In each issue of the tabloid Us Weekly, there is a spread titled “Stars: They’re Just Like Us!” featuring paparazzi photos of celebrities engaged in everyday activities: ordering a cup of coffee, taking their kids to the playground, loading groceries into their cars.
The editorial intention is to stir up in readers a sense of familiarity between themselves and pop stars, thus perpetuating interest in them. By replacing red carpet photos with snapshots from the carpool lane, our cultural icons become accessible, even relatable, to us ordinary folks.
I had a similar feeling after reading that the late Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers phenom, was a practicing Catholic and raising his children in the faith. Apart from the fact that we were both raised in the Philadelphia suburbs, our lives could not have been more different (just ask my dad about my free-throw form). Yet after his untimely death, I found myself drawn to learn more about his life and legacy after reading that he was a fellow Catholic.
In the wake of his death, many news outlets ran reports and opinion pieces that cited Bryant’s 2015 interview with GQ in which he recounted a pivotal encounter with a Catholic priest at the time he was facing sexual assault allegations:
“The one thing that really helped me during that process — I’m Catholic, I grew up Catholic, my kids are Catholic — was talking to a priest. It was actually kind of funny: He looks at me and says, ‘Did you do it?’ And I say, ‘Of course not.’ Then he asks, ‘Do you have a good lawyer?’ And I’m like, ‘Uh, yeah, he’s phenomenal.’ So then he just said, ‘Let it go. Move on. God’s not going to give you anything you can’t handle, and it’s in his hands now. This is something you can’t control. So let it go.’ And that was the turning point.”
After he issued his public apology, by all intents and purposes, Bryant lived like a changed man: He repaired and strengthened his marriage, was a dedicated father, and sought to improve the lives of others — namely disenfranchised youth and people who are homeless — with his wealth, time and talent.
Bryant isn’t the only Catholic celebrity with a redemption story. There’s the Boston-born actor Mark Wahlberg, who began to take his relationship with God seriously as a young adult after he was incarcerated.
At a 2017 young adult event with Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago, Wahlberg said, “A lot of people go to God, especially when they get in trouble. When I heard the jail doors close behind me, I started praying right away.” He has spoken openly about the importance of daily prayer in his life and how he maintains a relationship with the parish priest who helped him reform his life.
Or consider the actress Patricia Heaton, who opened up to late night talk show host Stephen Colbert, himself a Catholic, about her struggle with alcohol addiction. She said that it was prayer that helped her to recognize that she had a problem and seek help. “I just said, ‘OK God, I know I want to quit drinking … but I have no willpower to do it, so you have to do it.'”
At another point in the interview, Heaton spoke about how she had been making her career the center in her life, but she felt that God was asking her to rearrange her priorities:
“I realized that I had been making the acting career the center of my life. And you know as a Catholic, there’s only one thing that can be the center of your life and that’s your faith. … Because look, the career comes and goes. … You can’t rely on those things because they don’t last. And you have to know that the purpose of your life is glorifying God with your life, not glorifying yourself with your career.”
On Ash Wednesday, we will hear, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel,” and “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” It’s the season in which we reflect on our need for a Savior who alone can fix the things we cannot in and for ourselves.
Kobe Bryant and I may never have sat on the same bench, but we’ve both sat in pews facing the tabernacle. It turns out that the most important thing we shared in common is our hope in the resurrection, a few times over in this life after we stumble, and for eternity in the life to come.
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Elise Italiano Ureneck, associate director of the Center for the Church in the 21st Century at Boston College, writes the “Finding God in All Things” column for Catholic News Service.