Singer-songwriter Sean Forrest left the secular music world after a 1998 pilgrimage led to his conversion to the Catholic faith.

His Movin' with the Spirit Ministry concentrates on reaching teens — but plenty of adults show up for his retreats and concerts, too.

Forrest was named Best New Artist at the 2000 Unity Awards (given out annually by the United Catholic Music and Video Association). Now 35, he has recorded four CDs and told his story in a book, From Happy Hour to Holy Hour and Freedom. He spoke about his music-based ministries with Register correspondent Joseph Pronechen shortly after performing at World Youth Day in Toronto.

What is it about your original songs that young people are responding to?

My CD Can't Look Back, for example, is all about real-life issues. All my songs are about actual events and God's mercy in our lives. It's like listening to your own life. People will say, “That's what I'm going through.” The songs don't end in gloom and doom, but they end by bringing you to Christ.

What's your overall impression of today's Catholic youth? Do they know the faith?

Too many of these kids just really don't know Jesus. Sad, but true. They ask questions like, “Wasn't he just a man or a prophet?” I'm also scared because 95% of the kids I talk to believe the Eucharist is just a piece of bread. They were taught it was Jesus, but they're just getting it in their head and not in their heart. They can say the Hail Mary and the Our Father, but they don't seem to know what it all means. Real faith is not being shared in households.

My philosophy is, until they have a powerful heart-to-heart moment with Jesus Christ and understand his sacrifice, they will not care about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, Mass or any of the sacraments.

Did you even find this lack of understanding among the young people at World Youth Day?

The kids were all fired up. But I interviewed kids from around the country and around the world and found that there's a wide disparity in terms of formation. On abortion, for example, youth from Honduras were horrified by it. They wanted to know how anyone could do that to a baby. Meanwhile, a lot of kids from around the United States were pro-choice and felt homosexuality was okay. They thought that lifestyle was fine and the Church was wrong. So, at World Youth Day, I loved how the kids were cheering, but I wasn't sure if they knew what they were cheering for.

What about your music do you think appeals to teens?

I won't compromise the truth. When you speak the truth, you have the truth of Christ behind you and the truth of the Church behind you, and the Holy Spirit just penetrates their hearts and they listen.

Right away the kids know I'm approachable. They can speak. If you can't talk openly and discuss what the Church teaches about abortion, premarital sex and homosexuality, you don't have a prayer with these kids.

And these kids eat up the truth. Unfortunately, people are afraid to tell them the truth because they don't want to get the kids upset. But the kids are leaving the Church for churches unafraid to tackle the hard issues.

These kids will bare their souls to God and to me on retreat after hearing the hard truths of our faith. They realize it's an honor to be Catholic and need to start living it.

Are they open to avenues other than high-energy music?

Oh, yes. The priests and directors of religious education have to share their lives and struggles so kids can see they're real people and say, okay, let's talk. Your own personal story is important.

One of the most powerful things I do is talk about the real sufferings of Christ on the cross, and kids connect with the suffering. We've got to get back to that “heart moment” with Jesus and what he did for us on the cross.

Are they always receptive to this message or do some give you flack?

If I don't get any flack, I must not really be preaching the Gospel.

Has the sex-abuse scandal crisis made it harder to get the Gospel through to young people?

The current crisis is devastating. I'm sick of heretics, people in authority opposing the magisterium on homosexuality, birth control, abortion. That's evil and messes up the minds of the kids. Our bishops and priests need to preach the truth and not worry about popularity.

What kind of feedback do you get on your work from young people?

About 98% of the kids are transformed on a retreat; they say their life has completely changed. Nothing is impossible with God. I'm just preaching the Gospel and letting the Holy Spirit do his work. And this transformation is not just a one-night yahoo. It's a conversion. A month later I'll still get letters or e-mails. I'll get thank-you letters from parents saying their son or daughter is a different person.

It's very generous of you to distribute your CDs and books by donation, accepting whatever people can afford to give, rather than a set charge. Why do you do it?

Because of a letter I received from a girl who was on the brink of suicide but decided to listen to my CD first. She changed her mind and asked her parents to get her help. She didn't have any money, so I had given her that CD.

After that experience, I never charged for another. Because I'm a nonprofit organization, people know I'm not just saying these things to sell CDs.

What's your book about?

It's my journey to Christ and the Catholic faith. I encourage families with members who aren't practicing their faith to get the book or a CD as a gift and even just put it on some-one's car seat with a note, “You might like to read this, or listen to song No. 4.”

We need to love people enough to tell them God's truth, even if it hurts, so they can experience God in a deeper and more meaningful way. My goal is to get people on fire for Christ and the Catholic faith.

Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.