Raised in a family of Indiana Quakers, Mullins was baptized in the third grade and imbibed an atmosphere of social justice theology and pacifism from early childhood. He began performing music, both for a choir and in a band, at Cincinnati Bible College in the late ’70s. His career as a musician took off in 1981 when his song “Sing Your Praise to the Lord” was recorded by Amy Grant, who at the time was one of the most popular Christian recording artists. He soon began recording his own albums, and enjoyed both popularity and the respect of his fellow music ministers.
Very much a melancholic and prone to extreme moods, and (reportedly) occasional drunkenness, Mullins’ lyrics were often shockingly personal with only a thin veneer of metaphor as a barrier between him and his fans. Most of his songs are prayers, and his body of work composes a kind of Protestant Psalter. Musically, his style fluctuates between cheap praise-and-worship pseudo-rock, and intimate dulcimer-infused minimalism. His hit single “Awesome God” is not especially indicative of his larger work.
In the 1990s Mullins came under the influence of Brennan Manning, a laicized Franciscan priest who had been writing devotional books like The Ragamuffin Gospel, which notoriously out-Luthers Luther in its monistic exaltation of grace over works. In spite of this, Mullins developed an increasing fascination with Catholicism, and his 1993 album A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band is structured in part on the new Roman Mass. In September 1997, he died in a brutal car accident on his way to a benefit concert at Wichita State University. A few days later, Fr. Matt McGuinness, head of the university’s Newman Center, shocked the musician’s mostly Protestant fans by stating publicly that he had been intending to be received into the Catholic Church.
As it turns out, Mullins had flirted with the idea of conversion for years, and had made it all the way through RCIA two years earlier before backing out of the decision. By 1997, he was often attending daily Mass and had written a musical based on the life of St. Francis of Assisi. He had finally arranged with Fr. McGuinness to make his profession of faith on September 20 at WSU Newman Center. McGuinness had also arranged for Mullins to make his first Confession with Fr. Paul Coakley (now the archbishop of Oklahoma City) at the Church of the Resurrection, a few miles north of WSU.
Today could have been the anniversary of his reception into the Church Catholic. Yesterday was the anniversary of the day he died on I-39 outside of Lostant, Illinois, a ten-hour drive from the Church of the Resurrection. McGuinness was not shy in claiming Rich Mullins as a “convert by desire” in a statement given shortly after the musician’s death, but one truly has to wonder. I am no disciple of Leonard Feeney, but it is hard to ignore a sudden and unexpected death happening so soon before a formal conversion, and presumably while sacramentally unshriven (Mullins assured his priest friend that he indeed had many sins to confess). McGuinness even mentioned in his statement that Mullins had told another friend that he was intending to move his reception back two weeks to October 4, for the feast of St. Francis. Would he have simply kept moving the date back again and again, from a failure of nerve? It’s impossible to say, but the evidence is not optimistic.
To die without Confession, without Confirmation, without the Eucharist—Quantus tremor est futurus, / Quando Judex est venturus, / Cuncta stricte discussurus!—it is a terrifying prospect. I do not wish to be morbid nor to minimize the potential of God’s mercy, but Mr. Mullins did not die a Catholic, however much he loved the Catholic milieu. The year he died, he mused in an interview, “The issue is not about which church you go to, it is about following Jesus where He leads you.”
It seems that Jesus finally led him to a lonely stretch of I-39 on a Friday night in September. Who knows where he went from there?