A priest, his music, and evangelizing the culture

Why would a Catholic priest spend his valuable free time recording music? That’s one question that Father Kevin McGoldrick probably gets quite frequently.  As chaplain of Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee, he certainly lives in the right city for writing and recording songs. But how can a talent that once saw him playing in clubs in Philadelphia in the 1990s now be used for the New Evangelization?  I sat down with Father Kevin to discover how he uses his music to preach the Gospel in a language people can understand.


Okay, Father.  So the first thing that might come to people’s mind is — why? If you’re Catholic priest, why are you doing this music thing?

So, for years I’ve been playing and writing, and when I would share some of my songs with people, they would ask me, “Father, do you have an album? Are you going to record an album? What are you doing?”  And I’d say no.  I’d thought about it, but the possibilities weren’t really there.

Then coming to Nashville—with all the connections and the great people here—it just seemed like the doors opened. The people that I met were very encouraging and the right people are here to do it.

It’s just what you do in Nashville.

Well, the environment is so conducive to it.  That was another thing coming down here—the musical environment is very generative and encouraging of people to share their original work.  Before coming here, I was pretty shy about sharing my originals. But here, you go to a party and everyone pulls out the guitars and says “Okay, let’s hear one of your songs,” and I’d be like, “Okay, I’ll play a John Mayer song.”  They’d say, “No, we want to hear your songs.” Really? You want to hear my songs?  Why would you want to hear my songs?   So that kind of environment is encouraging.  It’s generative, it’s affirming.  So being here for a year, being able to do that, just got me like, okay, it would be good to do this.

But lots of other people are writing music and recording music.  What if someone told you: you’re a priest, you should be celebrating Mass and leaving music to others? Have you heard that?

Sure.  But what people don’t often realize is that priests throughout history have been intimately involved and influential in the secular culture. From science to art to astronomy. St Albert the Great was a scientist, Vivaldi was a priest.  Vivaldi wrote The Four Seasons.  No words, just music. But it is timeless.  People love it. Why? Because he’s touching beauty.  Beauty is being revealed. Beauty is a transcendental and is a reflection of God.  So if you’re doing something beautiful, it has that lasting effect.

So why do it?  Well, truth, beauty, and goodness aren’t means to an end.  They are their own end.  Beauty doesn’t need an apologetic.  Beauty is its own end.  When we strive for beauty, when we lean towards beauty, it’s naturally lifting us up, lifting our humanity up, and it’s bringing our humanity closer to God.

If it’s one thing our culture needs desperately, it’s beauty.

It seems that our culture has rejected the good and the true, and yet it still has this longing for beauty.  So do you think we need to speak to it through beauty, so it can find the good and the true?

God speaks to people in ways they can understand.  If you look at Acts of the Apostles, Pentecost—when the Apostles go outside and are all preaching, everyone hears them in their own language.  Which is a miraculous thing.  What does that say?  God wants to speak to them in ways they can understand, in their own language.  That’s exactly what we see with Our Lady of Guadalupe. The reason that image was so effective was because when the Aztecs saw that image, it was their language.  He’s revealing Himself to man in their own language—in their picture language. They knew it was a miraculous image, they knew what happened with it—but it wasn’t just because it was a miraculous image.  It was that it was this miraculous image that spoke to them, and that told them God actually cares about us. He really cares about our own life—who we are, what we do—He wants to speak to us in our language.

That’s the Incarnation—entering into humanity, into the ups and downs of our real humanity and speaking to us.  That’s what Jesus did.

I love doing worship, and I want to keep doing it—but I’ve also been writing a lot and writing about other stuff and you start to discover this whole reality that if truth, goodness, and beauty are its own end, it touches the human heart.  So there’s something evangelizing about that—putting that out there.  How many people have been touched by Vivaldi, without having any idea that he’s a priest?

It’s a subtle, hidden way of evangelizing.

