John Michael Talbot: A new way to share (and sing) the word
John Michael Talbot, Catholic musician, recording artist and writer, looks like he could be a direct descendant of the Church Fathers with his brown robe, long hair and flowing grey beard.
While his style may reflect monastic simplicity — Talbot founded the Brothers and Sisters of Charity integrated Catholic-based community of celibate men and women, singles and families 35 years ago — he uses modern social media tools in his service as a “motivational minister,” posting daily spiritual reflections on Twitter and Facebook as well as weekly messages on his YouTube Channel.
He is touring more than ever in a mini-van he drives accompanied by his wife Viola, a former nun and BSC’s foundress (they married with the Catholic Church’s permission in 1989) and a ministry coordinator. Instead of traveling in a big tour bus with a crew to manage sound and lighting like before, the trio packs everything they need into their van filled with sound and office equipment as well as boxes of some of John Michael Talbot’s 53 albums and 26 books.
In-between short stays at BSC’s Motherhouse in the Little Portion Hermitage outside of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, or at the community’s year-old St. Clare Monastery in Houston, Talbot lives on the road now, traveling more than nine months of the year doing his motivational ministry visits to parishes.
“The old John Michael Talbot has died,” Talbot, 59, told The Tidings before giving an Aug. 30 workshop on the Faith of the Church Fathers at the SCRC Convention in Anaheim. He also played his guitar and sang in a concert the next day with Franciscan Father Stan Fortuna, a professional jazz musician.
Talbot used to do only 10-12 concerts a year, living in his community in a hermit’s cell most of the time, earning a revenue stream through his recordings to support BSC’s ministries. Then, the digital revolution hit the music industry allowing people to individually download songs instead of buying albums, and many recording artists faced plunging sales, dwindling concert venues and, in the case of Christian and Catholic artists, closure of many religious store outlets.
Talbot saw that the old playbook wasn’t working anymore, and a 2008 fire at Little Portion which destroyed all the hermitage’s main buildings “kind of kicked it to the goal post.” Little Portion has since been re-built as one of the first green monasteries in the U.S. and, during the two-year construction period, Talbot, as he says, “went from Paul the Hermit to Paul the Apostle.”
Before the fire at Little Portion, Talbot had been allowed by his community to live a more reclusive life, only coming up to the hermitage’s main buildings for two meetings and a Mass each week.
“Something happened to me in those five years,” said Talbot. “I can’t even put it into words other than it was a naked encounter with God, and all of the little religious games stopped and my old John Michael died in a big way.”
When he surfaced after the fire, he did one more tour under the old concert format and set out to revamp his ministry, reflecting a vision the Lord gave him in 1971, after which he switched to playing Christian music following his early success as a guitarist with Mason Proffit, a country folk-rock band.
In the vision, Talbot had long hair and a beard and was dressed in a habit going from parish to parish, and the words, “When you do this, you will do what I put you here to do,” were quite clear.
Talbot now does 150 “ministries” a year and stays up to three days in parishes giving his motivational presentations which include teachings and music. In living the Franciscan spirit of itinerant ministry, he feels he is fulfilling the message of his early ’70s vision as well as sharing insights he has gained in the decades since.
“For 30 years, I’ve written books and led retreats and done teachings in the community, and the general public has not seen that side, not only of my ministry, but my person — I’m a goofy guy,” said Talbot. “Everybody that knows me personally says, ‘Wow, you’re radically different than this persona that is out there [seeming to float] around on this contemplative cloud.’”
Humor is a natural part of his parish presentations, where he describes his role as “God’s fool and God’s cheerleader” to get people excited about their church again. In contrast to his mostly music program of before, he intersperses singing and speaking, sometimes enthusiastically striding into the congregation.
“I thoroughly enjoy bringing faith and hope, especially hope, to a church in the United States, where, not only is the culture discouraged, but the church in the culture is discouraged,” said Talbot. People are ready to get excited about being Catholics again.
“The people out there in the pew are tired of bad news, they’re tired of the recession, they’re tired of political polarization, they’re tired of scandals in the church. The average person out there just wants to say, ‘Darn it, I love Jesus, and I love my church, and I’m ready to feel good about that,’” laughed Talbot.
A prolific writer, Talbot’s recent book projects include “The Jesus Prayer, A Cry for Mercy,” explaining the Jesus prayer from the eastern Catholic tradition; “Nothing is Impossible with God,” the title of the three-night parish mission he gives; and a book to be published by Image Books/Doubleday expected for release next year described as a journey into the Catholic Church through the Church Fathers.
“I came into the Catholic Church in 1978 through three different doorways: the monastic/Franciscan doorway, the Patristics (Church Fathers) doorway and the Charismatic Renewal doorway,” confided Talbot, who remembers being present at the first Christian music day at Knott’s Berry Farm when he was in the Jesus movement playing Christian music.
He says his evangelical Christian friends weren’t that upset when he became a Catholic, because back in the day, he “was very serious, and the Franciscans [who he went to study with and become Catholic in Indianapolis] taught me how to laugh.” He relishes his grass roots ministry, combining music, humor and the Gospel message.
“People are ready for good news,” said Talbot. “We just have to give each other permission to get excited about our faith again.”
Information on John Michael Talbot is available at www.JohnMichaelTalbot.com; www.facebook.com/johnmichaeltalbot; www.youtube.com/JohnMichaelTalbot; and www.churchchannel.tv as a monthly guest on the program “Live with Passion” hosted by Passionist Father Cedric Pisegna.