Shia LaBeouf is famous for two things: starring in movies with giant robots and being weird.
So it was a surprise when he announced last week he was converting to Catholicism. And a bigger surprise when he said the pre-Vatican II Latin Rite Mass had been key to his conversion.
Yet he is not alone. Here in Scotland and elsewhere there are small but growing communities of ‘trads’ with a devotion to the Latin Mass and who are often more conservative than older Catholics.
Despite the Vatican putting increasing restrictions on the practice of the Old Rite, they have a vocal and sometimes combative presence online.
Jamie McGowan, a young Glasgow lawyer, and founder of the Brecbannoch pilgrimage which returned the relics of St Columba to Iona, said the ‘trads’ are only part of the story.
“If you’re talking Trads, then you’re really talking about people with a devotion to the extraordinary form,” he explained. “But there’s a larger group of young Catholics, let’s call them ‘small o’ orthodox, who aren’t focused on the liturgy, but want to be obedient to Church teaching because it offers the truth, something to live by.”
He suspects the latter group is the majority of young practicing Catholics in Scotland because ‘it’s not something you do because you’re told to anymore’.
He added: “that generation has lapsed. If you’re still here, you’re here because you love it.”
Professor Stephen Bullivant of St Mary’s University, a widely-respected expert of Catholic sociology, reinforced this view in his recent paper Why Younger Catholics Seem More Committed.
It polled Catholics in the UK and found that those aged 18-44 more frequently attend Mass and Confession and are more supportive of Church teaching than their peers.
Bullivant suggested two theories for this.
First, that in an increasingly secular society most people will lapse, leaving behind only a hardened cadre. Second, that this produces a dynamic of ‘embattled and thriving’ that encourages members to go increasingly all-in with their Catholicism.
But what is it about the Old Rite that is drawing in some of these young people? For Joseph Yue, a 22-year-old Chinese student in Edinburgh and a convert, it is partly a reaction to the chaos around him.
“If you look at the world, every- thing is not fine. Young people are disillusioned,” he said. “And then you have the beautiful teaching of the Catholic Church. It’s solid ground you can stand on. And it’s not going to change its morality on a yearly basis.”
Raised a Buddhist in China, he at-tended a Baptist church soon after he arrived in Edinburgh before a friend took him to an Old Rite Mass.
“Walking into a Latin Mass was like walking into a completely different world, a different dimension,” he said. “There was a sense of the sacred, that this was different from every- thing familiar to me.”
Meredith Strott, 22, is a New Yorker who came to study at The University of St Andrews and loved it so much she stayed in Scotland. She said she found a ‘stillness and silence’ at the university that she had not experienced before.
“And I have a rebellious side,” she added. “There is something counter- cultural here. It’s not just going along with everyone else.”
The number of young people attending these Old Rite Masses is small. But the numbers of young people attending Mass of any kind in Scotland are also small. Many in the Church suspect there may be fewer than 2,000 practicing Catholics in their twenties in Scotland.
For the ones that stick around, the spaces where they meet other young Catholics, be it chaplaincies, the pro-life movement, or even youth groups, increasingly have a traditional edge that carries its own influence.
Communities of young liberal Catholics have fallen by the wayside. Another particularly Scottish factor is that a good chunk of young Catholics who are interested in their faith but may be more liberal become teachers in Catholic schools, where the pressures on teachers push them to keep a low profile.
These more traditional communities can also be deeply sustaining and life-giving. Sophia Tait, a young student from Edinburgh, said ‘the traditional Mass I go to in Edinburgh is so welcoming- it’s a fantastic community.’
“There are two young men in the choir who host lunch for young people every Sunday after Mass,” she said. “But there’s a lot of interaction across the generations, which is really nice.
“It goes along with people who are taking their faith more seriously and aren’t afraid to be different. It’s easier to take Faith seriously if it’s making serious demands of you.”
Yet there are other less intentional and more troubling communities of young traditionalist Catholics online.
No one who has spent time in online spaces will be unfamiliar with some of the more strident and ungenerous voices calling themselves trad.
“It’s a problem,” Jamie McGowan said, “but you do get those who want to become Catholic for political reasons, because of ‘the vibe’ or to look ‘based’. That’s not ideal.
“And then sometimes online communities can form, but they have no shepherds, no clergy to provide guidance – and things can go AWOL.
“Social media is a powerful tool for evangelisation, but without the Church’s oversight, it can become dangerous.”
For Joseph Yue, it is ‘too easy’ online to get ‘drawn into a partisan spirit.’ To think in terms of them and us and go against the principles laid out in First Corinthians.
Sophia Tait meanwhile added: “A thing I’ve come across is that someone will show up with a pre-packaged set of opinions: I like the Old Mass, so I think this about vaccines and that about politics and so on.
“That’s a thing that can become toxic. You need to carry out a constant evaluation of yourself. What’s motivating me? Is it tribalism, and is it helping me to become a saint?”
As the world grows more chaotic, it would not be a surprise if more young people follow LaBeouf’s lead and seek solace among the trads.