In recent weeks, there’s been a lot of talk in both regular news & entertainment sources as well as Catholic sites about a Hollywood actor by the name of Shia LeBeouf.  Being only in his thirties, he might not have the name recognition like aTom Cruise or Meryl Streep, but he’s been working pretty consistently to some notoriety for over 20 years now.  As is often the case for many entertainers, particularly those who start at such a young age, it is been what he’s done off-screen that’s gotten much more notice over the years.  One article summed it up by saying:   Up until last week, there were few positive search results for Shia LaBeouf’s name on any search engine website. The actor has had a slew of mishaps, several ending up with police officers and inside courtrooms. Suffice it to say everything from drunken and disorderly behavior to accusations of sexual assault by an ex-girlfriend have continued to be associated with LeBeouf.  But what made recent headlines was when LeBeouf in an interview stated that he had recently become Catholic.  And ever since, there’s been an ongoing lively discussion with every extreme chiming in about those claims. From those skeptically imagining that it’s just a public relations stunt; to those celebrating this famous “bad boy” becoming a Catholic gives us who share his newfound faith, some more credibility or something.

Thanks so much for stopping by to read my homily for the 23rd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – September 4, 2022, for sharing it on your social media posts and your feedback and comments…  I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE.  May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing Sincerely in Christ – Father Jim

It’s one of the burdens for people in the public eye to find everything they say and do to be consumed, dissected, and judged.  But for us here it is providential that it has been trending for the last few weeks to cause us as Catholics, to ask ourselves what does it mean to be Catholic – to be a follower of Jesus Christ?  Because that’s what today’s Gospel is all about.  For several weeks now, the Sunday Gospels from St. Luke have been following Jesus as He is heading towards Jerusalem, facing His unjust trial, passion, and death on the Cross.  All of these dialogues, teachings, and answers to questions being posed by people along the way that we’ve heard proclaimed these weeks are colored by what He knows awaits Him.  His heart and mind are consumed with His mission but equally with what He is asking of those who say they are following Him.

Just to refresh our minds and hearts what we’ve heard: Jesus highlights the need to be selfless and sacrificial – giving of ourselves.  We’ve reflected on Jesus underscoring the reality that following Him will not bring us peace and acceptance in this world – even causing division where we’d least want or expect it – among those closest to us, our family members.   We’ve been reminded that following Jesus is hard work, a grind and that we need to be striving to enter a narrow gate that not many will be able to achieve because it’s hard…   And now we come to today’s Gospel where we hear of the need to carry our own crosses and these verses about hating ‘father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters even our own lives in order to be a true follower.  It’s enough to cause some to want to ask  Jesus do you want people to follow you? Because it almost sounds like you’re trying to talk people out of it!

Particularly hearing the word “hate” directed towards those who are often the ones we love the most in this world – it sounds the complete opposite of what we’d expect from Jesus, the incarnation of love—or hearing that description of “hate” directed towards our own life. Hating ones life is often described as an attitude that can be found at the root of mental health suffering that so many struggle with like depression and anxiety and fear – is Jesus really advocating that?

It’s good that those verses stand out and bother us.  They should.  They should cause us to snap to attention and just go “wait – what did He just say?  Did I hear that right?  That can’t be?”  That was the reason Jesus used that language which was the way Rabbis would teach.  Being overly dramatic and extreme to get their attention to make a point.  Like when we people say “I’ve been running all day” “I’ve told you this 20,000 times” “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.”  We get the point – they’ve been really busy – they’re beyond frustrated having to repeat something – they’re really hungry.  Jesus uses hyperbolic examples to speak essential truths.

Jesus – who without question loved His Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and His foster-father St. Joseph – employs this extreme language towards family to make the point that following Him means that He comes first.  That nothing and no one: the ties of those relationships, their requests or demands can undermine this, what needs to be the primary relationship and goal of our lives.   And if it does, if we feel there’s a tension between the two then the disciple has to make that choice and decision – Jesus has to come first.  We have to follow Him, be led in the paths that our loving Father has laid out for us, and yield to the Holy Spirit’s moves and prompts in our lives in order to accomplish that.

It reminds me of a guy who I knew who felt the call to the priesthood, and wanted to discern it, and enter the seminary.  His parents and family went from mildly concerned about it when he first brought it up to threatening to disown him if he did.  He did enter the seminary – leaving their home with them practically ignoring him and shunning him for some time.  No, he didn’t hate them – in fact, he sobbed many times over that tension, which praise God by the time he was ordained had been healed and his parents and family were celebrating with Him.  But it’s Gospel passages like this that made him realize that God’s call had to come before what everyone and everything around him was saying.

