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I saw Rich Mullins in concert on a Saturday night at Franciscan University's chapel back in 1993. My girlfriends and I literally sat at his feet in the crowded chapel as he played at a grand piano, barefoot. His beat-up docksiders, sporting a large hole in the toe, lay next to him.
In the days way before grunge, Rich wore long black, graying hair and beat-up clothes. He mixed his be-bop songs with the melodies of the dulcimer and other primitive instruments, and passed out Compassion International brochures after his concerts. Though his Quaker-based theology certainly wasn't Catholic, his sensibilities were. He sang in his songs about meeting God in the material world, "in the Bread and in the Wine." Well, consubstantiation isn't the same as transubstantiation, but it was closer than most Christian singers got.
Even though Rich had written hit songs for artist like Amy Grant and Debbie Boone, he wasn't a top star, although he certainly had a cult following. At Steubenville, we loved his song "Awesome God" with its lyrics that challenged the "Jesus is My Pal" mentality head on: "Well, the Lord wasn't joking when He kicked 'em out of Egypt, it wasn't for no reason that He shed His Blood … I hope that we have not too quickly forgotten that our God is an Awesome God."
So we had already taken Rich Mullins to our collective heart when he came to Steubenville for the first time. When he and his best friend Beaker played and worshipped with us, we sang his songs louder than he did. I remember that he appeared bewildered during our concert, and that at times he would stop singing almost in amazement and listen to Catholics singing his songs. I'd never seen a performer so affected by his audience.
In response to a fan letter I sent him a few years later, he actually sent me a hand-written card, explaining "Tho I am often asked if I am Catholic, I am not." He detailed his reasons for remaining out of the Church, mainly that it would be "divisive."
But the pull of the Truth was apparently harder for him to resist than he let on. He founded a group, "The Kid Brothers of St. Frank," described on the Internet as "an 'order' for people, including themselves, who are too chicken to be real Catholics." His 1993 album was titled, A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band, and his last album, Songs, had pictures of our Lady and Therese of Lisieux on the inside cover. In the Liturgy album, he sang about the Faith, "I did not make It, but It is making me." The more he grew as a songwriter and a Christian, the more Catholic he seemed to become.
There were always rumors that he was going to come to Steubenville to study under Scott Hahn. We heard that he had enrolled in RCIA classes in 1994 but pulled out the day before Easter, saying that he was afraid conversion would affect his ministry. Instead, he went out to the Southwest to work with his Franciscan and Native American brothers and teach music to kids on reservations. We fans of his, now graduated from college and starting families, continued to say among ourselves that it was just a matter of time before Rich was a "big-C Catholic." Every Easter my husband and I would remember him in our intentions and wonder if this year would be the year.
But it was to be this year. This past Sunday, he was to receive his first confession, and this Monday, his First Communion. While preparing for the opening of his first musical, The Canticle of the Prairies, based on the life of St. Francis, he had apparently decided he couldn't hold back any longer. On Friday morning of Sept. 26, Mullins called his friend Fr. Matthew McGinness, and said, "I have to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus." So Fr. McGinness told his congregation on Sunday after Mass at St. Paul Parish/Newman Center at Wichita State University Campus.
But Friday afternoon, September 19, 1997, Rich Mullins was thrown from a jeep in Chicago traffic and run over by an eighteen-wheeler.
It's hard to understand. Certainly the devil would probably have preferred to have such a strong Christian leader dead than Catholic. Maybe, as my husband the theology major says, Rich's death was the permissive, rather than the perfect will of God.
So it is with a double sadness that I will hear of Rich Mullins being buried in a Quaker grave this Thursday. Even if he had never considered becoming Catholic, I would feel his loss. But to know he was so close to full communion with us is another ache.
Fr. McGinness noted when I spoke with him that Rich desired the Eucharist. Eucharist means "thanksgiving." "We certainly need to give thanks to God for the gift of Rich Mullins," he said.
Amen to that.
copyright Regina Doman, 1999. This document is available for republishing only after the author's permission has been obtained. Click the top button for an email link to the author.