John Michael Talbot has been an icon of contemporary Christian music since the 1970s, with more than 50 albums produced, millions of recordings sold worldwide and a long history of sold-out crowds at large venues.
His music is familiar to Catholics, who sing many of his songs at Sunday Mass, including The Magnificat (Holy Is His Name) and Only in God.
Talbot, who is a convert to Catholicism, had joined the Secular Franciscan Order as a lay member. He later founded the Brothers and Sisters of Charity, a public association of the faithful, with hundreds of members around the country. Talbot and his wife are members of the community, which includes celibate as well as married men and women and has its home base at Little Portion Hermitage in the scenic Ozark Mountains of Arkansas.
But in 2008, Little Portion burned to the ground in a devastating fire.
By necessity, Talbot went on the road as a "troubadour for the Lord" in order to raise the money needed to rebuild.
In the process, he also rebuilt and repurposed his entire music outreach. He spoke to the Register while on the road in Austin, Texas, recently.
You’re still continuing with the new format of conducting parish missions rather than ticketed concerts?
In the old days, I did 40 concerts per year. Now, I do 150 events per year, mostly at Catholic parishes, but also at Protestant churches. When I was doing one-night ticketed events, I felt like I was in a bubble, isolated from Catholics "in the trenches"; but with the multiple-night format, I feel like I get to know people a little bit and see what the U.S. Catholic Church is really like. I go to every kind of parish: big, small, urban, suburban and rural, wealthy and poor — and with every kind of ethnic mix.
As we went around the country in 2008, we learned that Catholics were discouraged. The sex scandals and the terrible economic conditions were just beating us down, and the people needed encouragement. We eventually developed a three-night mission format called "Nothing Is Impossible," because Catholics so desperately need to hear that message — and they still need to hear it. Laypeople are on the front lines of the Church in the work of the New Evangelization. It’s so important to encourage the laity, and this mode of ministry really allows me to do that.
As you embarked on parish missions instead of concerts, you also completely changed your appearance. Before, you looked like a modern St. Francis, with short, dark hair and a neatly trimmed, full beard. Now, with your Franciscan habit and long, graying hair and beard, you look more like St. Anthony of the Desert. What’s the reason for the dramatic change?
That fire [of Little Portion] purged me. In the years leading up to the fire, I had been living a model of monastic life called "reclusion," where I spent most of my time in solitude. It was fruitful, but after the fire, God led me to understand that the old John Michael Talbot needed to "die" and that he wanted me to rise up as something new. I had the sense of God telling me, "I’ve let you be Paul the Hermit. Now, I want you to go out like Paul the Apostle, sharing the fruits of solitude and of the purging power of that fire."
So I deliberately changed my appearance, radically, in keeping with the entirely new direction of my life and ministry.
Now, I joke with people on the first night of every mission, comparing my appearance to Moses or Gandalf or the guys on Duck Dynasty — I call it "monk dynasty"!
You said that, when you started the parish missions in 2008, you discovered that Catholics were discouraged. Are Catholics still discouraged?
Yes, and there are some depressing statistics about the state of the Catholic Church in America. Only 17% of Americans who identify themselves as Catholic go to Mass. Only 15% of Catholic youth go to Mass. If non-practicing Catholics were their own denomination, at 30 million, they would be the second-largest in the United States [with practicing Catholics as the largest] — and half the people attending nondenominational mega churches are ex-Catholics [according to Matthew Kelly’s The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic].
Why do you think people stop going to Mass?
Catholics don’t leave the Church because they disagree with what it teaches. They leave because they are disengaged. As a Church, we say we have the best restaurant in town. And we do. People come in, but we don’t bring the food to the table. People end up hungry, so they leave and go to the restaurant down the street.
Yet, as I go all over the country ministering to Catholics, I am certain that there is revival brewing and ready to bubble over. Catholics are ready to get excited about their faith. With our new Pope, they are getting excited about their faith. Parishioners are ready to be deeply engaged with their faith. Priests and pastors are ready to be engaged.
What do you mean by "engaged?"
Silence, stillness and reverence are good, but we also need enthusiasm. Not emotionalism: enthusiasm, which comes from the Greek word entheos, meaning "in God."
Ultimately, at every Mass, we come to be "born again," to let the old self pass away and allow ourselves to be created anew. Catholics can think of every Mass as an "altar call," where we are invited to stand up for Jesus, come out of our comfort zones, step forward and give ourselves fully to Jesus.
We need to let go of our inhibitions and sing — give it all up to God. Come to Mass ready for the homily, and the homily will be better. That kind of engagement draws people in.
Pope Francis wants engagement, which is what I think he means when he says that he wants pastors to "smell like sheep." People are ready to clean up the corruption in the Church. Pope Francis is exactly what we need right now.
Talk about your new book, The Jesus Prayer.
The Jesus Prayer was published in October of last year (2013), with InterVarsity Press. It’s a long reflection or teaching on the simple prayer, "Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."
Why The Jesus Prayer? Isn’t that just for Eastern Christians?
I have always tried to be a bridge between the Catholic world and the non-Catholic world, and I try to bring an orthodox, proper understanding of the Roman Catholic Church to non-Catholic Christians — and even to secular readers.
The Jesus Prayer is perfect for that kind of bridge-building, because it brings together Eastern and Western Christianity, Catholic and Protestant Christianity — and can even bring together secular and Christian — because people of all faiths and of no faith are drawn to the mystical and to the contemplative.
It must be working: The book is now in its second printing!
Finally, share with Register readers how they can have a fruitful relationship with God.
Just get closer to Jesus … getting rid of the stuff in our lives that keeps us from full communion with him. Rethink, rearrange and repent. Add things that bring you closer to Jesus. Subtract things that draw you away from him. Think about these words from St. Francis of Assisi: "I seek not to pray, but to become a prayer."
Clare Walker writes from