Sunday, February 16, 2003

Man from Down Under gives word from on high

Transplanted Australian travels around the world to open hearts to happiness

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] Matthew Kelly lectures and writes about modern Catholicism and spirituality.
(Joseph Fuqua Ii photo)
| ZOOM |
So, Matthew, at age 29 you have given your spiritual talks and retreats to more than 2 million people worldwide, mostly on the topic of modern Catholicism. How did you get started in this line of work?

I was in college in Australia, majoring in business and plotting my ascent to the top. But I also had an interest in spiritual life. Some friends of my parents had these monthly gatherings and asked me to come and speak about young people and spirituality. I was 19.

They made a tape of that talk and started passing it around. Within 18 months I had spoken in 20 countries.

Kind of makes it hard to hit the college books, 'eh?

At some point during those 18 months I decided to take a year off college and concentrate on speaking. Well, you know what that means. I still haven't gone back, though I would love to someday.

You were born and raised in Australia. What twisted path brought you to Cincinnati and a home in Monfort Heights?

By '96 I had spoken in 35 countries and one of the byproducts of that travel was I saw the influence America has on the world - socially, economically, politically, culturally and spiritually. That led to my decision to focus on the States.

I started in Philly and Pittsburgh, but a couple of my staff members grew up here and kept talking about it. In 2000, I decided to relocate here.

And you're happy about that?

Very. It has been a great, supportive city where I've developed a lot of key relationships for the work I do. I'm 10,000 miles from family and friends, so a welcoming city like this can be a wonderful thing.

Do you spend the entire year in Cincinnati?

No, I spend six to eight months here, a couple months speaking in Europe and a couple months in Australia. I saw the (Cinergy) implosion on TV in Sydney. You know, Pittsburgh blew up its stadium while I was living there, so I'm starting to think, maybe it's me.

How often do you speak?

I do a 50-minute program in 100 cities a year, and that's all I can really manage. In '97, I did 230 cities in one year and ended up suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome.

What's the message of your talks?

I tell people that the human heart is on a quest for happiness and that happiness is only found when we strive to be the best version of ourselves that we can be. I guess that is a Catholic message, but it's also a universal one.

Why not become a priest?

The priesthood is a calling, and I don't feel that's what he's calling me to. I feel God uses me in ways he couldn't use a priest. And also, I really do want to have a wife and children some day.

Has there been any change in your audiences since the priest sex abuse scandal broke?

I don't think so. At times when I've addressed it, I've found the audience very open to having it addressed.

One of the real tragedies is that the Church has failed to find a voice, someone who can go on the 6 o'clock news and speak about what the Christian community does for the good of society. Like (Bishop) Fulton Sheen in the '50s.

Do you want to be the next Fulton Sheen?

I don't think the market's ready, but I also think that maybe in five to 10 years the networks will start looking for spiritual programming. I know the demand is building and they won't be able to ignore it.

Look at the marketplace - the fastest-growing segment of the publishing industry is Christian books. That market has tripled in the past 10 years. It's the same in music - every major label now has at least one Christian act.

How is what you do different from what Billy Graham does?

I think my goal is different. From my understanding of his work, his goal is to get people to give their lives to Christ, whereas my goal is to show people how Christ wants to elevate their lives and how letting him into their lives is the key to a richer and more abundant life experience.

Let me go back a minute, because I think I should edit myself: In a sense, even our goals aren't that different. The approaches are different.

What do you do when not speaking?

I write. I've written eight books. My newest is Rediscovering Catholicism (Beacon Publishing; $22.95).

What's next for you?

More writing, and at some point, I'd like to teach, first at the high school level, then college. I'm already speaking to that audience all the time, so it's not a great leap.

What would you like to teach them?

That we all need to draw from the new and the old. That in every period of history there is a need for some kind of change. We need to be open to that but keep a balance where we retain the best of the old and incorporate the best of the new.


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