CANADIAN-born musician Matt Maher surveys a collection of energy-packed snacks in the sacristy of a Melbourne church last Sunday (July 5), choosing a muesli bar.
“Uncle Toby’s?” he queries, settling on a plastic chair with an accompanying cup of tea.
There are many characteristics sublimely clear about Matt Maher, proud Catholic and one of our Church’s young “jewels”, probably the most profound of which is his pursuit not of fame and fortune, but of fellowship among other regular church-goers.
“How’ve you been?” he asks sincerely, listening to the reply with interest, and we chat about happenings in our lives since first meeting last year for World Youth Day in Sydney.
It was a very different Matt I met last year in a pavilion on Bondi Beach, ready to lead a crowd of hundreds in worship and later, tens of thousands.
With Matt pacing the floor boards and warming up his voice, I spoke mainly then to band members Kemi Ndolo and Kenny Butler.
This time (last Sunday), the band had been invited back to Australia for “an anniversary tour” of sorts in Melbourne and Sydney to commemorate WYD08, and Matt was now more relaxed and certainly more available to “chat” – about the weather, about the friends and partners on tour with the band, and of course, about his newest work, “Alive Again”.
“I’d say it’s more incarnational,” he begins when asked to describe it.
“So it really is designed to take people on a journey from start to finish.”
The title track “Alive Again” is Matt’s “own testimony”.
“It’s based upon, ‘Late have I loved you, beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you’ which is part of (St) Augustine’s confession.
“I really resonated with that chapter particularly.”
Matt said St Augustine’s “story is very timely” especially for young people.
“Here is a guy who was raised in the Church but left … “(Living) in the world he had abandoned his Christian roots and got involved in a type of eastern cult.
“He had a conversion later in life and came back to his senses and he talks about how he went into the world to encounter God but, because God was already waiting for him in his heart, the world took him further away from God.”
Matt said St Augustine’s experience might resonate with other Christians saying, “We are constantly in search of Christ in the world but without having him inside your heart you aren’t able to see the world through his eyes.”
“Alive Again”, the album, sets that tone.
“It takes people on a journey starting with the idea that God is the sovereign ruler, the king but he came down and lived and walked among us,” Matt said.
“The songs start big and gets smaller and smaller and more and more intimate.”
Another certain theme of Alive Again is “God revealing Himself in small things”.
“God, in all his expanse and greatness, came into the world as the most vulnerable creature in the world, a baby,” Matt said.
“Then he grows and spends thirty years in obscurity and three years in public ministry.
“Then he dies a commoner’s death between two thieves.
“There’s this sort of beautiful hiddenness about the Gospel that God likes to be in small things … that God reveals his greatness in small things.”
Matt said the Eucharist “is probably the most profound” of these seemingly “small things”, saying, “That’s how Jesus chooses to remain in the world.”
Alive Again features a song about the Eucharist written with an Anglican musician and friend, highlighting “What is God inviting us into?”
“We avoided doctrinal differences and spoke about the heart of the truth of what Eucharist is,” Matt said.
“Aside from debating the issue of real presence even the most fractured Protestants would agree that we have intimacy with God and intimacy with those around us (when we participate in the Eucharist) … and there’s nothing more intimate.”
Those themes then lead to “other songs about death and resurrection”. Saying this year’s release has “a lot more realism” and an “almost melancholy” depiction of Jesus’ suffering on the Cross in, “You were on the Cross”, Matt said his “heart” for the album was centred on “connection”.
“Young people crave connection … and the Church provides that in tradition but without relationship and a personal contact it doesn’t mean anything,” Matt said.
“All of the tradition we celebrate, it came from a place of deep meaning and purpose. It didn’t just happen … it was all very intentional.
“Part of my heart would be to help young people realise that the Gospel is always relevant. It doesn’t need anything. You don’t need to dress it up.”
Asked if he too is “more vulnerable” in the newest work, available from September 22, Matt shifts a little in his chair and answers affirmatively.
Still his humble nature is obvious also affirming that the “spotlight” is always on Jesus’ story and not his.
“My music is not a performance,” Matt said, adding, “Music helps people to pray and to sing.”
Also admitting he’s bought Spanish teaching tapes, the world-renowned Catholic artist based in America is hopeful the 2011 venue of World Youth Day is also planning for the years after.
“After every single host city has a World Youth Day the onus is on them to follow up,” Matt said.
“Hopefully the people in Madrid are saying, ‘We need to have something in place for the year after and for the five years after’.
“If you are going to put all these resources into a week-long event and you really want a sustainable change in the lives of young people, then what you should do is have a five-year plan where World Youth Day is just the beginning.”
With that, other journalists appeared and the volume of the sound check in Sacred Heart Church, Carlton, for the afternoon worship session and Mass, rose significantly.
Gracious and grace-filled as always, Matt thanks me politely and says, “See you next time”.
Nos vemos en Madrid (“See you in Madrid”), Matt, and I’ll bring Uncle Toby’s.
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