Contemporary Catholic music is coming of age—right in time for the new millennium.
As Pope John Paul II implores Catholics to become evangelizers, one group is ready to charge ahead. The Catholic popular music industry and its entertainers are poised to point young listeners to Christ, much as Catholic art has done throughout history.
“Entertainment can minister,” said John Michael Talbot, one of Catholic music's most popular recording artists.
“As soon as you're singing about Christian faith, or performing or singing in a way that is moral, you have the opportunity to evangelize,” said Talbot, who was named Billboard magazine's number one Christian male artist in 1988.
Recently, Sovereignty Music, a New York-based recording label co-founded by Stephen Connolly and Catholic recording artist Kathy Troccoli, conducted a survey among Catholic high schoolers in the New York area. When asked if they would purchase music that spoke positively about their faith, of 1,500 respondents, 51% said yes. Another 19% said they might.
“Music is so essential to the lives of teenagers,” said Phil Baniewicz, executive director of Life Teen, a liturgy-centered Catholic teen movement and former youth minister at St. Timothy Parish in Mesa, Ariz., but “young Catholics in general don't even know about contemporary Christian music.”
Though evangelical singers and groups have thus far dominated the Christian music market, Catholic artists are making headway. Talbot, a convert, has been spreading the message of Christ since the 1970s. He currently headlines a national tour that features two other prominent Catholic musicians, Tom Booth and Tony Melendez.
Booth, a music minister for St. Timothy Catholic Parish in Mesa, released seven collections of songs on his own label, De Cristo Music, before he started recording for Oregon Catholic Press (OCP). OCP just re-released Booth's self-titled project, Tom Booth, and his music on a World Youth Day project, Find Us Ready. Their new hymnal, Glory and Praise, includes five of his songs.
Also emerging among popular artists are Sarah Hart and Danny Langdon, two singer-songwriters on the Sovereignty label. Hart is riding the current wave of popularity enjoyed by Jewel, Sheryl Crow, and other female vocalists. Hart played to her first Catholic audience of 2,000 young people three years ago at a Life Teen event in Hudson, Ohio, and was moved by the experience. “When I was a Catholic teen, events like that just didn't exist,” she said.
Langdon plays mainstream, straight-ahead rock and roll, singing songs about divorce, death, and spousal abuse in trendy New York nightclubs and on a forthcoming Sovereignty release. He is currently completing the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) process for reception into the Catholic Church.
Nashville-based ICON Media is marketing and distributing another rising star, who goes only by the name “Angela.” The New Jersey native is getting air play on Christian radio stations with her upbeat single, Glimpse of Paradise. A devout Catholic, Angela speaks of her “remarkable conversion” in concerts and appearances across the country.
In the near future, she will co-host a music show for teens on a “major cable TV network,” said ICON president Herb Busi.
While Catholic music has traditionally followed “a liturgical path,” the times are changing, according to John Michael Talbot. “In the Church, God has recently been raising up many musicians who are doing non-liturgical music.”
Most acclaimed among them is Kathy Troccoli, nominated this year for the fifth time for the Gospel Music Association's (GMA) female vocalist of the year.
Troccoli, who serves as a spokesperson for Life Teen, first hit the pop charts in 1992 with her number one song, Everything Changes. Her pop-Christian crossover tunes, My Life is In Your Hands, and Mission of Love, followed, and A Baby's Prayer, a pro-life statement, was recently nominated for the GMA's song of the year. A long-time proponent of evangelization, Troccoli has said Catholic listeners
will discover contemporary Christian music when it “becomes a part of a hunger and thirst” for God. While Catholic versions of Jars of Clay and D.C. TALK, the hottest Christian rockers and rappers around, have not yet emerged, ICON's Busi said they're not far off. “Over the next year to year and a half,” he predicted, “we're going to see another half-dozen artists emerge that are going to be serious contenders.”
For now, the music of many artists popular in Catholic circles isn't heard on the radio. For example, though he has performed before audiences, including for the Pope at Denver's World Youth Day 1993, Tony Melendez, the armless guitarist, relies mainly on religious conferences and youth gatherings to further his independent music ministry. Dana, another self-distributed inspirational artist, is popular mostly with older Catholic audiences.
There are other independent Catholic musicians. In California, Dennis and Paula Doyle issue Celtic music and Catholic hymns on their own label, much like Deborah Edie in Arizona, who releases wedding music and lullabies for Catholic listeners. Renee Bondi, a paraplegic from California, distributes her music at events and directly, by mail. Joseph Moorman, a tenor from Pittsburgh, Pa., records best-loved Catholic hymns independently, and Marty Rotella, the premier musician in the Marian movement, keeps busy with bookings and self-produced recordings.
But the music of many of these artists isn't directed to young people and is only available in Catholic and some other Christian stores. “The normal Catholic kid is not going to go into a Christian bookstore,” where most popular Christian recordings are sold, said Life Teen's Baniewicz.
Added Sovereignty's Connolly: “In order to reach the youth, we are going to have to come up with better ways, like through Life Teen or retreats.”
The time is right to develop good Catholic product, music industry sources say. And for many of the musicians, bringing music with a positive faith message and Catholic youth together is a priority for building a healthy culture.
“The youth are the future of the Catholic Church,” Talbot said, “and if we do not begin to really support artists like Tom Booth of Life Teen and Tony Melendez, who are specifically reaching out to youth, we will lose our youth.”
Lynn Stinnett Williams writes from Nashville, Tenn.