: the woman who had attended Mass with her husband for 30 years before suddenly being convicted to enter full communion; the woman seeking Confirmation who, it turns out, had been a Cuban refugee as a child, and at last wanted to embrace the faith that carried her parents through Communist oppression; or the 99-year-old man who has been curious about Catholicism since he was a teenager, and wanted to enter the Church before he turned 100.
Perhaps we are drawn to stories of celebrity conversion because they seem somehow more incredible. The fact that a person who would seem to have everything the world could offer – money, fame, the ability to live a lifestyle of one’s choosing – yet still be intrigued or enchanted by what the Catholic faith offers might bolster our convictions: that there really is more to life than riches and renown, and that our hearts really our restless until they rest in God.
Yet there is also a danger here. In a 2019 meeting with Jesuits in Mozambique, Pope Francis warned about receiving converts in a “triumphant way,” as though we were “showing off a hunting trophy.” While the pope said this in relation to a general proselytizing attitude, the point is even stronger in this case. Celebrity conversions can be appealing to us for the attention they garner. In other words, we’re excited for the celebrity, not the conversion.
Shining a spotlight on a recent convert also is not likely to be conducive to that person’s spiritual health. Thrusting someone into the role of de facto public representative of the faith in the midst of a profound life change adds an unnecessary element of attention and pressure to a pivotal time in their lives. (This is all the more true in a case like this, as LaBeouf has shared he is still battling serious mental health challenges.) It is not a move that benefits the convert, but is an unsavory form of riding their coattails. Jumping on someone’s back in this way can only weigh them down.
We should pray daily for people to enter the Church, and we should pray equally fervently for those that do – that the good work that has begun in their lives may be brought to completion. Whether it is Bill or Susie at your local parish or the co-star of an Indiana Jones film, both deserve our prayer, our support, and our consideration for their needs. In this case, what LaBeouf likely most needs is space. Let’s give it to him.
Image: Public Domain (Department of Defense photo by Marvin Lynchard).
Nicholas Senz is a husband and father, and Pastoral Associate at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Fishers, IN. He received a B.A. in Communication Studies (Journalism track) from the University of Portland, and an M.A. in Philosophy and M.A. in Theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA. Nicholas served as a Master Catechist in California. He has taught faith formation and catechist training courses in parishes across the country, and has taught philosophy and religion at the community college level. He has also been published in several Catholic websites and periodicals, including Aleteia, Catholic Digest, Catholic Herald (UK), Catholic World Report, and Homiletic and Pastoral Review. Nicholas lives in Indiana with his wife and three children.