Celebrity Catholic conversions and why we should cheer them on rather than idolise them

Stephen Colbert, who took over 8 September as host of CBS’ “Late Night” program, said in an interview for Canada’s Salt and Light Television that his “Colbert Report” character was intended to be a “well-intentioned, poorly informed, high status idiot.” Colbert is pictured in a 2013 photo. (CNS photo/Lucy Nicholson, Reuters) See COLBERT 9 September, 2015.

Early in his Career, Late Night host Stephen Colbert garnered the praise of fellow Catholics for the openness with which he discussed his faith and for promoting the church through his interviews with bishops, cardinals and Christian actors and authors.

Colbert has done a lot of good in promoting Christian values, such as redemptive suffering and forgiveness, to his millions of followers.

But he has also devoted segments to same-sex marriage and abortion, and therein lies the problem with celebrity Catholics.

How many hold up cafeteria Catholics like Colbert as exemplars of faith, taking their cues on fundamental issues from the celebrity rather than Scripture or the catechism?

We should keep celebrities like Colbert in mind when we read commentators’ concerns about the recent explosion in high-profile converts to Christianity, like Candace Owens, Russell Brand, Rob Schneider and Tammy Peterson.

Peterson found her Catholic faith from suffering through a life-threatening illness. Schneider entered the church after the COVID-19 lockdowns and by attending catechism classes with his daughter.

In learning more about where they have come from and how they found Christ, I found myself not idolising them as the bearers of Christian morality but seeing them as another brother and sister living out their faith as best they can—flawed but unfeigned, and in the public eye.

celebrity catholic conversions - The Catholic Weeky
Actor and comedian Rob Schneider, in an undated courtesy photo, spoke with Our Sunday Visitor about his 2023 conversion to Catholicism. (OSV News photo/courtesy Rob Schneider)

Their hero’s journey, as Dr Jordan Peterson would put it, can teach us so much about our own lives and their insights can help illuminate the road ahead.

For Russell Brand, this journey mirrored the one taken by the prodigal son, wasting his wealth on temporal pleasures, seeking happiness but finding only emptiness.

“My whole life long I felt a calling and mistranslated it, time after time, as various forms of addiction, substance misuse, drinking too much and an overwhelming urge to lose myself in concupiscence continually looking for love in all the wrong places,” Brand confessed.

“I’ve learned as an addict in recovery, the pursuit of my own goals on my own agenda always leaves me cold, always leaves me empty and always leaves me wanting more.

“For me, this is a new discovery. It is a surrender undertaken in gratitude and in sincerity and I know that it’s not something I’ll be able to undertake perfectly but for the first time in my life I fully understand that I’m not at the centre of my universe.”

How easy for us to be like the loyal son in the parable, sceptical of his brother’s change, scared that his brother’s immorality would once again threaten his father’s home after regaining a position of power?

Should we not imitate the Father and welcome our brother back with open arms, celebrating his return in joy and in hope that his experiences has changed him for the good?

Political podcaster Candace Owens spoke recently on her conversion and baptism into the Catholic Church with organisation Catholics for Catholics, and her testimony gave a great example on how celebrities should see themselves in the context of Faith.

“One of the most beautiful things about coming into the Catholic Church is that I didn’t come here to be a celebrity,” Owens said.

“For the first time my celebrity made sense to me, because it was a gift. I finally got to be reduced and really understand what a gift was bestowed upon me.”

She realised that her place of influence was given to her, it was, as Owens puts it, “little more than a megaphone for me to do the real work, the honest work.”

celebrity catholic conversions - The Catholic Weekly
Candace Owens being received into the Catholic Church.

This real work is the prayer, formation and faithfulness to the teachings of the Catholic Church that will help Candace use that megaphone to bring her audience closer to God not separate them.

I’m sure after the night of celebrating his return, the Father would have handed his prodigal son a shovel and said “now the real work begins.”

In a February Catholic Weekly column, Simcha Fisher warned against hitching a ride on the back of celebrity converts.

Her advice to any famous person getting baptised is that they do it “in the least public way possible, with no photographers, and no interviews about the experience for three to five years, at a bare minimum.”

She is right of course. Christian conversion is a deeply personal encounter between the individual and Christ and, as such, should be guarded from excessive outside influences or pressures that could snuff out that growing flame of faith.

Yet these new converts’ vulnerability, inviting their audience to journey with them as they learn more about their faith, has brought them down to the level of non-celebrities who are also struggling through life.

Walking shoulder to shoulder, we can not only cheer for their rise but forgive them for their falls.

“I am grateful to feel so small in this role and I just want to thank you guys for being with me on this journey,” Owens said.

Perhaps that’s the difference between these new converts and established celebrity Catholics like Colbert.

Their vulnerability, honesty and courage in jumping into the deep allows us to see our own flawed and messy faith in their story.

Taking from it lessons that our God has decided to reveal to us rather than abiding by laws dictated by famous but fallible men.

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