Film stars, genocide survivor kick off 'Pray40 challenge' - Catholic Courier
Mark Wahlberg attends the "Father Stu" photo call at The London West Hollywood Hotel in West Hollywood, Calif., April 1, 2022. Mark Wahlberg attends the "Father Stu" photo call at The London West Hollywood Hotel in West Hollywood, Calif., April 1, 2022. (OSV News photo by Aude Guerrucci/Reuters)

Film stars, genocide survivor kick off ‘Pray40 challenge’

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(OSV News) — A former agnostic has teamed up with three film stars, an author and a priest to kick off a Lenten prayer initiative.

Alex Jones, co-founder and CEO of the popular Hallow prayer app, has tapped actors Mark Wahlberg, Jonathan Roumie and Jim Caviezel, as well as “Bible in a Year” podcast host Father Mike Schmitz and Rwandan genocide survivor and author Immaculée Ilibagiza, for this year’s Pray40 challenge.

The daily prayer and meditation series, available on the Hallow app beginning on Ash Wednesday, invites participants to set aside time with God each day leading up to Easter. Father Schmitz, Wahlberg, Caviezel, Roumie and Ilibagiza narrate the prayers and reflections, which also are available in Spanish and Portuguese, led by Eduardo Verástegui and Juliano Cazarré respectively.

Hallow App founder described himself as “agnostic”

Last year’s Pray40 campaign drew some 250,000 daily participants, according to a press release from Hallow — an impressive number given that just a few years ago, Jones was a self-described “agnostic” who, despite being raised Catholic, “had never really heard of the deep tradition of Christian prayer,” as he told OSV News.

“I fell away from my faith in high school and college,” he said.

Having majored in engineering at the University of Notre Dame, Jones, 29, began working in strategic consulting — and found himself drawn to what he called “secular meditation.”

Using apps to guide his meditations, Jones said he nonetheless “felt pulled to something Christian,” and began inquiring of clergy and religious if meditation and the Catholic faith were compatible.

“They laughed and said, ‘We’ve been doing that for 2,000 years. It’s called contemplative prayer,'” Jones recalled.

Returning to the practice of his faith, Jones began to mull ways to create a Catholic prayer app — and hit on the name while “randomly opening the Bible” to Matthew 6:9-15, the text of the Lord’s Prayer.

“The word that stuck out was ‘hallow,’ to make holy,” Jones said. “It brought me to tears. It was just this beautiful combination of a deep sense of peace and a depth of meaning and purpose. Do I hallow God’s name? Is he making me holy? Am I helping others to grow in holiness?”

Hallow was launched in 2018

Knowing some code, Jones created a prototype of the Hallow app, the first iPhone version of which was “terrible,” he admitted.

But with the help of professional coders, he launched Hallow in 2018, and included a Lenten component the following year.

Now, the Hallow app currently ranks at number 5 among Apple’s top downloads for iPhones, just behind TikTok and ahead of Instagram.

Jones said he and his team rely on a theological advisory board that includes Father Schmitz as well as Word on Fire CEO Father Steve Grunow and Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana.

Users also suggest their own favorite devotions and texts, which led to the inclusion of the spiritual classic “The Imitation of Christ” in this year’s Pray40 challenge, said Jones.

“I had read it when I first started coming back to my faith, and I’ve read it now about two or three times,” Jones said. “Every time it’s so impactful. Such an intense, challenging book puts fire in your faith.”

While social media can be “incredibly addicting,” Jones said Hallow reduces opportunities for distraction by remaining audio-based.

Once the app has been customized for personal use, “you don’t really engage with the phone,” he said.

And even if users find themselves staring at the screen, “God is able to sanctify every aspect of our lives,” Jones said. “There’s nothing he can’t use to help us grow close to him.”

Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News. Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.

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