Having recorded seven albums of spiritual and inspirational songs, Al Barbarino now sings almost weekly in parishes and concerts throughout the United States — and beyond.
His repertoire combines original compositions with traditional hymns and modern inspirational songs such as “Let There Be Peace on Earth.”
A lay-apostolate Franciscan of the Padre Pio Shelter in the South Bronx and a member of the Knights of Columbus, Barbarino also works part time as a counselor in a high-security prison in the Bronx for youths 11-18. He spoke with Register correspondent Joseph Pronechen about his musical-evangelization mission, which next year will take him to Alaska, Europe, New Zealand and Australia.
How did you get started as a professional religious singer?
My whole family always sang. I was in the church choir since I was 9 years old. Singing was just natural for me. I never had any formal training.
What is it that you want people to get out of your music?
During a Mass, I usually speak after Communion on the purpose of my recordings: to evangelize, to bring the message of God — his love, his peace — to others through song. I also hope I inspire people to help the poor. It's a double-headed mission. I remind the people that God uses all of us. I try to stress to the people that it doesn't have to be big things. It can be something as simple as being kind, wearing a smile on your face, calling someone you haven't spoken to in a while.
I try to focus people on giving everything they have and do for God. I try to let people know the greatest thing we have as Catholics is that we receive the Eucharist, and that we receive the power of the Holy Spirit through eucharistic adoration.
What do you think it is about music that reaches people who might not otherwise listen to a religious message?
Music is universal. There's something that happens spiritually within us when we hear music. Music has a way of reaching us within.
Many times it's difficult to verbalize the feeling, how it affects you within, just as it's difficult describing the concept of love.
Your music, from what I've heard, is very soothing and calming.
In the present state of affairs with terror and terrorists, even with all the technical security and troops, people are still filled with anxiety. In my music I tell people that we must listen to the Scriptures. They tell us not to fear. Jesus said, “My peace I give you, and it's a peace not of this world.” If we offer everything we do as a prayer, we will then receive his peace, which this world cannot give.
How do you use music to help the poor?
I take no collections for my performances. I don't charge for concerts. At the end of each one, people can buy the CDs if they want to. The money I raise selling the CDs goes to three places: Croatian Relief Services, the Padre Pio Shelter (run by the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal) and the poor of the parish where I'm singing.
Every parish has its own problems, especially in the inner cities. The entire mission, in essence, is for the poor.
I notice that you play several songs in which Jesus speaks in the first person. Is this a theme you consciously set out to capture?
I select songs of that kind to reassure people how simple his message is to each and every one of us. That he is with us and we should never fear, and that we must love him and love one another. That's the overriding message and concept: He's always with us saying, “Worry for nothing, I am always with you.”
Music is universal. There's something that happens spiritually within us when we hear music.
In the original “Did You Call My Name,” Jesus says, “I will take your pain. Let your burdens be lightened…” When we listen with an open heart, God tells us that we will have crosses to bear, but we should never think we are carrying them alone. He will help us carry our cross.
You also record and perform a fair number of secular songs. How do you select those?
I pray on that a lot. If the song can't convey an obvious message of God's love, I won't record it. When people hear a contemporary song like “You Needed Me” and see that you're interpreting it with Christ as the beloved one, it takes on a whole new dimension. I could easily kneel before the Blessed Sacrament and sing that as a prayer. Or “Let It Be” by the Beatles. Listen to the words — they refer to total surrender: Let go, let God.
I understand your brother Santo writes the music and lyrics for some of your originals.
That's right. One of his compositions is called “St. Joseph.” People were telling him to give St. Joseph some attention. Proportionately to Our Lady, the Lord's foster father does-n't get as much attention. Before my brother composes a song, he prays quite a bit and he refers to Scripture. He writes powerful words. In “St. Joseph,” for example, “Patient Joseph, working father, faithful guardian of our mother/Did the angels tell you it was he who held you?” Santo works these songs with care. It takes him over a month to compose one. When I sing one, people say that song is so anointed.
What advice would you give to aspiring Catholic musicians?
Pray! Bring everything before God and he will provide direction.
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.