Meet the ‘Magic Apostle’
Giancarlo Bernini shares the Gospel in an unusual milieu.
DALLAS — Did you know that there was a patron saint of stage magicians? St. John Bosco would perform magic tricks, attracting the attention of a crowd so as later to share the faith with them. He would have appreciated the work of Giancarlo Bernini, a stage magician who combines his artistic calling with his vocation as a Christian apostle.
But, why magic?
“That’s such a tough question to answer,” Bernini replied from his home in Dallas. “I remember that even before I learned any magic tricks, I was fascinated by movies with magic in them. They filled me with wonder. I discovered that magic tricks could make others feel that same joy and wonder, but in a more real and concrete way, as the magic happened right in front of them, in real life.”
He went on to recount a story from his childhood, when he was 11 years old. During the summer, he would volunteer at a local children’s cancer clinic near his home in McAllen, Texas. At the clinic, he would perform magic tricks for the patients.
“The joy [the tricks] brought into the room was making a difference, and I could see it,” he recalled.
He also remembers seeing, around that time, a live show of the well-known magician David Copperfield.
“I had already started learning some magic tricks, but that show blew me away and completely expanded my idea of what a magic show could be like,” he added.
Bernini said he was fortunate to have “a very supportive and loving family” who encouraged him in his magic — and magic shows helped him socially, too..
“I needed something creative that might help me socialize more,” he said. He became known at school as “the kid who did magic. ... I spent all my free time at home learning more tricks so that I could have something new to show people at lunchtime the next day.”
Quickly, he discovered that “magic tricks brought people together.”
Soon, the young Bernini was gaining confidence, as magic became a way to make friends. Gradually, he perceived that through the power of his tricks, he was helping to give people a “lift.”
And, in so doing, he discovered what it was he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
“I could never really imagine myself doing anything else,” he told the Register. “Ever since I was a kid, it’s all I thought about all day long.”
Bernini may have thought about magic tricks all day, but he was also realistic enough to know that making a career of it would be tough. As a result, he considered other paths: that of a movie director, for example; and for a while, he even discerned whether he should become a priest.
“But none of those really felt right,” he said. At the same time, he continued to spend as much free time as possible practicing tricks and putting on magic shows. By the end of his time at college, he began to explore more seriously the possibility of becoming a professional magician.
“Right before graduating,” he said, “I was asked to perform on national television on the magic show Penn & Teller: Fool Us and shortly thereafter made the decision to go full time.”
Bernini may now be a successful stage magician, but, for him, his is more than a childhood dream realized. He sees his craft very much as a vocation.
“I was raised Catholic,” he explained. “There was a point in high school where I briefly fell away from the faith, but quickly found my way back through apologetics. That’s why apologetics often plays a big factor in some of my shows.”
During college, an idea came to him: “I realized there weren’t many other people using this particular art form — the art of illusion — to serve and promote our faith. I loved the idea that all art is Catholic by nature, as it lifts the soul closer to the True, Beautiful and Good. I wondered what that might look like in the context of a magic show.”
Bernini enjoys performing on stage; and he has discovered something else.
“There is always a weird excitement that feels similar to nervousness,” he said. “It’s a feeling of potential wonder: being aware of everything amazing that’s about to happen if I do my job right. Before walking onstage, I always remind myself that, statistically, most people have never seen a magic show live. This is probably the first magic show that most of my audience has ever seen. … I pray that the Holy Spirit uses the show to stir something in people’s hearts, whether through something I say or simply through the experience of watching something that has elements of truth, beauty and goodness,” he added, “never knowing how God is using the show, but trusting that he is.”
This, he said, is the greatest joy of performing: seeing the audience’s reaction.
“That’s the most fun part for me,” he said. “At the end of the day, I’ve practiced sleights and moves and scripts with the hope of creating a strong emotion of joy and wonder. So seeing those reactions is really fulfilling.”
As a professional magician, he is aware of the secrets of his trade: He knows how tricks are achieved. It is, therefore, “rare” for him to experience the same excitement as his audience when he is watching other people’s magic shows. Yet, vicariously, he still “feels and experiences” the joy and wonder of his own audiences.
As he did at school, Bernini has also found that magic is a great way to connect with people. “I’ve learned that when you do something ‘impossible,’ barriers break down, and people react genuinely. It’s the fastest icebreaker out there; there is never a ‘planned’ response of awe and wonder. It’s always genuine. The audience sort of bonds together in a really cool way, and I get to see that happen.”
Yet places such as Las Vegas, where he performs, are not normally associated with the Gospel.
“The stereotypical Vegas people think about, especially the Vegas Strip, is the reason it’s called ‘Sin City,’” said Bernini, “but I also see it as a place that has the greatest potential to share the Gospel. People often go to Vegas when they’re seeking an ‘escape,’ or a distraction, or chasing some fantasy of love or money that isn’t real. But these are the moments when they most need to hear the Gospel. So, in that sense, what you have in Vegas is a large concentration of people who are ‘seeking’ the Gospel without knowing it. All trying to fill a void that we know only God can fulfill.” Furthermore, places like Vegas, he says, are full of “untapped potential” when it comes to sharing one’s faith. He went on to suggest that all art, all the shows and entertainment there, if ordered properly, could give glory to God and point people to the Gospel. “God is definitely moving in Las Vegas. The Body of Christ is there and very active.”
Beyond prompting the experience of wonder and joy, he has other ways to witness to the Gospel in what he does on stage.
“Usually, it’s through sharing a message during the show that’s either about apologetics or testimony-based,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll talk about identity and understanding identity as a son of the Father. Sometimes I’ll talk about illusions we fall prey to in our everyday life, believing lies about self-worth or feeling like we’re not forgiven, and how to combat that through the sacraments. Sometimes, a simple card trick can be used as an analogy to make a point about the intelligent design of the universe.” In short, he said, he wants to help people spiritually in practical ways. He suggested that when “something has elements of truth, beauty and goodness, there is an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to work.”
Bernini told the Register he is currently working on a new show and hopes to start touring soon.
“I’m really enjoying the traveling and getting to experience the Church as the Body of Christ in parishes across the country,” he said. That said, he would like to perform more regularly near his Texas home, “so as to spend more time with family and friends and be more active in my home parish. That’s probably what I’ll look into doing after this next tour. But things change month to month, sometimes week to week, so I’m just trusting that God knows where he’s leading me.”