Those who have been to a Catholic mass in the extraordinary form usually have a decided love or distaste for the Latin Mass. Incense swirls around the altar, where red and white clad altar boys kneel, heads bowed in reverence, and the priest intones the mass in Latin facing an ornate gold tabernacle.
Latin Mass parishes are usually bursting with large families. Chapel-veil wearing mothers run in and out to keep their little ones quiet. Children quietly fold their hands and follow their siblings up to the altar rail at communion time. And the choir fills the church with beautiful music evocative of many centuries past.
And so it was an event that pierced the homes of traditionally devout Catholic families all over the world when the Vatican restricted the celebration of the Latin Mass in parish churches in “the most stinging rebuke by a Pope against his predecessor in living memory.”
In a 2007 ruling, former Pope Benedict XVI had encouraged priests to offer the Latin mass if their parishioners requested it, allowing parishioners to go around the priest to the bishop or even the Vatican if their request was denied. Before Benedict’s ruling, Latin Mass had been banned from parishes normal schedules and had to be requested of the bishop.
Pope Francis said that his restrictions were intended to unite the church, insisting that the Latin Mass had become a rejection of Vatican II and rallied together those Catholics who favored the church before the council’s modern reformations. He claimed that allowing the Latin Mass so frequently would “injure the Church, block her path, and expose her to the peril of division,” and his defenders agreed that the Latin Mass “led to a distorted ecclesiology.”
But traditional Catholics strongly disagreed. Writer George Weigel, who prefers the “Norvus Ordo” or English form of the Mass, wrote that Pope Francis’s encyclical on the Latin mass was “theologically incoherent, pastorally divisive, unnecessary, cruel — and a sorry example of the liberal bullying that has become all too familiar in Rome recently.”
“The lack of mercy shown here toward traditional Catholics, Benedict XVI, and the young laity and clergy drawn to the Latin Mass is stunning,” warned EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo. “This will create the division that Francis claims to cure through this ill advised and destructive new law.”
Author Michael Brendan Dougherty accused Pope Francis of “tearing the Catholic Church apart.”
“For Catholics, how we pray shapes what we believe,” wrote Dougherty. “The old ritual physically aims us toward an altar and tabernacle. In that way it points us to the cross and to heaven as the ultimate horizon of man’s existence. By doing so, it shows that God graciously loves us and redeems us despite our sins.”
Bishops quickly informed dioceses which churches could or could not hold Latin Masses. Some are not allowed to advertise their Latin Masses or hold them in the main church. Priests have been disciplined for disobeying.
The news spread like wildfire within Catholic circles but was met with relative indifference without. What could the secular world care for a lengthy, incense filled Catholic Mass celebrated in Latin?
And then actor Shia LaBeouf revealed that he had converted to Christianity, becoming a member of the Roman Catholic Church, while he was shooting the movie “Padre Pio.”
Not only that: he shared that the discarded Latin Mass played a major role in his conversion.
‘Latin Mass Affects Me Deeply’
LaBeouf plays Padre Pio in his upcoming film, a humble friar born in southern Italy in 1887, beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1999 and then canonized in 2002. The saint is known for his concise commentary on the importance of prayer and the Mass in modern secular society.
“Today’s society does not pray,” he famously said. “That is why it is falling apart.”
Padre Pio bore the stigmata on his body — the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ, who was brutally beaten, whipped, and ultimately nailed to a wooden cross until he died, according to biblical accounts, because he claimed to be the son of God.
No conclusive scientific explanation has been given for the stigmata, Fox News reports, though it has been subjected to intense scrutiny by members of the medical community.
LaBeouf shared with Bishop Robert Barron that he lived in a monastery of Franciscan Capuchin friars and studied religious works of literature in order to better understand the saint. The actor was fighting thoughts of suicide as he began the project, dodging scandals, and reportedly at one of the darkest points in his life.
“I had a gun on the table. I was outta here,” LaBeouf told the bishop. “I didn’t want to be alive anymore when all this happened. Shame like I had never experienced before — the kind of shame that you forget how to breathe.”
“I know now that God was using my ego to draw me to Him,” the actor said. “Drawing me away from worldly desires. It was all happening simultaneously. But there would have been no impetus for me to get in my car, drive up [to the monastery] if I didn’t think, ‘Oh, I’m gonna save my career.’”
“While we were practicing Latin Mass, I was having genuine emotional experiences, and aside from the fact that as a Neapolitan speaker, [Pio’s] accent wouldn’t have matched Italian anyway, but it felt like that would have taken me out of this thing that felt very personal,” LaBeouf shared.
“Latin Mass affects me deeply, deeply,” the actor said.
He echoed the frustrations of many traditional Catholics in describing modern celebrations of the Catholic Mass, which, since Vatican II, has sought to better include the congregation and to make the biblical texts and liturgical prayers more palatable to the public.
