Catholic recording artist Matt Maher performed at the 2016 Fellowship of Catholic University Students (Focus) Leadership Summit held in Dallas in early January. Before his performance, he sat down with the Register to discuss why he believes music plays an important role in evangelization.
How do you hope your music touches these students, missionaries and everyone else here?
The life of a college student is such a critical time, where you’re, in a way, at the crossroads of your life. Many of the decisions you choose to make about who you are as a person will continue to affect you well into your adult life. For a lot of people, college becomes a place where you can postpone the transition into becoming an adult, but when you get out of college, you’re still faced with that crossroads. I think Focus really tries to create and provide an avenue where that transition and transformation can take place in the context of a Christian and Catholic community.
We all believe as Catholics and Christians that we can’t know ourselves apart from God. What’s inherently unique about Christianity is that Jesus established the Church to be the way in which we come to know God in a communal setting. It’s in the context of the Church community that we come to know God and we come to know ourselves. Being at this conference is just my way of affirming that truth and standing alongside Focus.
The bedrock of any Christian is prayer, so I hope my music helps facilitate their prayer life. All art is transcendent, in the sense that it has its vocation to beauty, and it reveals things that are beautiful. It orients the soul towards God. You can’t give what you don’t have. You can’t lead people to a place you’ve never been yourself, and I really do believe that the biblical model for evangelization is the story of Emmaus. In the story of Emmaus, I think that the resurrected Christ lays out a framework, which says, “This is what it looks like to share the Gospel with someone.” Ironically enough, you meet disenfranchised and disillusioned people. I think a lot of young adults are [that way]. The veil is pulled back on life, mom and dad aren’t around anymore, and they start seeing and hearing things. I think Jesus leads you along the way. Hopefully my music is sort of the soundtrack to their “Emmaus journey.”
What is unique about singing at the Focus event compared to your other performances?
The Student Leadership Summit is a conference designed to train and equip missionaries. People are not here to be entertained, and they are not here to meet other people. There’s always going to be an element of that, but this event is about raising up a generation of people whose first priority in life is glorifying God and helping reveal him and his plan for people’s lives in the world. It’s a critical event, so my investing in it just by being here hopefully says to these missionaries, “Look, you’re not here for four days just to meet a boyfriend or girlfriend, or connect with people who will be on your campus. You’re here because part of being a follower of Jesus is actually learning how to share that with people. Especially with Focus’ work, I think it’s good to connect with people around the country and realize you’re not alone in that endeavor.
If there was one thing you would want these students to take away from this event, what would it be?
Since this year is the Year of Mercy, I [want them to take away] mercy. The great thing about Catholicism is that there is so much that we get to do. It’s the oldest Christian denomination. Obviously, I believe that it’s the fullness of truth, but at the end of the day, Jesus says, “It’s mercy I desire, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13). So, however virtuous or good my deeds are, I do them because I’ve encountered the mercy of God. I’m not doing them so I can encounter the mercy of God. It’s God’s kindness and his mercy that leads me to repentance and conversion. It’s also his mercy that fuels the evangelistic efforts that I endeavor in my own life. When you share the Gospel out of a place of encountering mercy, there’s a humility in it that, which the world intrinsically considers to be a chief characteristic of who Jesus is. I think that’s why Pope Francis has resonated so much, because he shares the truth of the Gospel from a place of mercy.
What inspires you about seeing more than 3,000 Catholic young people in one place?
I think it’s a promise of hope. I don’t think this happened 40 years ago, to this level. There weren’t this many young Catholics who were specifically devoted to God “wrecking” their plans and doing whatever he wanted in their lives. It was a different age and a different time. It’s not to be critical of that age, but just to simply say it’s an exciting time. During this period of transition and transformation, many young college students actually take the time to say, “God means the most to me.” I think for their parents it’s got to be a bit of a crazy shift, but it’s a cultural representation of the lives of the saints and what the call to holiness actually looks like.
What do you feel the role of music is within evangelization, especially the New Evangelization?
I think it has a multifaceted role. There’s some music that’s meant to peel back the veil on God, beauty and goodness, and some is meant to specifically help articulate the cry of the human heart. Some music is meant to engage, entertain and be fun, but there’s also music that’s meant to express the prayers that we long to pray. That is the great thing about a three-and-a-half-minute song: It somehow expresses everything that you’re feeling and articulating. When you hear the lyrics, you think, “That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to say.” We need songs that do that with relationships, love and greater existential things. … But then, we also need songs that express our heart for God, which is a really critical element. Most of us grew up going to Mass and churches where people didn’t sing or participate. [However], singing music is actually an inherently spiritual thing to do, because there’s an intentionality about it. When we actually choose to sing songs that are about God, and about what he does, there’s another kind of co-mingling and almost exchange that happens between heaven and earth; between the things that we can and can’t see. So I think that music plays a huge role in evangelization, because everyone hungers for something that’s transcendent. Why do you think Electronic Dance Music is so popular? Because people were inherently built to see a cloud of witnesses. … So when you peel back the layer of it, you say, “Maybe my soul actually knows that I long to be amongst a sea of people in heaven worshipping God.”
writes from Texas.
Karlie Brown photo