Over the past four years, Arizona-based Matt Maher has risen rapidly to prominence in the Christian music world as evangelical Protestants have joined with Catholics in embracing his work.
At World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto, his “Litany of the Saints” was sung at the official papal evening prayer. His publishing company, Spirit and Song (online at spiritandsong.com), recently reached an agreement with EMI and Kingsway Publishing to bring his music to audiences around the world.
Maher spoke with Register correspondent Iain Bernhoft from a beach at Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., where Maher was helping lead a parish retreat.
You’ve mentioned that you “came to Jesus” when you were 20. How did your conversion come about?
I think the two components in my conversion were community and a really well-done liturgy. I’d been raised in Newfoundland, in an Irish-Catholic culture that was much more Irish than Catholic, and went to a Jesuit high school but didn’t really know who Jesus was. When I moved to Arizona to study jazz piano at Arizona State University, I started going to church because that’s what my friends were doing. But I found a very active Life Teen group at the parish, a strong charismatic community called City of the Lord, and a beautiful liturgy at Mount Carmel parish.
Has music always been a passion for you?
My childhood dream was to write music for movies. After my conversion, I was playing music at two Masses at Mount Carmel, but it took awhile for me to connect the dots and see that music ministry was my vocation. I’d only written instrumental music before, so I was challenged in attempting to articulate my faith. Now, that probably didn’t happen until after a few years of ministry and after writing a lot of really bad pseudo-pop songs. Only after I’d learned to write, period, could I write about my faith.
It’s very challenging. You’re trying to express things that are pretty abstract concepts to most people. You have to point people in a specific direction, but have all the elements of a good song.
What do you hope to accomplish through your music?
I want to write music that makes people … realize there’s so much to be done to advance the Kingdom. I feel that one of the biggest themes that’s lacking in modern worship music is social justice. You can’t sing about how great God is all day long; at some point his greatness needs to sink in, making us go out and do something.
You seem to be enjoying an unusual level of success for a Catholic musician. How has that come about?
If you want to be a musician, do what every other musician does: Pick up a guitar and be a loser for three years. I wrote songs for my community, not because I thought I had a ministry or mouths to feed. I made a record not to be successful but to be faithful. Other people liked the CD and wanted to use it. It helped that I’d been doing ministry with Life Teen, but I’d like to think it spread because the songs helped serve a purpose.
And what purpose was that?
In the past, a lot of great hymns were ways of preserving theology by articulating and putting a hedge around a doctrine. That was Luther’s goal with his hymns, to write them in such a way that people receive what they sing. But for me, I just try to be honest and truthful in my own response to God, and I happen to write things that others can relate to as well.
Many complain that there’s no established “Catholic market” in popular music.
I’m leery of anyone who wants to create a Catholic subculture. We should try to baptize the culture from within. Christian music has been set apart by the corporations, not by the religious.
You’ve been a full-time music minister and youth leader at your parish. Is that changing now?
I’ve buried myself in a parish for 10 years, and I feel that God has ordained this next period of time to travel around the Church. I’ve been doing a lot of hands-on training with music ministers at the local level. I’m passionate about helping local musicians improve the quality of what they’re doing, educating them about what’s musically appropriate. This, in turn, improves everyone’s prayer experience. But I also need the ties to the Church locally as well as nationally. I still lead the 6 p.m. Sunday Mass music at St. Timothy’s (in Mesa, Ariz.), so I can remain part of a community.
Do you feel that improving music ministry is your main calling?
I feel called to three things. First, to respond to Pope Benedict’s call to help evangelize the Church from within. Secondly, I feel called to help train and equip other ministers in the Church. Lastly, I think that part of what I’m called to is to be a bridge between denominations. I don’t understand it, but by some fruitful work of the Holy Spirit, non-Catholic Christians are touched by my ministry. I don’t know if it’s because of the music, but they don’t feel threatened and they don’t harass me.
It seems like there’s conflict between the role of “servant” and “performer.” How can you keep the focus on God when all the extrinsic elements — the stage, the huge amplifiers, the jumbotrons — focus entirely on the performer?
People always need someone to look at. The Church recognized this; it’s the reason why, in the Latin Mass, the priest faces away from people and toward the altar. The whole thing is supposed to be about God.
Because we’re broken and fractured, we need a human point of reference, even in worship gathering. I’ve always felt that the ideal place for choir is in the back of church, so the focus isn’t on musicians. But, as Nelson Mandela said: “Your playing small does not serve the world.” There come key moments when you have everyone’s attention and the question becomes: What are you going to do with it?
Tell me a little about your new album, “Overflow.”
I had a bunch of song fragments, and I felt all these songs stuck inside of me. I’d been praying and waiting and, suddenly, I felt an upheaval in my heart. All these songs came out, starting with chorus of “Overflow.” The basic premise of the music is the prayer that God won’t just be “enough” but that he’ll spill into everything we do.
A lot of the time our prayers are “just help me with this and do this …” — a small, self-contained, me-sized spirituality — as opposed to “fill my heart to the point that you spill into everything I do.” This has changed the way I approach prayer and my ministry.
Iain Bernhoft writes from