But it’s not just limited to a religious vocation example.  That’s what is so fascinating about stories like Shia LeBeouf.  Here’s a young actor, who had been raised Jewish and received his Bar Mitzvah when he turned 13… but often described his Jewish faith through the years in more cultural terms.  Talking about being Jewish like one would describe being Italian.  When it came to God, he was more agnostic.  In an interview with Bishop Robert Baron, he shared a little bit of his conversion story saying  “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.  I’ve been abusive to women and have been shooting dogs and I’ve been willingly giving women STDs. It’s disgusting, it’s depraved, and my mother is embarrassed beyond all imagination.”   The shame he felt brought him to the darkest of places where he shared that  “I had a gun on the table. … I didn’t want to be alive anymore. … [There was] shame like I had never experienced before, the kind of shame where you forget how to breathe.”

It was then that a friend who was in a self-help group with Shia who was directing a film on St. Padre Pio had asked Shia if he had ever heard of this man and suggested he might be good for the part.  Never anticipating that as Shia would delve into preparing for the role, studying this priest from the 20th Century Shia would be amazed by Padre Pio’s story and even more, by the sincerity of the priests he was meeting and studying.  Something deep within him started to change.   He started to realize He had misunderstood who Jesus was.  Up until then, for Shia, Jesus was “like Buddha or something … always gentle.” But then he began reading the Gospel of Matthew with a Franciscan Friar – (the order of priests that St. Padre Pio was a member of) and saw Jesus’ adventure and strength being lived out in his teachings, miracles, life, and death. He saw that Jesus demanded everything of his followers.  He saw the intimacy that Catholics experience with Jesus Christ in the Eucharist and there was a longing for that himself.   And that was a turning point for him.

“I am an all-immersion person,” Lebouf claimed. And when he saw the difference Jesus made to the friars he had come to know and live with, he was able to start to share his wounds with them and begin to see how much was false and fake in his life and what really mattered.  It was in this “letting go” that he found that God was real and made a real difference in his life. The sacredness of being in the chapel and attending Mass began giving him real peace where He longed for Jesus himself, he wanted to receive Him in the Eucharist, He wanted to experience Jesus’ forgiveness of his sins and knowing that his past did not define him.

Of all the reactions, seeing some Catholics who are surprised or skeptical has been most interesting to me.  It’s like they can’t believe that a Hollywood actor – who has money, fame, and power, talking about the difference Jesus made for him.  Which makes you wonder who is the more faithful one – Shia LeBeouf this new convert or the life-long Catholic?  Jesus pretty explicitly tells us throughout the Gospels that those very things money, fame, and power don’t bring us happiness, we can’t look for them to make us happy.  Many nod along with those sayings because, well, most of us don’t have those things.  But Jesus isn’t saying these things to make us who haven’t gotten the breaks feel better.  And He’s not saying those things are evil in themselves.  He’s telling us following Him has to come first.  So, people who have money, fame, and power – have unique opportunities and extra responsibilities in their discipleship.

Which brings us back full circle – what does it mean to be Catholic – to be a follower of Jesus Christ? For you and me?  For too many, we have been led to believe Jesus has come to teach people to make “good choices” – be “good people” and opt to leave things deliberately vague and open-ended.  But the more vague and more open-ended leaves it open to manipulation and outright lies.

Being a “good person” and making “good choices” only makes sense when our definition of goodness is connected to true goodness.  When it is connected with Holiness – and that is found in Jesus Christ and making choices meaning obeying His word.  It means that everything has to be held up for scrutiny:  is what I’m saying, what I’m doing bringing me closer to Him or further away from Him?  And then being courageous and bold in response.  So back to this Gospel, maybe it won’t be one’s family that’s the obstacle that I need to “hate.”

But perhaps I have to hate my cell phone or electronic devices.  Maybe I need to hate that bad habit I’ve developed.  Do I actually hate the sins that I struggle with or have I allowed myself to be comfortable with them – maybe even repeatedly confessing them but not really striving to put them to death?  Maybe I need to hate my job – not just complain about it but recognize the time, energy, and focus I bring to it eclipses everyone and everything else.

The point is wrestling with the question – of who or what things have become gods in my life.  When we do, then the call to take up our cross becomes, even more, real, and the sacrifices and pain attached to that carrying come into view on a much more personal level.  It is hard, difficult sometimes even painful work.  But the Good News is that we don’t walk that path alone.  We don’t carry that cross ourselves.  Jesus Christ who was so real and present that it shook a Hollywood actor like Shia LeBeouf to his innermost core and reconsider his entire life – Jesus is as real and present here.  That’s the gift that we as Catholics often take for granted that we have that intimacy as we receive His body and blood in the Eucharist, we experience the gift of freedom we so desperately desire in the Sacrament of Reconciliation when we confess our sins and receive His forgiveness.   The question is will we hate and remove those things that are preventing us from appreciating and receiving these precious gifts to become the faithful followers He is calling us to be?