Bishop Barron has long argued that the New Evangelization should lead with beauty. The secularized mind recoils at the proclamation of “the truth” and instinctually distrusts the motives of any “good-doing.” Yet beauty possesses the unique capacity to invite beholders into a new way of seeing, and thus a new way of being, without the threat of sophistry or manipulation. Indeed, that’s the beauty of beauty. Like laughter at an unexpected punchline, the authentically beautiful elicits an involuntary response, one that both softens the heart and reinvigorates the imagination. It can lead to metanoia, to a full conversion.
Exhibit A of the power of beauty to induce moral and spiritual transformation is film star Shia LaBeouf. Known for his keen, often intense performances on screen and for his sometimes-erratic behavior off screen, LaBeouf recently sat down for an episode of Bishop Barron Presents to share how his most recent project, a film about the beloved Catholic saint and mystic Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, unexpectedly redirected his life. LaBeouf plays the titular character, Padre Pio, a role he first accepted, he confesses, in hopes of salvaging his career, which had been derailed by scandalous rumors. LaBeouf knew little about Catholicism prior to the film and had no interest in learning beyond what was necessary to play the part. His intellectual interests at the time were in new atheists Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, not in Church doctrines or biographies of the saints. But then grace interrupted LaBeouf’s ambitions and, he says, saved his life.
LaBeouf describes himself as a “street tuff” who makes his way, personally and professionally, by being a “feeler.” Once he began studying Pio, he immediately grasped that he was encountering what he calls a “professional feeler,” a man who was able to bond with others not through “spitting profundities” but by exhibiting intense emotion, especially during Mass. In fact, watching videos of Pio saying Mass, LaBeouf says, made him feel like he was being let in on a secret, even though—and partly because—he couldn’t understand Latin. This experience took him out of the realm of the intellectual and, in his words, squarely into the realm of feeling, beauty, and a connection with the sacred.
It is evident in the interview that these are not merely the casual musings of an intelligent man of the arts. LaBeouf is literally talking about life and death. By his own account, he was going through hell when he accepted this part. His life was “on fire”; he was “nuclear,” and everyone—including his mother—had stopped calling. He had hurt many people and was experiencing deep shame and guilt. He no longer wanted to live. He “had the gun on the table.” Yet it was precisely this experience, LaBeouf says, that prepared him to play Padre Pio, even though he didn’t recognize it at the time. Amid his own suffering, he found a corridor into Padre Pio’s suffering and, from there, to a revolutionary spiritual insight: he was not in charge. This realization was a watershed moment in what LaBeouf calls his “salvific journey,” a journey that also led him to befriend, and be befriended by, several friars at a Capuchin (the same order as Padre Pio) seminary in San Lorenzo, California. One of these friars introduced him to the Gospels, and it was there, reading the words of Christ, that the path out of hell finally became clear. “If I could wrap up what I got out of the Gospels in two words,” he says, “it is: let go.”
To listen to LaBeouf narrate the impossibly coincidental storylines that led to his conversion—to see how a leading man of Hollywood could fall from the secular heights into a state of total rejection and then remerge as an inspirationally articulate, palpably authentic devotee of St. Padre Pio—is not only to witness transformative grace in action. It is also to be reminded of Catholicism’s fundamental fact, a fact that distinguishes it from all other religions and even from other Christian denominations: God is incarnate—not just in the past at the beginning of time as a metaphysical causal principle, and not just 2,000 years ago in the person of Jesus Christ. God is incarnate now, accessible, with those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, in the flesh. To be sure, the supernatural exists before nature and after nature and is the condition for the possibility of nature. But it is also in nature. Right now. And not in some generically placid sense like “God is in the stillness of a starry winter night,” though that’s fine as far as it goes. God is also specifically incarnate in the holy Mass and in the source and summit of the Mass (and the entire Christian faith), the Eucharist.
If there is one recent saint who embodies this radically corporeal spirituality, it is Padre Pio. He bled with the stigmata, the wounds of Christ. He engaged in physical battle with demons. He sweat and trembled and wept during Mass. Self-satisfied eyes may look upon this man and scoff, “Superstition!” But suffering eyes see something different; suffering eyes see the wincing pain in Padre Pio—the tangible, oppressive suffering. They see he’s not a faker, not an actor, not a salesman, not a nut. He’s a man who is really hurting. But in and through that pain, those in the dark also see something else: joy—indomitable, all-consuming joy. But how could this be? How could he be okay? How could he be . . . happy? Why is he not in despair? It’s at this point when the now curious gaze moves from the saint’s face, to his bandaged hands, and then up to the object those hands are delicately raising in unfeigned adoration: the Host, the Body of Christ, the Real Presence, God among us. And then it all clicks: My Lord and my God, it’s all real—not an act, not a presentation, not merely a symbol pointing beyond itself. He’s alive. He’s here. And he’s saying to me, “If you will it, I will it too: be made clean.”
Shia LaBeouf has found the living God and, it seems, has chosen to say, “Yes, I will it.” But he didn’t start the journey to this point by thinking hard, or reading books, or even doing good works, as important as all those things are. He found God because he, a wounded man, was introduced to another wounded man who, mysteriously, was gently smiling—not in spite of his wounds, but because of them. And it was so arrestingly beautiful that he couldn’t look away.