I have to receive the Body and Blood of Christ.
These words of Rich Mullins, a Christian musician who died in a car accident on September 19, 1997, days before he planned to join the Catholic church, will never fade in Fr. Matt McGinness memory.
Its what will always stick with me, says Fr. McGinness.
In the Beginning...
Fr. McGinness, vocations director of the Diocese of Wichita, and Mullins became friends while Mullins attended Friends University in Wichita. Fr. McGinness says Mullins asked him to give him instructions in the faith, but Fr. McGinness told him it would be more appropriate for him to attend RCIA sessions at his local parish, Blessed Sacrament.
Five years later, Fr. McGinness says he received that call from Mullins saying that he could no longer wait to receive the Eucharist. Fr. McGinness arranged for Mullins to be received in the church in a private ceremony on September 22, but the fatal car accident irrevocably changed that plan.
Those RCIA sessions in 1992 may have been the formal education that Mullins received in the faith, but his interest reached back nearly 20 years.
He was always interested in the Catholic Church and that never left him, says Jim Smith, chaplain and professor at Friends University, who was a close friend of Mullins and has written his biography, An Arrow Pointing to Heaven (Broadman & Holman Publishers).
Mullins lived with Smith and his family in their attic apartment for more than two years, including the time he was attending RCIA classes.
Drawn in by the Depth of Brother Sun
Smith says when Rich was about 20 years old, he saw the movie Brother Sun, Sister Moon and was blown away. Mullins was struck by St. Francis of Assisis radical trust in Christ, says Smith.
Keith Bordeaux, who worked with Mullins promoting his albums and scheduling tours, says Mullins always said that he admired St. Francis immensely, but was "too wimpy" to join the Franciscan Brotherhood. Bordeaux wrote in a statement shortly after Mullins death that Mullins had taken "unofficial" vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity. He and his friend, Beaker, began an informal group they called the Kid Brothers of St. Frank where they mentored young musicians to live simply and to glorify God through their music.
Mullins adopted St. Francis instruction to preach the Gospel through example.
Although he had multiple gold records, song-of-the-year awards, and other successes, Mullins lived out his vow of poverty by taking an annual salary of the average working person (about $24,000) and giving the rest of his money away to his church and other charities.
He never married and strived to make the love of God his center. Bordeaux wrote, (Rich Mullins) longed to know fully who he was in Christ and to increase his faith through his obedience. And he trusted St. Bonaventure when he said, That heart is free that is held by no other love than the love of God."
Other saints like St. Patrick and Catholic authors like G.K. Chesterton also influenced Mullins spiritual growth, Smith says.
Mitch McVicker, who quickly became friends with Mullins while they were students at Friends University, performed with Mullins and lived with him for almost three years before the car accident.
McVicker says, For as long as I knew him, he was always talking about becoming a Catholic. He probably felt more comfortable at that kind of service (Roman Catholic Mass) than anywhere else. He was drawn to the liturgical stuff.
Mullins first introduced himself to McVicker in a class because he thought McVicker looked like the perfect person to play Frank in a musical he was thinking about writing based on the life of St. Francis.
Mullins and McVicker collaborated and wrote the musical, Canticle of the Plains, that takes St. Francis life and transposes it into the American Old West.
Catholic Themes in Rich's Life and Work
Canticle naturally contained Catholic theology, like in the song "Oh My Lord," which are the stations of the cross. Mullins also wove Catholic images throughout his CD A Liturgy, a Legacy and a Ragamuffin Band; for example, the song Creed uses the Apostles Creed as the text for the verses. On his collection CD titled Songs, many of the photographs feature Catholic sacramentals, including a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Mullins said in an interview after its release that some of his Protestant fans were upset by the images.
In a promotional video, "Pursuit of a Legacy," produced in 1994 by Reunion Records, Mullins defended veneration of Mary when he said, Ive often thought, you know, of people worrying with the Catholic thing of revering Mary. Maybe its not that they revere Mary too much, maybe its that all of us revere each other too little.
McVicker and Mullins lived together in a modest trailer home on a Navajo Nation reservation near Window Rock, Arizona, at the time of Mullins death. They attended daily Mass frequently at the Franciscan mission church on the reservation.
Fr. McGinness says Mullins told him some of the Protestants he worked with on the reservation were uncomfortable that he attended Mass. Apparently, Mullins told them if they could provide him with a comparable daily Scripture study, he would consider it. Until then, he would continue going to Mass, Fr. McGinness says.
Whether Mullins would have actually gone through with his verbal commitment to join the Catholic church remains a quiet controversy among his friends.
I think some Catholics were too quick to turn him into a poster child for Protestant conversion to Catholicism, Smith says.
He called me and said, Wouldnt it be cool to join the church on the Feast of St. Francis? but it wasnt his personality to be that specific. He blew with the wind. He could have changed his mind that day, says Smith.
Fr. McGinness says a lot of Mullins fears that he discussed with him were about losing his primarily Protestant audience.
Smith agrees and says, Rich was well aware of the price he would have to pay if he joined the Catholic church. It would have been very difficult for his family and painful for a lot of fans.
Smith says he thinks some ecumenical good can come from the fact Mullins died before possibly joining the Catholic church: both Protestants and Catholics can still lay claim to Mullins and his music.
I think what Rich would be saying is appreciate each other, work as one, says Smith.
Fr. McGinness sees Mullins premature death differently. He says if Mullins had converted, it would have forced his Protestant audience to make a decision.
Some of them would have had to get over their prejudice. It would have been another fork in the road for them, just like it was for Rich, he says.
McVicker says he thinks a big reason why Mullins delayed joining the church was simply because he had such a hectic schedule. We would be someplace else on Easter rather than where he needed to be to join the church. The lifestyle of doing music is your schedule is set six months to a year in advance. Rich never planned (his personal life) that far in advance.
Smith says he doubts Mullins ever would have had the certainty necessary to make the act of profession and formally join the Roman Catholic church. The fact is he went through RCIA and didnt do it, he never made a definitive decision, says Smith.
There was always something that seemed to get in the way, like he wasnt all the way sold on it, says McVicker. But McVicker also says, He was right on the verge, yeah he very well could have been on the verge.
Rich was definitely going to enter the church, says Fr. McGinness. He says the phone call he received from Mullins just days before the car accident leave him unshaken in his conviction that Mullins was ready to take the final steps to join the church.
Fr. McGinness says through his music Mullins was growing closer to God and seemed to be undeniably drawing closer to Jesus and his church.
At one of Richs memorial services, Amy Grant said that Rich was the guilty conscience of contemporary Christian music. I think she may have meant that some musicians use it to switch over to mainstream music, pop or country, but not Rich. Rich was moving farther away from mainstream. He was becoming more deeply Christian all the time, says Fr. McGinness.