“It’s almost as though the church is trying to…activate the audience without putting the agency on the priest,” the actor said, adding, “Old Latin Mass put all the agency on the priest to be fully activated and that at that activation of the priest was supposed to activate the audience, the laity.”
LaBeouf explained that silence and reverence of the Latin mass strongly resonated with him, drawing him closer to the mass rather than pushing him away.
“It feels like they’re not selling me a car,” he said of the extraordinary form, describing how brightly lit modern Catholic Masses with “guitars and stuff” often feel like they are “trying to sell me on an idea.”
“I always had a belief,” LaBeouf shared, “but never had a connection. Latin Mass gave me something where I felt connected, which took me out of belief into connection.”
“As a person who’s involved in the arts, to deny some of the senses, it heightens some of the others, so when you put me in this rationalistic, logical, word, word, word, plot, plot, plot, it takes me out of the feeling realm,” he continued. “Whereas, Latin Mass puts me squarely in the feeling realm because I can’t argue the word because I don’t know what the word means, so I’m just left with this feeling that feels sacred and connected.”
The actor said that he is “quite close” with Catholic actor and director Mel Gibson, who also appreciates the Latin Mass. When LaBeouf didn’t know how to find Latin Masses, he said that Gibson helped him.
“He’s really into that traditionalist thing,” LaBeouf said. And at these Latin Masses he was attending, people began figuring out that LaBeouf was playing Padre Pio.
“They start coming up to you and and tugging at your shirt sleeve and saying, ‘Don’t get it wrong. He’s the only one we have,” the actor explained. “You ship out with so much pressure that then you’re in front of the Mass, you’ve just gone through six, seven months of the shirt tugging, the introduction to the order, the introduction of who Pio was, and you’re standing in front of the Mass that he used to serve mass at, and you’re trembling with fear, and there’s no way you can actually find the agency that he had.”
LaBeouf’s interview with Barron has garnered over a million views on YouTube. Many of those who praised the interview drew on their own emotional experiences attending the traditional Latin Mass.
“I’m protestant and enjoyed this interview very much,” one commenter wrote. “Very touching and thought provoking. Now I’m interested in experiencing a Latin Mass.”
“I grew up in the post-Vatican II church and I never felt anything for it. During COVID lockdowns, I started praying and somehow discovered the TLM and for the first time in my life, I loved attending Mass,” wrote another.
“I found a traditional Latin Mass parish and joined, and I even went to confession after 45 years of being away. I love the Traditional Latin Mass, and I actually thank God for COVID, because it brought me back to the faith. If you never been to a TLM, find one and you will fall in love with Catholicism,” one said.
Responding to the strong reaction to LaBeouf’s remarks, the Vatican’s liturgy office said that he would welcome a conversation with LaBeouf.
“I’d like to know why he thinks that, what is his experience of the celebration of the Mass,” English Cardinal Arthur Roche, one of the clergy spearheading the restriction of the Latin Mass, said. “That’s what priests do; we try to talk to people.”
But Roche also said that he hopes LaBeouf will find a similar experience in the Norvus Ordo form of the Mass, saying that the Mass “isn’t just something, a trait that belongs to the missal of 1962. It belongs to the reform.”
“Reform of the liturgy was an enormous, long preparation prior to the council and the council is the highest legislation that exists in the church,” he continued. “Once that legislation comes into effect, it’s a very serious matter. You disregard that and you’re really putting yourself sideways towards the edges of the church.”
Roche described those who are reluctant to embrace the Vatican II reforms as “stubbornly opposing what the church has decreed,” saying, “that’s a very serious matter.”
He said, “In the end, people have to ask themselves, ‘Am I really a Catholic or am I more of a Protestant?’”
Catholics like Dougherty, a senior writer at National Review, believe that Vatican’s restrictions on the Latin Mass were done purposefully in order to “stamp out the old Latin Mass.”
“Pope Francis is using the papacy in precisely the way that progressives once claimed to deplore,” wrote Dougherty. “He centralizes power in Rome, usurps the local bishop’s prerogatives and institutes a micromanaging style that is motivated by paranoia of disloyalty and heresy. Perhaps it’s to protect his deepest beliefs.”
“I don’t know if bishops will adopt Francis’ zeal to crush the Latin Mass,” Dougherty muses. “I don’t know how painful they are willing to make our religious life. If they do, they will create — or reveal — more division in the church. The old slogan of the traditional Latin Mass movement comes to mind: We resist you to the face.”
One day, Dougherty emphasized, historians will look back on the move as the “worst spasm of iconoclasm in the church’s history — dwarfing the Byzantine iconoclasm of the ninth century and the Protestant Reformation.”
“Pope Benedict had temporarily allowed us to begin repairing the damage,” he writes. “What Pope Francis proposes with his crackdown is a new cover-up.”
LaBeouf did not immediately respond to requests for comment for this story. “Padre Pio”, directed by Abel Ferrara, will premiere on September 2.