Shia LaBeouf Finds the Pearl of Great Price

LaBeouf’s attraction to Catholicism came from his immersion into the Church’s life. No pastoral program, no bishops’ conference initiative, no academic monograph “sold” him the Faith.

By now, most Catholics plugged into the Internet have already heard news of the actor Shia LaBeouf and his journey to Catholicism, which followed from his preparation for filming Padre Pio (2022) as the titular character. The Catholic corner of the Internet became aflame with passionate discourse over his interview with Bishop Robert Barron, in which LaBeouf mentions why the traditional Latin Mass affects him deeply

Proponents of the Latin Mass rejoiced that LaBeouf was speaking truth to power, as he, in surprisingly technical yet unpolished language, described what most of us have been trying to convey to Church leaders for years—the traditional Latin Mass is a pearl of great price, and it should be known, loved, and embraced by the Church. Of course, his interview—and particularly his analogy of the Novus Ordo as akin to trying to sell him a car—set off a firestorm on the Catholic blogosphere, with the usual suspects chiding LaBeouf for his “contemptuous caricature” of the usus recentior and those in the highest levels of the Church expressing bafflement at his comments.

What is behind LaBeouf’s attraction to the traditional Latin Mass? Certainly, he has been as much of an “outsider” as anyone, as an agnostic celebrity, who was fully immersed in his own fame, scandals, and messiness. So, from the start, we can acknowledge that his appreciation of the traditional Roman Rite is not rooted in an ideological, “inside baseball” Church debate. His introduction to the Latin Mass was, in part, required for his portrayal of Padre Pio. 

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Instead, it seems that he stumbled upon the usus antiquor, an interruption into his normal routine of life that required him to stop in his tracks, pause, and reflect on higher things. One would assume that, despite his non-Catholic upbringing, LaBeouf has witnessed—or at least had a vague familiarity—with the Catholic Mass, if for no other occasion than attending weddings or funerals for his friends. It is worth asking why a man so deeply saturated in the secular, Hollywood lifestyle would possibly find the Latin Mass attractive. After all, was it not the claim of the liturgical reformers that the Latin Mass needed to be disassembled in order for the Church to reach “modern man”?

Well, modern man has spoken. Free from the intellectual and professional commitments required by “expert” liturgists, LaBeouf can speak as a simple observer, one who does not feel the need to show loyalty to the Party. He has acknowledged his past sins, his brokenness, and his need for repentance. And yet, in the darkness, he was able to witness the light; in his ugliness, he was able to recognize beauty. 

Here, LaBeouf’s car salesman analogy is important. “[The] Latin Mass affects me deeply,” he tells Bishop Barron. When Barron asks why, LaBeouf responds, “Because it feels like they’re not selling me a car…. When somebody’s selling me on something, it kills my aptitude for it, and my suspension of disbelief, and my yearnings to root for it. There’s an immediate rebellion in me.” 

No matter how many times the expert car salesman keeps trying to push the product, modern man instinctively cringes. The pushiness and repeated explanations on why it is necessary does little to water the garden of the soul. Truth, goodness, and beauty speak for themselves and do not require a lengthy rationale or even re-education camps.

Elsewhere in the interview, LaBeouf mentions important moments in his turn to Catholicism, including being welcomed by the Capuchin friars as he prepared to get into the role of Padre Pio, reading the Gospel of Matthew, praying the Rosary, receiving catechesis from priests and nuns, attending Mass, praying in silence before the Blessed Sacrament, and even having meals in common. To his credit, Barron is an excellent interviewer, asking pointed questions and giving plenty of space for LaBeouf to expound on his new experiences. 

LaBeouf even mentions reading about the life of the Capuchin brother Jim Townsend, who lived a life of crime as a young boy and even murdered his wife, who was pregnant with their unborn child. During his time in prison, Townsend encountered a Catholic priest who encouraged him to make a confession. Townsend later became a secular Franciscan, before joining the Capuchins following his release from prison. LaBeouf mentions Townsend several times during the interview, and he clearly sees the message of mercy and repentance that Catholicism offers.

It is worth noting that LaBeouf’s attraction to Catholicism came from his immersion into the Church’s life. No pastoral program, no bishops’ conference initiative, no academic monograph “sold” him the Faith. He entered not only into the Church’s “matter” (becoming a member of the Body of Christ) but also into her “form” (community, traditional devotions, orthodox catechesis). The liturgy speaks for itself and forms the adherent’s personality by virtue of its essence, which cannot be understood properly apart from its incarnational form. 

According to LaBeouf, after attending the traditional Latin Mass in Oakland, California, he felt as if someone was letting him in on a “profound secret.” In an age where the Vatican demands that Latin Masses should not be published in the parish bulletin, the Latin Mass is indeed a secret. Like the saint he is portraying on screen, LaBeouf will also know the reality that, even when one possesses the truth—such as Pio’s miracle of the stigmata—the Church hierarchy will not cease to deny or suppress it. Even when faced with undeniable beauty, ecclesiastical superiors can still suffer from envy.

It seems as if LaBeouf has found the pearl of great price, the one that, when found, inspires one to sell everything one owns to buy it (Matthew 13:45-46). While Barron’s reception to his comments were polite, one can imagine the way LaBeouf’s love for traditional Catholicism would have been received by less-favorable prelates, some of whom liken the love of the traditional Latin Mass with a turn to Protestantism

Truly, this celebrity actor is like the children proclaiming “Hosanna!” to Our Lord as he entered Jerusalem’s temple courts, and the institutional liturgists are like those inflexible chief priests. When they ask Jesus if He is hearing what the children are saying, Our Lord responds in the affirmative, quoting Psalm 8:2: “From the lips of children and infants you, Lord, have called forth your praise” (Matthew 21:12-16). It seems as if Padre Pio has adopted Shia LaBeouf as his spiritual child, guiding him to make the remainder of his life an act of oblation, reparation, and praise to the Lord.

Of course, Catholics should not make too much of LaBeouf’s interview with Bishop Barron, as if he is now our token representative. LaBeouf’s conversion will prove its sincerity only with time, and there is no need to place him on a privileged seat of honor, which can be dangerous for new converts. But that said, there is nothing wrong with feeling joy and excitement that a notorious sinner and former Hollywood elite has expressed his desire to become Catholic. That is a natural and expected response. But now that the pearl has been found, it is worth asking, “What’s next?” 

Moreover, if Church hierarchs are truly genuine in their desire for a “listening Church,” for “accompaniment,” “walking together,” and “reading the signs of the times,” how can they afford to ignore a repentant sinner who is willing to sell everything for the Mass he loves?

[Image Credit: Bishop Robert Barron YouTube Channel screenshot]

  • John A. Monaco

    John A. Monaco is a doctoral student in theology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA, and a Visiting Scholar with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville.

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