Catholic Celebrity

I was texting with a Greek Orthodox priest friend this summer about celebrity in ecclesiastical culture, after sending him a clip from a popular Orthodox nun on YouTube. After a number of comments on that, he said:

In American culture, the cult of celebrity is a dangerous field to enter. Especially in a digital age. Popularity carries a high cost. In our [Orthodox] tradition, achieving celebrity in the church is highly discouraged, especially for clerics and monastics. It’s seductive because it seems so effective.

I’ve seen it happen again and again with people I know. It changes you imperceptibly, your mindset. Pride, envy, competitiveness. But especially your ability to seek out and receive criticism — which is the only salvation for any who exercise public influence. Being ready for your own humiliations and setbacks, even grateful, is the only safe way to sustain high profile evangelism.

We exchanged more texts on that point, and then he wrote: “The more famous you get, the more severe the criticisms should be. I mean, you should welcome them. If you want [to be well known] and still be saved, stay sober. 2 Cor. 11.” I looked it up and, especially in this part, immediately got his point as St. Paul outlines signs of apostolic pedigree:

Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman—I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. 

I shared this whole exchange with another friend, and, after forwarding him an article about the fall from grace of someone we admired, I texted him:

Scary. It’s so dangerous when you get power and influence, it’s almost, it seems, beyond human strength to endure. Which is probably why God had to become incarnate to show the only path of safety through power. Crucifixion. James and John aspired to power and influence, and Jesus said: sure, along with martyrdom.

9 comments on “Catholic Celebrity

  1. pjmadden33 says:

    Absolutely brilliant! a complete course in spiritual theology in a few sentences!!!

  2. Eric Sanders says:

    The major flaw in this article is the sentence “If you want notoriety and still be saved…” You should never want notoriety because even the mere desire of notoriety, whether it is achieved or not, will destroy you.

    Public influence is a gift from God and it should be treated as such and used only for his purposes and never sought out – even if and especially if you think that you are doing it for a good reason.

    • Thank you for that very helpful observation! As I know what he intended in the use of the word “notoriety,” which is not pejorative (like the word normally connotes in English, being known for something bad) but simply “bring well known,” I’ve bracketed words in place of it to make clear his idea.
      In this sense, the desire to be well-known for the sake of doing good and communicating truth, for example, is not in itself wrong. As the Lord‘s image of not hiding your light under a bushel basket but letting it shine for all to see indicates. It is one’s intention that can make the desire to be well-known either good or bad. And this is what he was most concerned with, keeping the intention upright (‘saved’) under the great pressure/temptation fame and celebrity can bring

      • Eric Sanders says:

        Thank you for elaborating. I appreciate what you say and I understand about not putting your light under a bushel basket. For me though the light is Christ and not us, which is why I have never been a fan of that hymn that is sung oftentimes at the close of Mass where people are running around singing “We are the light of the world let our light shine before men!” or something to that effect. ‘Our’ light is Christ and the extent He becomes known is the extent that we have fulfilled this commandment. But we do not choose the means, He does. If that requires notoriety then He will give us the graces we need to deal with whatever temptations arise in that situation. If however we seek notoriety on our own, even if we tell ourselves that we are doing it for Him, then we are on our own against the storms that come out against us. Ad honorem Dei ac Deiparae gloriam

  3. Robert Blanchette says:

    Fame seems to destroy just about everyone it touches. This article is timely and I hope many celebrity priests, apologists, and theologians read it. Our culture is obsessed with notoriety. Look how many are trying to be influencers on the internet. Sadly, we see the wreckage that results from this kind of fame. Scandal, suicide, divorce, financial ruin, etc. Your article brought to mind Fr. John Corapi of EWTN fame. As his fame grew, he transformed before our eyes. He got thinner, began coloring his hair and tanning his skin. Toward the end he began to look demonic. It was surreal. ( Not long after that Corapi was embroiled in a sex and financial scandal, was removed from ministry, and disappeared from public life. He could be the poster child for this article and should serve as a stark warning to others.

  4. Fr. Rene Pellessier says:

    I am a Navy Chaplain (of the Priest type) and I just finished a 6 month cruise on the Mediterranean aboard an aircraft carrier. We had 4,700 sailors aboard and about 30 would attend Mass, >1% of the crew and >10% of the Catholics onboard. Such numbers frustrated me. Why so few? But something happened.

    I read the Imitation of Christ while underway, and I discovered a theme: seek obscurity. Christ spent the majority of his life in obscurity. When he did finally enter into public ministry, he refused to allow people to reveal his identity, and when he was finally accused of crime, he did not defend himself. Such an example revealed to me that the path of peace passes through silence.

    Once I began to recognize that Christ could work miracles in the lives of others if I set my ego aside, he began to work wonders. Our Sunday Mass numbers began to average 45, our Daily Mass numbers tripled, people began to return to Confession, and sailors became interested in joining the seminary.

    All of this was accomplished because I followed these simple words from the Imitation, “never think of yourself as better than the next man, however glaring his faults, or obvious his weaknesses.” After hours of prayer with this line, my conversations with sailors went from “look at me” to “look at you!” They were the ones who merited the attention more than me! They were the ones living the Catholic faith in real obscurity, while I walk around the ship with a cross on my uniform.

    Dr. Neal, you wrote that in order to be a proper celebrity you need to be able to accept criticism. I couldn’t agree more. Such criticism can sometimes carry the pain of crucifixion at times, but I have always found that such pain is usually exacerbated by our ego. If we have a humble opinion of ourselves, recognizing all we are comes from God, then any critique, whether true or false, is an opportunity to grow to be more like Christ. If our opinion of ourself is inflated, it doesn’t take much to burst it.

    • Katy says:

      ‘my conversations with sailors went from “look at me” to “look at you!’

      This was very beautiful to read. Thank you for the whole story, and the account of your transformation within it. Really, it’s a Gospel, and relieving, and simple and powerful. God bless you!

    • Wow — what a POWERFUL witness, Fr Rene — your honesty and this analogy is so incisive. Thank you — and to know you is to know these words are real

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