Today has been set aside by Mother Church to remember another Secular Franciscan, Matt Talbot. Matt strikes me as a model for what it means to be a secular Franciscan.
Matt was born on May 2nd, 1856, the second of nine children. His father, Charles, was a Dublin dockworker, and his mother, Elizabeth, a housewife (with nine children, a laborer herself). Like his father and all but his older brother, Matt became a heavy drinker after leaving school at age 12. Working as a laborer in the building trades, he eventually would spend most, if not all, of his pay on alcohol. It got so bad that Matt would beg, borrow, or steal the money necessary to feed his addiction.
Everything changed one evening in 1884; In today’s parlance we would say that Matt “hit bottom.” While standing outside a pub hoping that his friends would invite him in for drinks, those same friends walked past him, no longer willing to tolerate his behavior. He went home and announced to his mother that he would “take the pledge” to abstain from alcohol for three months. He did that, followed by taking a six-month pledge, followed by pledging to remain sober for life.
No doubt all of us know someone who has struggled with alcohol addiction, or that which comes with other drugs. In itself, Matt turning around his life would be noteworthy, but no more so than the many, many others who have faced their demons and emerged better people for having done so. What makes Matt Talbot stand out is that immediately before his abstinence pledge, he went to confession, and the following day he received communion. Matt had not been a devout Catholic during his drinking days, but he evidently knew intuitively that the Sacraments would be a key to turning over his life.
We can only imagine the struggles that Matt—or any recovering addict, for that matter—faced in embracing sobriety. But in the sacramental life he seems to have found not just the strength to endure but the Grace to become so much more. He attended daily mass and maintained a devout prayer life, becoming a Secular Franciscan (then called “Third Order”) in 1890. He made good on all the debts from his drinking days that he could; he remained a hard-working laborer for the rest of his life, lived simply, and became known for his good-humor, kindness, and generosity. He died of heart failure on his way to mass on Trinity Sunday, 1925.
What makes Matt Talbot a model Secular Franciscan in my eyes is his extraordinary ordinariness. Matt was little different in outward circumstances from countless other men and women of not only his day but also our own. He worked hard, and by the world’s standards never achieved much. He never went to college or trained for a career, never married or raised a family, never made much money or wrapped himself in the imagery of success and status. He even fell victim to the all-too-human weakness of addiction. Yet, Matt found it in himself to open his heart to allow for Our Lord’s healing to touch both his physical and spiritual self. He didn’t simply “turn his life over to Jesus”, he embraced the living Christ in the same way our father Francis did. In doing so, he was radically transformed into something altogether new, an ordinary man made extra-ordinary.
Ordinariness is very much a part of what it means to be a Secular Franciscan. In our ordinariness, though, we work and pray that we, too, may so open our lives to Our Lord that, like Matt Talbot, He will help us to become extra-ordinary.
(These are the sources I drew upon, though having done so does not necessarily imply my endorsement of the content of these sites.)
- Here is the short biography posted on americancatholic.org
- Here is Wikipedia’s longer bio.
- And here is another bio at savior.org.
- The Venerable Matt Talbot Resource Center “compile[s] writing about [Matt Talbot’s] life, times, conversion, and recovery from alcoholism…”
- Kathy Schiffer has a bio on Matt Talbot posted on her blog at Patheos.com and the following “Official Prayer For The Canonization Of Venerable Matt Talbot”:
“Lord, in your servant Matt Talbot you have given us a wonderful example of triumph over addiction, of devotion to duty, and of lifelong reverence of the Holy Sacrament.
May his life of prayer and penance give us courage to take up our crosses and follow in the footsteps of Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Father, if it be your will that your beloved servant should be glorified by your Church, make known by your heavenly favors the power he enjoys in your sight.
We ask this through the same Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.”