At first, clicking onto Fr. Bob Lubic’s website seems like a relatively conventional Catholic experience in the internet age. The sublime sound of Gregorian chant wafts from the computer and a photo of the Western Pennsylvania priest clad in Mass vestments fills the screen.
But then, out of nowhere, the sound of a scratching record signals that things might not be exactly as they seem. Suddenly, Lubic’s image transforms into that of an Ozzfest concertgoer and the music leaps into a ska-punk version of “Here I Am, Lord” more reminiscent of Goldfinger’s “Here In Your Bedroom” than anything you’d expect to hear on Sunday morning at the local parish.
To say that Bob Lubic isn’t your typical cleric is an understatement. Rare is the priest who’s gotten onstage access at the Warped Tour–and loved it. Rarer still is a non-showbiz male who’s racked up almost 7,000 profile views on MySpace. A figure like that is usually the province of cleavage-baring 19 year-olds, and definitely not a 40 year-old priest.
Such is the life of the man known as the “Punk Priest.”
Unsurprisingly Lubic’s unconventionality also extends to his preaching style. During a recent Sunday homily where the readings spoke of marriage and divorce, Lubic “talked about Bono being a great theologian” using as his example U2’s classic, With Or Without You with its constant refrain “You give yourself away, and you give yourself away….”
“That’s what marriage is” he says. “That’s what everything is–and that’s why there’s a crisis [of commitment]… because we’re so self-centered we can’t give ourselves away anymore.”
If the packed Youth Masses Lubic celebrates are any indication his approach is working.
His cites the Acts of the Apostles’ as his inspiration, recounting when St. Paul enticed the Greeks by using the examples of “your own poets.” “Who are the ‘poets’ of today but songwriters?” Lubic asks, rhetorically. “I always thought that God could speak through anything, if we’re open,” noting that so much of what he sees in the culture is “a sign that it’s hungry for something”–an elusive nourishment that he’s found the leap of faith can fulfill.
“The greatest challenge of the Church is to present the Good News in a way that will excite people and set them on fire” he says. “If it’s truly Good News, we really shouldn’t be bored about it.”
It was a lesson he had to find out on his own, aided by the “non-event” of a newspaper story about a figure of the crucified Christ that, according to witnesses, was opening and closing its eyes. This, to him, was the sign, coming at a time when “I lost faith. I prayed because I wanted to believe… and God answered my prayer more than I really wanted Him to.”
The clergyman with the earrings and dyed hair isn’t without his detractors though. “Priests are a catty lot at times, unfortunately,” he says, recalling the lesson imparted by his seminary professors that “anybody who rises above is cut down quickly.” He prefers doing his work to reading the forum on his website that contains comments ranging from “So… how many souls do you think you have put on the path of perdition, and why haven’t you been excommunicated?” to aspersions that he’s responsible for “about 20000 thorns in our virgin Mary’s heart,” and that he “shouldn’t even be a preist [sic] (or alive).”
Lubic talks about his outreach in the language of “relationship” with Christ, for which the Church is the conduit. “If you’re truly in relationship in the Lord, then the other stuff follows,” he explains. “It’s about a relationship–and until we get that down, we’re never going to be able to follow” the moral and ethical teachings of the Christian life.
And while he laments the disproportionate focus placed on “keeping these ‘rules,’ rather than being in a real relationship,” he defends the Magisterium firmly but also reminds his cyber-flock that “Jesus came to call the sinner, not the righteous.”
In addition to his work at Holy Family parish in Latrobe (one of the Diocese of Greensburg’s largest parishes), Fr Bob is a firm believer in harnessing the power of the internet as a ministry tool. Whether it’s the girl writing from a computer bank in Albania to ask for relationship advice, the Chilean teen interested in getting answers to questions about Confirmation or the “counseling by IM” to the young that he makes himself available for, Lubic enjoys the promise and challenge of helping build a place for the Church in the intimacy of the internet, a place that many of his fellow priests are intimidated to employ as a means of outreach.
The response to the Punk Priest continues to grow. Earlier this week the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review included Lubic as one of the Steel City’s “Cool Clergy,” and Lubic’s schedule continues to fill up with Theology on Tap events and special Masses elsewhere.
Though some may be skeptical about the religious convictions of younger generations, the cyber-chaplain sees hope where others cast scorn. His proof? “I look at something like MySpace, and the number of kids who have no problem putting down that they’re Catholic” on their public profile pages. “It’s a small thing,” he says, “but they’re willing to do that. And that says something to me: they’re not embarrassed [about their faith].”
In a time when the Church seems all too eager to close its doors to its young, signs like that make Catholicism’s fear of failure in reaching out to young adults seem unfounded at best. Then again, this is an institution that still doesn’t grasp that the problem isn’t what you say, but how you say it. Maybe the way forward begins with embracing a Punk Priest.