So not many people would say The Four Seasons is a religious work.  And not all your songs are strictly religious.  But they all speak of the human experience.  So do you think people can be attracted to the humanity of the songs and possibly then find Him?

Yes—that’s the hope.  It speaks a truth they can connect with.  To be truly human is to be truly a reflection of beauty.  Our goal in spirituality is not to be less human, but to be more human.  St. Ireneaus said, “The glory of God is man fully alive.”

The peaks of culture in civilization is when humanity is becoming alive, when it is expressing itself.  How much of the art that we go see at art museums, people are still fascinated by the art of the 13th and 14th centuries—when culture was flourishing and they were expressing themselves, especially in religious art and music and architecture.  People would ask them the same question, “Why are you doing this?”

So it’s okay for a priest to be writing songs that aren’t explicitly Christian. God gave you this talent, and now you’re using it for Him.

It makes me think about C.S. Lewis’ work vs. J.R.R. Tolkien’s work.  Very different.  Lewis’ fictional work was directly allegorical.  He loved allegory, he wanted it to be obvious.  So in the Chronicles of Narnia, it’s obvious that Aslan is Christ.  He wants everyone to make that connection.  He wrote it for his kids, so they could do this.  There is a beautiful place for allegory in literature.

Tolkien hated allegory. He didn’t like Lewis’ work—and they were good friends.  But he didn’t like allegory.  And Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, is not allegory in any sense of the word.  It’s its own thing. He never makes an explicit reference to God in the sense of the way we talk about God.  In the greater work, he does talk about the Creator, but it’s not a Christian allegory, it’s not a Christian work in the sense that it’s not Christ on the cross or anything like that.  Jesus doesn’t have an explicit mention or anything like that—it’s its own world.

And yet a lot of people prefer Tolkien to Lewis because, man, it makes people ask the deeper question of life.  He draws you into your own life and the struggles of life, the deeper questions of time and eternity and joy and suffering and love and heartbreak and glory and victory and death.  He does it in such a way that just by diving truly into this myth, he reveals humanity, and by revealing the truth of humanity it automatically opens up into God.  You don’t even have to have the intention: My goal is to have people touch God here.  No, if it’s truly human, if it’s really human and it touches the human experience, it opens that possibility in and of itself.

So I think a good love song is going to somehow touch love in your heart.  St. Augustine says, “Love and do what you will.”  If God really is love, somehow, mysteriously that has a connection to God.  Now, is it going to be explicit in that first moment?  Maybe not.  But for some people that’s going to open that up and it’s going to be that journey.

So we can find God in songs about coffee and Nashville and love.

His humanity has brought about the ultimate reason for being able to sing about human things.  In and of themselves, it’s good, because we’re created in God’s image and likeness.  But by the Incarnation, He has sanctified human life.  Now every area of life that’s truly human somehow is a place where we can touch God.  So in music, if something is touching real human life—sometimes it’s joyful and sometimes it’s suffering—it touches on different aspects of human life.  But this is why love songs—like heartbreak love songs—if they’re genuine, it touches the human experience.  And the Lord has somehow sanctified that.  The human heart is worthy of being contemplated.

Father Kevin’s first full-length album Square Peg / Round Hole will be released on Friday, October 30.

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About the Author

Joannie Watson

Joan Watson was born and raised in Lafayette, Indiana, but college and graduate school took her to Virginia, Ohio, and Rome. After graduating from Christendom College with a B.A. in History and Franciscan University with a M.A. in Theology, she moved to Nashville, Tennessee to be part of the explosion of Catholic culture in the middle of the Bible Belt.

She has been blessed to work for Dr. Scott Hahn at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia at Aquinas College. She is presently the Director of Adult Formation for the Diocese of Nashville. She also serves as the Associate Editor of Integrated Catholic Life.

When she’s not testing the culinary exploits of new restaurants or catching up on the latest BBC miniseries, she’s FaceTiming with her eight nephews and nieces and enjoying her role as coolest aunt. She likes gelato, bourbon, and the color orange.

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