THE first question fired at musically minded Missionary of the Sacred Heart Brother James Maher is, of course, if he’s related to Canadian Catholic and musical counterpart Matt Maher.
“I do often get asked that question,” likeable Br James said from his Sydney base.
“I haven’t met Matt but I’m sure we will be related – if we go back into the Irish heritage far enough.
“Most of the Mahers come from County Tipperary in Ireland – there was a massive emigration to the US, Canada and Australia in the mid-1800s, around the time of the famous potato famine.”
Br James’ parents ended up in Maitland, New South Wales, and he is part of a family “for whom faith was central”.
“I would not say that we were pious,” Br James, who has recently written and produced his second CD, said.
“We often had very animated theological and spiritual debates at our dinner table.
“Our mother particularly was keen that we have an intelligent faith – that we not just accept things uncritically.”
All five Maher children were first educated with the Sisters of St Joseph and the boys went on to attend a Marist Brothers school, always availing themselves as altar servers.
“Dad would drag us out of bed at 6am on Thursday morning to serve,” Br James said.
Other early musical and spiritual influences had ongoing impact.
“We had a group at our local parish which was called the ‘folk group’,” he said.
“In the 1970s, the influences of the ’60s folk revival were being felt in Catholic Church music and people like (Missionary of the Sacred Heart Father) Frank Andersen were publishing folk-oriented liturgical music that was easy to play on guitar.
“We played Frank’s song books from cover to cover, it was wonderful.”
With the Mahers always seated in the same pew at Sacred Heart Church, Campbells Hill, “a pre-novitiate (church) for the Redemptorists”, Br James said the young men present “brought a wonderful life and energy to the parish”.
“The Redemptorist priests … were academics and their sermons had plenty of theological substance – very stimulating for bright young minds searching for meaning within their faith tradition,” he said.
Prayer at home also had its routine.
“Our mother taught us all to pray by coming to our bedside every night and reciting our prayers with us,” Br James said.
“I can still remember those prayers today.”
While Br James undertook an engineering traineeship post-school and followed an offer from the Royal Australian Air Force in electronics-communications engineering, he opted to then graduate in mathematics and education.
Religious studies then came into light.
“I think my adult faith journey really began in earnest in these early years of teaching,” Br James said.
“The principal asked me if I would like to enrol in a Graduate Diploma of Religious Education and concurrently take on a junior RE class.
“I said yes and so began a new and deeper phase of my spiritual journey.
“I began to get involved in the local parish and in particular in music in the church and at school.”
Still, “something more or different” was calling.
Then living in London for a year with “an Irish Vincentian priest who was working at a night-shelter for homeless men in the centre of the city”, the dinner table theological discussions continued.
“He became a spiritual guide, a mentor and a friend,” Br James said of Fr Padraig Regan.
“Many a philosophical and theological discussion was had over a small glass of Jameson whiskey.
“I was inspired by his simple living in a fairly poor area of London, by his prayer life, his ministry and his passion for learning and culture.
“It was a rich experience for me indeed and especially helped me to discern my own calling.”
Back on Australian soil in 1992 Br James said he was “ready to take the leap into the unknown”, entering the novitiate of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (MSCs) early the following year.
Following his novitiate Br James moved to Sydney and began four years of study “very involved in the local parish liturgy” and enjoying “wonderful years”.
“I was already writing theology essays every few weeks and I had a love of poetry,” Br James said of that time.
“It was just a matter of adding in the music – and presto, I’d have some songs.”
His first album, Heartvoice, was compiled from experiences here, aiming to “engage the young people in heart, mind and voice” during liturgies in the school environment especially.
“It was a big challenge,” Br James admitted of working within Daramalan College, and MSC college in Canberra.
“Most of our students were no longer regular participants in any formal liturgy outside of school.
“But by following the principles of good ritual, I think we led them through some truly profound and prayerful experiences.
“Music was always a central part of the whole and I particularly loved trying to find or write things that our students would sing.
“I ended up writing a school song for the college which to my delight, they sing with gusto to this day.”
Accompanied by “good radio play and sold well throughout Australia” the compilation, while not all “liturgically minded” included popular “Woman of the Sacred Heart”.
It’s now translated into other languages and appreciated worldwide, heard on Irish TV last year sung by the Waterford-Omagh Peace Choir on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the MSCs in Ireland.
Another Maher piece, My Loved One, was chosen to feature with a series of Ken Duncan photos in a Combined Christian Churches “advertisement” in 2004.
This year’s recently-launched Gospel of Love CD grew “especially out of commissioned works”.
“I was actually in a very busy new ministry from 2003 to 2009 after leaving Daramalan College and had little time for writing,” Br James said.
“But various individuals or groups asked me to write songs for particular situations or uses or celebrations.”
Describing himself as “a romantic at heart” Br James said he writes “a lot of what the pop industry would call ballads”.
“I don’t have any trouble writing a good tear-jerker,” he said.
“I love exploring deep emotions through music but the up-beat songs are more of a writing challenge for me.
“My writing is very lyric driven … I am basically a poet first and a musician second.
“The words and the meanings matter enormously to me and I am not satisfied with ‘fill-in’ words or phrases that don’t faithfully witness to the mystery of our experience of God and our faith.”
To order Br James’ material go to www.chevalierinstitute.org.au