Over the course of the next several weeks, we will continue to hear plenty about the Protestant Reformation, its causes, its consequences, and the prospects for Christian unity. And that is right and just as we approach the five hundredth anniversary of Luther’s defining moment in Wittenberg. But it’s worth a brief pause, because twenty years ago today the Christian world—or at least the English-speaking portion of it—lost Rich Mullins, one of its most beloved unifiers. Versatile, creative, and mystical, Mullins was a man whose art, practice, and theology straddled the Tiber. He was gone in an instant. And I miss him.
There was no entourage involved in the accident, no tour bus, just a dear friend on a lonely Illinois highway. He died as he lived: modest, simple, always feeling on the fringe and yet with others on his mind. Mullins represented the finest of what unites Christians. He wrote and sang about—and did his holy best to enact—the virtues and the beatitudes. Mullins was drawn to St. Francis of Assisi, even identifying himself and several friends as the “kid brothers of St. Frank.” He was humble, wrestled toward purity of heart, and practiced the art of accompaniment before it became controversial.
Mullins inhabited the Quaker, Evangelical, and Catholic worlds. Not long before he died, Rich had completed the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, the catechism course that prepares persons for reception into the Catholic Church. He had not, however, pursued confirmation. He attended Masses on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico where he and his closest friend spent parts of the last two years of his life (there wasn’t a Protestant congregation nearby). Why live there? Because he wanted to. Rich was always drawn to the edges of society. He “smelled like the sheep,” to borrow from another Francis he would’ve admired.
I acquired some treasures—and left others—when I became Catholic in 2011. What I never gave up, however, is a love for the man who continues to accompany me with his words two decades after his death.
When I meet with petty injustices and vitriol, Rich reminds me that there is bound to come some trouble to my life, but that ain’t nothing to be afraid of. Hold on to Jesus. But don’t expect too much on this side, because joy and sorrow are this ocean. Here I’m tested and made worthy.
When I struggle with old demons, Rich levels with me that we are not as strong as we think we are. It’s obvious I’d rather fight for something I don’t really want than to take what he gives—grace—that I need. But the stuff of earth still competes for the allegiance I owe only to the giver of all good things.
When I don’t know how to love my enemies—I’m still rather poor at it—Rich reminds me there's a wideness in God's mercy that I cannot find in my own. I need to let that mercy lead, to melt this heart of stone.
When I watch friends, priests, pastors, even chiefs of state bend the knee to the gods of this world—because they promise us peace—Rich asks me to reach beyond the wisdom of this age into the foolishness of God, because that foolishness will save those who believe.
Is it too bold of me to say it? St. Rich, pray for us.
Mark Regnerus is associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, senior fellow at the Austin Institute, and author of Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy.