You Might Have Been Taken Aback by That Mark Wahlberg Ad in the Super Bowl. Let Me Explain.

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You may be thinking to yourself: Did Mark Wahlberg, of Transformers and the Funky Bunch, just tell me, in the middle of the biggest sporting event of the year, among commercials for Pringles and Mountain Dew Baja Blast, to pray?

He did. And he told you to #StayPrayedUp.

If you missed it, the 30-second ad consisted of Wahlberg saying a prayer of thanks to God, over shots of people praying. At one point, a man with a beard and long hair receives a cross of ashes on his forehead—the form by which Catholics mark Ash Wednesday, which is this upcoming Wednesday and starts the season of Lent. The ad ends with Wahlberg asking viewers to “join us in prayer this Lent.”

Given that 30-second ads are running for 7 million bucks, it may seem surprising that a prayer app was able to afford such a major spot. (And that’s not counting Wahlberg’s fees, or that of his co-star in the ad, Jonathan Roumie, who’s best known for playing Jesus in The Chosen.) We could have expected the Jesus-promoting “He Gets Us” ads, which ran last year and have major funding, to pop up again. But an app for prayer?

It turns out that Hallow, a Christian prayer app modeled after meditation apps such as Calm and Headspace, has big funding itself. Hallow raised millions from funders like Peter Thiel and J.D. Vance on its promise to seize the religious-wellness market.

And it’s easy to see how Hallow, with its sleekly simple interface and trendy borderless, faceless illustrations, won over investors. It seems tailored to appeal to a general, youthful Christian audience, with sleep stories, mental health exercises, popular Christian music, and meditations. And yet, it’s actually quite specifically Catholic. It’s not just the section offering different narrators to walk you through the rosary: Users of the app have access to guides on Catholic catechism, novenas (a prayer for nine successive days), saints, and the sacraments.

For the most part, Hallow seems as if it’s probably benignly helpful for anyone who wants a religious version of mindfulness. And it mostly is. There are a few odd things about it, however.

For one—and I suppose this contributed to buying the big ad—the app seems to really love sports. It may be that sports are the arena where you’re most likely to find outspoken religious celebrities, and so therefore the company was able to pull in more big names to read the prayers. But there’s also a weird focus on sports content: In one series, Brett Favre leads several sessions “meditating on the theme of resilience,” with comparisons between being sacked and getting knocked down in life. (Another Favre quote: “It’s important, just like in football, for us to keep our eyes on the long-term goal: heaven.”) And strangely, the app also includes the audio of a 2015 commencement speech by Lou Holtz, the former Notre Dame football coach, at the Franciscan University of Steubenville.

Then, there’s the strange presence of the influencer Christian. Many of the voices on the app come from lifestyle figures who make their living on the speech circuit, pushing inspirational messages about God’s love and wholesome Christian ways of living. This is fun because you have beauty-blogger types—such as Madison Prewett Troutt, a former Bachelor contestant (and known Protestant) who, since proclaiming her virginity on the show, has made TikTok evangelism her brand—saying prayers alongside actual nuns.

These influencers have nothing on the real-world celebrities, however. Lending their voices are the singer Andrea Bocelli, Wizards of Waverly Place’s David Henrie, and Mario Lopez—all known Catholics. But the undisputed stars are Roumie and Wahlberg, who both have partnerships with the app, leading multiple prayer sessions. Their partnership is about not just money but promotion in this particular world. One of Roumie’s series focuses on the supposed last words of Jesus—bolstering his brand as a sort of Christ stand-in. Roumie has really capitalized on his role in The Chosen, appearing often at major Christian events.

Wahlberg, though, flexes his celebrity, not only leading prayers (his Hallow avatar is a recognizable outline in a white T-shirt and silver chain) but also ruminating on the power of his 2022 Catholic movie Father Stu, which he describes in one reading as “the most important film I’ve ever made.” The app gives you the option to listen to several monologues and short clips from the movie, including one from Mel Gibson. (Gibson, who is notedly antisemitic, is an extremist traditionalist Catholic.)

Wahlberg’s movie isn’t the only one to be highlighted though. The strangest part of the app is the section on Sound of Freedom, in which the actor Jim Caviezel leads listeners through prayers on the theme of “freedom” and for victims of child trafficking. There’s no mention, of course, that Caviezel is a deep-end QAnon conspiracy theorist. Nor that Tim Ballard, whose whole life Sound of Freedom is based on, has been credibly accused of sexual assault by multiple women. Instead, Caviezel gets to use the platform to portray a dubious image of trafficking as a sinister, cabal-like “global industry that generates billions and billions of dollars from the kidnapping, abuse and exploitation of innocent children,” rather than a more complex and generally localized issue with roots in poverty and gender-based violence. Caviezel is able to use his Hallow reading to not just urge listeners to take up the fight against child sex trafficking but also to use a Hallow link to reserve tickets to see Sound of Freedom—because “if millions of us come together to see this film, we could propel the movement to help save millions of children throughout the world.”

Caviezel’s not the only Hallow star to have some intense politics. Lila Rose, an anti-abortion activist known for extreme anti-LGBTQ+ views, is also featured on the app. As one might expect, given Catholicism’s teachings on abstinence and abortion, several other narrators have fairly conservative social beliefs. At a time when the Catholic Church is deeply divided over Pope Francis’ more tolerant social reforms, the narrators on board lean toward the anti-Francis contingent. Several are also associated with Steubenville, a deeply conservative Catholic university.

Still, for a brand trying to avoid controversy, Hallow sticks mostly to the benign. Perhaps the better representation of the app’s content is a seminar by Arthur Brooks, the conservative think tanker turned happiness guru, on the science of happiness. Wahlberg, in the Super Bowl commercial, may be emphasizing the power of faith. But as the celebrities and influencers and multimillion-dollar ads show, it’s as much as anything a testament to the power of capitalism.