As Catholic youth of New Jersey anticipate the annual NJ Catholic Youth Rally May 19 in Six Flags Great Adventure, Jackson, The Monitor’s contributing editor, EmmaLee Italia, spoke with Christian/Catholic recording artist Matt Maher, who will close the rally this year with a 7 p.m. concert. Maher has performed for numerous venues, including the 2013 World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His latest album, “Echoes,” focuses on the Christian response to human suffering.
By EmmaLee Italia | Contributing Editor
The Monitor: Talk about the importance of events such as the NJ Catholic Youth Rally [at Six Flags Great Adventure], which brings together Catholics from a large area. How would you say this is good for young people and families?
Matt Maher: One of the things that’s really important about the notion of creating and sustaining a sense of community is fellowship – the opportunity to spend time with people, and I think in particular, to have fun … while Jesus talks about praying in your inner, secret place, he doesn’t say we should live there.
TM: You have been all over the world and in the music business for a while. From your perspective of being on stage, how does music evangelize and bring people together who may not otherwise be together?
MM: [What] I love about music is that it has an opportunity to create a foundation for people who come from diverse backgrounds to all of a sudden have something in common. If both people like a song and they both like singing it together, they can’t yell at each other.
TM: How have you made a conscious effort to reach inactive people of faith?
MM: That’s a really interesting question … I have no control over who listens to my songs, or when and where … I think over 10 years of traveling and touring … it’s made me trust the process of just putting out the music and believing that God’s going to do with it what only he can do … A lot of times when I’m writing a song, I’m thinking of specific people and what [they] might be going through, like addiction or depression … But in terms of how it directly reaches people, I like watching what the Holy Spirit does.
TM: How do you see the vocabulary you choose to use in your music as opening those doors to Christ for the larger masses?
MM: A lot of the potency of the English language has been lost, or is dormant … and that presents a challenge for us as Christians – I think especially for Catholics – because even within the Christian world, we still use sacramental words and images, meanings and descriptors that no one else uses.
TM: Do you think that some of the language … is responsible for attracting people to the faith, just because it’s so different from what they’re accustomed to hearing?
MM: I think it could … I believe the truth is beautiful , but I believe the way the truth is announced and/or communicated also can affect the ability of the person to really perceive it … That’s part of the mystery of why does God use broken people to communicate unbroken truth, you know?
TM: What made you choose religious music versus secular music that is “faith-infused”?
MM: I didn’t really choose it – I feel like it chose me. I’ve always just considered myself a musician… I got a jazz performance degree, and then I was writing songs at coffee shops, but the songs that seemed to connect were the ones I was writing that we were singing at church or at youth group. So I just followed the Spirit where it felt like the breath of God or the wind was at my back, and not in my face. … It’s about having an understanding of what you’re called to and responding to it.
TM: How has your fame affected your own faith experience? Do you feel like it has changed it over the years, or forced you to look at it differently?
MM: Doing what I’m doing has made me love my faith more as a Catholic, but it’s also created a greater sense of compassion or empathy toward those who don’t believe what I believe. I’m doing what I’m doing ultimately because I was doing a Bible study at my Catholic parish young adult group on John 17, and Jesus’ prayer for unity, and my heart broke for Christian unity, in a way that it had not before.
TM: Wow, that’s powerful.
MM: I didn’t get into this for a career as much as I followed the Spirit, because the Spirit was putting a desire within me to see the Church reconcile. And what I realize is, I could play a small part in that by writing songs that Christians from other denominations could sing together …
My dad passed away two years ago. When he was a young man, he was in the seminary, and his father had a massive stroke. He was kneeling next to his father’s bed praying to God, “If you spare my dad, I’ll become a priest.” I didn’t learn about this until later in life, and I’m like, “Dad, going to heaven is not a bad thing.”
I think that so many people have stories like that. The Church is not a malevolent institution … When you just look at the past century [of] American Catholicism, it’s marked with tremendous stories of faith and also tremendous stories of hurt … I believe God’s in the business of restoration and in reconciliation … for me, [I’m] trying to help create a soundtrack for those moments to occur.
TM: I’m sorry to hear about your dad … I was reading about your latest album online – that really touched me, what you were saying about [him].
MM: Well, thank you. One of the coolest things I got to do was fly [my dad] to Toronto when I sang at World Youth Day in 2002 … I think for him it was probably peculiar, because I wasn’t a deeply religious kid, growing up … Toward the end of his life, he still had some things unresolved, but he saw the Rio [de Janeiro] moment with me singing “Lord I Need You” [at World Youth Day 2013] with Pope Francis there – I know he was proud of me … I know that now he sees fully what he got to pass on, so it makes me excited for him.
TM: What song or songs of yours would you say share most honestly about your relationship and experience with God?
MM: “Lord I Need You” is probably the most dead on … it’s just very honest … what you don’t think about when writing a song is, “can I sing this song every day the rest of my life, and mean it?” … That’s become a litmus for me as a songwriter – if I’m gonna put my name to this, do I really believe in it? … It doesn’t always have to be serious … Being a Christian and having a Catholic imagination [means] understanding that a moment is now … [but] everything echoes into eternity.
TM: How is your Spanish? Will you ever try to write songs in other languages?
MM: My Spanish is terrible! But I’m in the process of finishing a live recording of “Lord I Need You” that’s bilingual. And then I’m actually producing an all-Spanish version for another artist … I think that probably more than ever before, we need songs that are being written in people’s heart languages.
TM: What are your favorite psalms or Scripture that inspire your writing?
MM: The Scripture that’s really stuck to me lately … is a passage from Proverbs 16:7 – “When the Lord takes pleasure in anyone’s way, he causes their enemies to make peace with them.” That feels like such a timely message for right now …“God, does this please you? If what I’m doing is pleasing you, you can make it so that people who are supposed to be against me will be for me.” It says a lot about the importance of character … which I think really at this point is countercultural.