Liam Neeson lends his voice to the Advent Challenge in the Hallow app. CNS photo/Keran Doherty, Reuters

Hallow app users taken by Liam Neeson’s voice

  • December 21, 2023

Pope Francis, in his Dec. 10 Angelus address, advised the faithful that disconnecting from media and social media, “the pollution of vain words and chatter,” has become not just a fioretti, a little spiritual sacrifice, but an essential element of the modern, Christian life.

Despite this papal advice, many Catholics have been tuning into their screens this Advent season.  Specifically, tuning into Hallow, the Catholic prayer and meditation application that has taken the virtual world by storm.

Founded five years ago, the Hallow app has secured millions of dollars in capital investment and added an impressive line-up of heavy hitters in the Catholic media ballpark, including Fr. Mike Schmitz of Bible in a Year podcast fame and Bishop Robert Barron, founder of Word on Fire Ministry.

The combination of sound doctrinal content, promotion of overtly Catholic spiritual practices like the rosary and Lectio Divina, and the choose-your-own-adventure allure of modern tech is clearly a winning one. According to Yahoo Finance, Hallow became the first faith-based app to break into the top 10 downloaded apps in the App Store.

Deo gratias. I have no doubt that the app has been an important tool for many in the formation of a disciplined prayer life and a deeper knowledge of the Catholic faith.

However, in a needle-scratch-across-the-vinyl moment, the wunderkind has recently taken a giant misstep.

This year, Hallow is offering an “Advent Challenge,” 25-days of readings, reflections and prayers in the lead-up to Christmas featuring the work of C.S. Lewis.

It was announced in November that the narration of the Lewis readings would be done by Liam Neeson.

There was an immediate negative reaction to Neeson’s involvement in the project. The actor is, of course, well-known for his many film roles and, perhaps relevant to his engagement at Hallow, as the voice of Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia films. Off-screen however, Neeson was one of the highest profile celebrity voices advocating for the repeal of the Irish constitutional ban on abortion.

In a particularly egregious piece of anti-Catholic propaganda, Neeson provided the voice-over to a 2015 Amnesty International ad. Neeson uses the darkest colours of his raspy, thespian voice to intone, “A ghost haunts Ireland. A cruel ghost of the last century still bound to the land. It blindly brings suffering, even death, to the women whose lives it touches.” 

After the camera pans a crumbling, derelict church, the spot closes with the words, “Repeal the eighth” flashed on the screen, a reference to the Irish constitutional amendment that recognised the equal right to life of both the pregnant woman and the unborn child.

The 8th was indeed repealed in 2018, in no small part due to the activism of big-name celebrities like Neeson.

Of all the big-time Hollywood actors Hallow could choose, why this one? Why the need to have a big-time Hollywood actor at all? Is it a decision based in the mission of the platform, or in the economics? Big investors, one of whom is Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and Palantir Technologies, come with big demands and expectations.

The C-suite response has been, if possible, more disappointing than the original decision to engage Neeson.

Hallow co-founder and CEO Alex Jones (no, not that Alex Jones), told the National Catholic Register, “We respectfully disagree with those who claim that working with an actor who has done something in the past that disagrees with Church teaching, regardless of the details of how the work is arranged, is morally wrong.”

Referring to “something in the past” begs the question as to whether Neeson has disavowed or repented of his pro-abortion activism.

Jones’ defense seems to be that since Neeson has neither written nor leads the guided meditations, but is simply narrating Lewis’ words, there is no danger that anyone will be scandalized or led astray.

But in the words of Morton C. Blackwell, “personnel is policy,” and for the Hallow leadership team, this is not only a question of whether Neeson’s involvement is a “moral wrong” but whether he was the right choice.

“Hallow is not a place of judgment,” Jones said.

But Hallow should be a place that exercises discernment or right judgment, understood as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan wrote in 1962 that “moving from print to electronic media we have given up an eye for an ear.” The ear listens to the voice, and it is perhaps not enough to say, “We are just using this famous actor’s voice, nothing more, just his voice.”

The voice has power and significance, we are easily led astray by the myriad of voices in the public square and we must develop the spiritual attentiveness, the antennae, to catch the timber and call of the only voice that matters.

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” John 10:27

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