By Michael Rizzo
Part singing superstar, part evangelist, John Michael Talbot came to the altar at American Martyrs parish in Bayside on April 20 for the first of three nights of revival for the faith.
It was a night mixed with preaching and prayer, humor and songs and frank words for the audience about what he says is needed in the Church today.
“The secular world is in disarray,” he said. “There are 30 million non-practicing Catholics. People go to evangelical churches because they’re engaged there. Catholics haven’t crossed the line from wanting to want revival to actual reviving.”
Talbot’s appearance is his first in the diocese in several years and in an interview after his opening event at American Martyrs, he described it as “a ministry.” It’s a ministry known to many of the estimated 250 people who were at the church that night because of his hymns like “Holy Is His Name” and “I Will Lift Up My Eyes.”
“Catholics are in a mediocre zone,” Talbot said. “We need more attentiveness to the word of God. We need better preaching. Parishioners can’t go to Mass on auto-pilot. I want them to be on fire so they can have a personal encounter with Jesus.”
Nancy Hill of American Martyrs came because she follows Talbot on Facebook.
“When he speaks, you feel connected to the Gospels,” she said. Later her sister Arlene described using Talbot’s music to teach catechists and those in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).
“Music is a big part of prayer life,” said Father John Gribowich, who had seen Talbot twice in the past and came from nearby St. Nicholas of Tolentine parish in Jamaica where he serves as parochial vicar. “Tonight we’re praying with him, inspired by his music and his way of life.”
When he’s not traveling the country with his message of healing and hope through music, Talbot lives the monastic life at the Little Portion Hermitage, part of The Brothers and Sisters of Charity, a religious community he founded in Arkansas. He wears that monastic life on his sleeve, literally, with a brown robe reminiscent of a Franciscan friar along with a long gray beard.
“I want my speaking to excite and encourage people,” Talbot said. “I take music and combine it with God so people are taken to a mystical place and that’s where the connection with God happens.”
It happened for Barbara and Jack Goydas of American Martyrs who saw Talbot for the first time.
“He gets you involved,” Barbara said, to which her husband added, “He’s a rock star. Very, very inspiring.”
Holding the Hand of Jesus
Talbot was born a Methodist and converted to Catholicism as a young adult. His preaching is almost reminiscent of a camp meeting when he asks the audience for an Amen, has them raise their arms high to symbolically hold the hand of Jesus or leads them in song.
But his voice is soothing and melodic as he sings while strumming his guitar. The audience seems to feel it too. When he tells them to hold the hand of the person next to them during a prayer, one woman went out of her way to cross an aisle to grasp the palm of a stranger.
“You close your eyes and you are at peace,” American Martyrs’ parishioner Ray Fortune said to describe listening to Talbot.
Father Frank Schwarz, the pastor at American Martyrs, said it took about two years to arrange for Talbot to come to the parish. He saw the three nights as a parish retreat.
“I want people to get a good positive, spiritual experience from this,” he said, “especially during this Jubilee Year of Mercy. I hope for many it is a spiritual renewal.”
While most in attendance were from American Martyrs, others came from Our Lady of Grace, Howard Beach, the Diocese of Rockville Centre, and some were not Catholic at all.
“We are non-denominational Christians,” said William Humphries who came with his 20-something son Michael from nearby Fresh Meadows.
Humphries said that while Talbot may have been focusing on a revival for Catholics, “his words apply to all Christians.”
“It was a blessing,” Michael Humphries said about his being there, “bringing me closer to the Lord.”
Near the end of the evening, after Talbot announced a “love offering” – there was no cost to attend the event – he sang another of his songs, “Surrender,” based in part of the life of St. Teresa of Avila. His message remained the same.
“Step out of your safety zones,” he said to the audience, “and light the Church on fire again.”
Editor’s Note: John Michael Talbot will be at St. Brendan’s parish, Midwood, May 12-13, at 7:30 p.m. For more information, call St. Brendan’s at 718-339-2828.