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The Conversion of Famous Men: Shia LeBeouf and Augustine’s Confessions.
A number of eyebrows were raised recently–some in joy, some in something else–at the news that Hollywood actor Shia LeBeouf had converted to the Catholic faith. The conversion was noteworthy for a number of reasons. LeBeouf is a famous celebrity and admits to having lived a depraved life:
“My life was on fire. I was walking out of hell. … I didn't want to be an actor anymore and my life was a complete mess. I’d hurt a lot of people…”
Stories had come out in the press over past years about many of these problems. LeBeouf admitted that no one had wanted to work with him; he had been toxic. And then something changed. Preparing for a new movie role as Padre Pio, he went to stay with Capuchin monks to learn about Padre Pio and his life as a Catholic priest. In the course of that time, preparation for a movie became a call to conversion.
Particularly striking in LeBeouf’s conversion was not just the role that learning the Mass played, but the role the Traditional Latin Mass played. In an interview with Bishop Robert Barron, Shia talked about how the Latin Mass affected him deeply. When Barron asked why he was so moved by the Traditional Latin Mass, LeBeouf answered:
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.
While LeBeouf’s conversion should seem like a cause for joy and celebration–Our Lord does speak of more joy over the sinner who repents than over the 99 who have no need of penance– joy was not the universal response. Certainly, many traditional Catholics were joyful and inclined to celebrate someone in a position of influence coming to appreciate one of their own great loves: the traditional Mass. Yet many others were less happy. A certain group of more leftist Catholics seemed annoyed and offended that LeBeouf had dared to be converted by a Mass that they themselves so hated. Others were resentful that a famous celebrity was being given a platform and interview by Bishop Barron.
Now, there is an element of truth in that we should be careful not to invest too much immediately in LeBeouf’s conversion, nor rush to anoint him a prominent spokesman of the faith. As one writer puts it, his conversion will still need to prove its sincerity with time. Time will prove if the seed has fallen on good ground (Matt. 13). Yet we should still feel joy at the conversion of the sinner.
Indeed, it is not even wrong if that joy be a little greater when the convert is more famous. This may sound like a strange claim: why should we rejoice more at the conversion of famous men? No less an authority explains the reason other than St. Augustine of Hippo, himself a famous convert from a depraved life.
In Book VIII of the Confessions, St. Augustine talks about the conversion of one Victorinus, a famous pagan teacher of rhetoric, who had initially been inclined to mock Christianity. After reading the Sacred Scriptures, however, Victorinus converted to the faith, even to the point of publicly proclaiming Christianity publicly in the Church. But, according to Augustine, not everyone rejoiced: “Rome marvelling, and the Church rejoicing. The proud saw, and were enraged; they gnashed with their teeth, and melted away!” Victorinus had been offered the chance to make his profession of faith privately, but he chose not to. For, as Augustine says, he had taught rhetoric in public, so also he should profess the Word of God in public. If he had given scandal by mocking the faith in public, he should repair that fault by professing the faith in public:
So, then, when he ascended to make his profession, all, as they recognised him, whispered his name one to the other, with a voice of congratulation. And who was there among them that did not know him? And there ran a low murmur through the mouths of all the rejoicing multitude, Victorinus! Victorinus! Sudden was the burst of exultation at the sight of him; and suddenly were they hushed, that they might hear him. He pronounced the true faith with an excellent boldness, and all desired to take him to their very heart —
The public conversion of a public figure to the Christian faith was seen as an occasion of joy for the multitude even in Augustine’s day; he also reminds his readers about Paul of Tarsus. One is struck by the parallels with LeBeouf’s conversion. Not everyone is happy, some are envious, and yet many ordinary people rejoice that a public figure chose to be publicly converted to the faith.
St. Augustine explains why this particular joy is appropriate. First, we should have natural joy when a sinner repents. But even more, St. Augustine argues, it is proper to have some further joy at the conversion of the famous. Why? Because the well-known and famous have more influence, and may in turn lead others to consider conversion. He writes:
Again, because those that are known to many influence many towards salvation, and take the lead with many to follow them. And, therefore, do they also who preceded them much rejoice in regard to them, because they rejoice not in them alone.
We rejoice, not only because of the one sinner who converts, but because of the others he (or she) may also influence to conversion.
Next, St. Augustine writes, we also rejoice greatly over the conversion of such persons because the devil has more hold over such people. The wealthy, the proud, the famous often find it harder to give up their pride and to humble themselves to adopt the Faith. The camel does not easily pass through the eye of the needle (Matt 19:4). When such people do convert, the devil is the more defeated and overcome. Such did the saint write of Victorinus:
For the enemy is more overcome in one of whom he has more hold, and by whom he has hold of more. But the proud has he more hold of by reason of their nobility… By how much the more welcome, then, was the heart of Victorinus esteemed, which the devil had held as an unassailable retreat, … so much the more abundantly should Your sons rejoice, seeing that our King has bound the strong man, and they saw his vessels taken from him and cleansed, and made meet for Your honour…
Again, it is hard not to see the parallel. LeBeouf acknowledges how depraved his life has been. To have come back from those depths deserves celebration. The greater the struggle, the greater the victory; and for the glory of God, we hope that the conversion of such men influences others to follow their example.
Yes, LeBeouf will have to now prove and live out his conversion in the continuing struggles of Christian life. The consolations of his early conversion will one day fade while the hard work of living out the Christian life continues. We should pray for LeBeouf and all converts (famous or not) to persevere in the faith and let their lives become examples to others.
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