By KATHY SCHMUGGE
LEXINGTON — Al Barbarino, an international singer and Catholic evangelizer, is no stranger to Corpus Christi Church. Three years ago Barbarino traveled from his diocese on Long Island to perform at the church, leaving behind newfound friends who anxiously returned March 10-11, bringing with them more people to hear Barbarino’s message of living life with Jesus. Not only did Barbarino sing at all the weekend Masses at Corpus Christi, he also sang during the diaconate service Saturday morning. His concluding performance and talk was Sunday evening, which attracted more than 150 people.
He had planned to give a small performance at St. Martin de Porres Church for the people coming to the soup kitchen, but ended up making sandwiches for the poor instead, since the volunteers for that day were detained. “I felt like I was living the episode of ‘I Love Lucy,’ when Lucy and Ethel were on the assembly line,” he said with a smile. He used the incident as a way to demonstrate how God will use a person in the most unpredictable ways.
Between songs, many of which were original pieces written by his brother Santo, a composer and musician, Barbarino expounded on the theme of the song, whether it was on the role of St. Joseph or the importance of the Eucharist. He spoke in a way that everyone could understand said one teen-ager who approached him after the concert and exclaimed, “You made our faith look so everyday and real.”
His talk was like a crash course in the Catholic faith. He explained Marian devotion, the sacraments and the responsibilities that go with being a Christian from the perspective of a streetwise New Yorker who has seen firsthand the suffering that results from sin and injustice. He incorporated many stories of the people he has met through working part time as a counselor at the state prison and more recently his work at the juvenile detention center in the South Bronx.
One of the many humorous analogies he gave regarding the faith was the impropriety of leaving church right after Communion. “If you were at a dinner party with your friends, would you leave their house with a fork full of lasagna dangling from your mouth? Then how could you do that to God?” he asked.
Throughout the years, his music ministry has evolved into a family affair, with the support of his wife, Mary Ann, whom he calls “a saint,” his brother’s musical contributions, his son Chris’ graphic designing for music covers and the clerical assistance of his daughters, Maria and Gina.
He made the goal of his ministry clear, “I am not here just to sell tapes or entertain you, but I come to evangelize and raise money for the poor,” said the lay Franciscan, who gives 40 percent of the money from the tapes and CDs sold to the Padre Pio’s Shelter in the Bronx run by the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, 40 percent to the Croatian Relief Fund, and the last 20 percent goes to the poor of the parish he visited.
“You can tell he means everything he sings and says. He is very charismatic and knows how to communicate with people,” said parishioner and convert Sandy Relyea, one of the parishioners who had heard him three years ago.
Although Barbarino has been singing since he was a small child, his music ministry did not start until after his 1985 visit to Medjugorie, Yugoslavia, a place where the church is investigating alleged apparitions of the Blessed Mother. He said that when he returned from this spiritual trip, he felt like God was calling him to do more with his life. Several years later, with his three children almost grown and while working in the New York inner city school system as a counselor for troubled students, the call to serve grew stronger.
Suddenly it was as if God produced a road map for him to follow. Because he was open to God’s will, he did not ignore the signs. First Barbarino met two people who were very influential in his life. One was a man in his prayer group who encouraged him to record his voice and sell tapes and CDs, giving all the profits to charity. Barbarino liked the idea but did not “even have two nickels to rub together” to finance such an endeavor. Little did he know that the gentleman in the prayer group was quite wealthy and would be the answered prayer. He recalled his friend’s words that remind him of similar words spoken by Mother Theresa, “You have a voice and no money. I have money but no voice. Together we can do something beautiful for God.”
He also met Father Glenn Sudano, who at that time was operating the Padre Pio Shelter. Barbarino was impressed with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal because of how authentically Franciscan they were, owning nothing, devoting their lives to the poor, sleeping on the floor and begging for food when necessary. He saw the incredible good that was being done at the shelter, where the residents were given dignity, responsibility and love. “I have to do something to help these people,” he remembers saying to himself and has been helping ever since, through the sales of his music.
Barbarino travels on average 10 times a year out of state and spends the rest of the weekends visiting churches in his Tri-City area, singing at Mass and giving free concerts. After 10 years and seven recordings, he has been to almost every corner of the globe. His next concert is in Australia, his first time there. Some people have urged him to get an agent, but he quickly responds, “I have an agent,” and he points to the cross. “There is no better wireless network than God’s,” said Barbarino, who mentioned how after a concert, he usually has someone make arrangements to have him come to their church. He does not charge anything for his concerts, so it makes him an irresistible bargain for those who love Christian music.
Because he does not prepare the music or the talk, he depends on prayer to do God’s work in his ministry. He also enjoys the immediate feedback from those who attend his performances because it shows how the Holy Spirit works through people. A Baptist woman came up to him after his talk in Lexington and told him that she had been “sitting on the fence about whether or not to become Catholic” and has now made up her mind to begin the process into the church.
Anyone who has heard Barbarino would agree that he is not a performer but a friend who is in love with God and that love is contagious. He urged people to trust God and to give up worrying. “Whatever you do, give it to God, the big, the small, the joyous and the sad, and he’ll do the rest. He speaks in the silence of our hearts and through other people. If you kneel before the Blessed Sacrament, grace and peace will come from prayer, and you will get all you need.”
Anyone interested in having Al Barbarino come to their church or to purchase tapes or CDs, call (516) 599-3415.