Thursday, February 19, 2015

Lenten lessons from Venerable Matt Talbot

[We greatly appreciate the recent articles about Matt Talbot in this publication.]

Seize the Grace!
Lenten lessons from Matt Talbot, the holy alcoholic
By: Bob French
The Word Among Us: Lent 2015 issue

Seize the Grace! 
  Sometimes it seems like changing bad habits takes forever. But is that an illusion? Is change fast, or is it slow?

I think most of us would be inclined to say that change comes slowly, especially when it involves deeply entrenched patterns of behavior. We think of long hours at the gym to lose weight or months of struggle to overcome an addiction like smoking. Change feels like a long, grueling process, which is why so many of us fail to even attempt it. Except, perhaps, when we make resolutions for Lent or the New Year.

But consider, for a moment, the “I do” at the altar, the cry of a newborn, or the words “You are a priest forever.” In a split second, lives are changed. Never again can the couple not have been married, the woman not have been a mother, or the man not have been a priest. Everything is different from that point forward. Or think of Confession: our sins are erased in much less time than it takes to commit them!

In one sense, then, change is very fast, even instantaneous. But living it out? Now that’s a different story. So the question is: once we receive the grace to get serious about overcoming some compulsion, addiction, or bad habit, how can we keep acting on this decision over the long haul? While there are no easy answers, it can help to look at people who have experienced this “fast change, slow change” dynamic. One exceptional model is Matthew Talbot, the Irish workman whom Pope Paul VI declared venerable in 1975.

Seize the Grace! Born in Dublin in 1856, Matt Talbot was an alcoholic. Not a nice “society drinker,” but a down-and-out drunk from a family of heavy drinkers. The Talbots were poor, and Matt attended school for only a year before leaving at age twelve to work in a wine shop. He began to drink there, and before long was a full-blown alcoholic. 

To support his habit, he went on to work in a warehouse and a construction company. All of his wages he spent in the pubs, often with his father and brothers. He was known to pawn his clothes and boots to get money for drink; once he even stole a fiddle from a blind street musician.

For sixteen years, Matt lived only for booze, careening from work to pub and back again, falling further and further into the grip of addiction. Then one day, when he was broke and none of his buddies would buy him a drink, Matt suddenly realized what a mess he was making of his life. In a grace-filled flash, he determined to “take the pledge” to stop drinking for three months. He went home and told his mother, who had been praying for his conversion but advised him not to make the promise unless he truly intended to change. “God give you the strength to keep the pledge,” she said, as Matt went off to seek his first Confession in many years.

Decide and Tell. Matt’s mom was on to something: the first key to changing is to decide. Not to just think about it, but to seize and act on the grace to make a decision. Often we “want to want” to change, but when it comes right down to it, we aren’t all that keen on actually making an irrevocable decision to change. However, that’s where it all starts. And as with Matt, it can happen in an instant.

When we are brutally honest with ourselves, we know when we have really decided and when we are just playing games. A real decision comes from deep within the soul; we know for certain that we have crossed a line, and there’s no turning back. It’s like Jesus, when he “resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). When Matt Talbot took the pledge, there was no looking back.

But that’s just the beginning. Along with making a decision, it’s essential to tell someone about it. Life coaches call this “accountability.” A decision made in private and kept secret is all too easy to dismiss. In Matt’s case, his mother was a witness and reminder of his decision to give up drinking. When we change, we too must let someone know. After all, that’s one reason weddings and ordinations are public events: everyone attending is a witness to the change.

It is also one of the reasons that we confess to a priest. As part of the sacrament, we say that we resolve to sin no more. The priest is witness to our decision to change, and the penance he gives us is our reminder that we have made that decision before God.

Cultivate Self-Discipline. While Matt Talbot’s instantaneous decision set him on a course of holiness, it took the rest of his life to live out the change. He did it by learning self-discipline, by living out his resolution over and over, day by day. This is the slow part of change—the part that isn’t as much fun.

“Never look down on a man who cannot give up the drink. It is easier to get out of hell!” Matt once wrote his sister. But he kept at it. After three months, he extended his pledge to six months. Eventually, with the help of a priest friend, his sobriety became lifelong. 

Matt did more than just resist the urge to drink. Some of his additional self-discipline came in the form of physical mortification: he slept on a plank, ate very little, and even wore hidden chains around his waist, arm and leg (a physical discipline recommended by his spiritual advisor). He also maintained a cheerful attitude, gave most of his money to the poor, and put in a honest day’s labor for his wages. 

Although some of Matt’s ascetical practices were extreme, most of us would also benefit from cultivating self-discipline. We too can learn to control our attitude, work diligently at our occupations, and put the needs of others before our own wants. 

“Jesus, Mercy!” So is the “fast” part of change mostly God’s work, and the “slow” part mostly a matter of our own striving? Not at all! No amount of resolve and discipline can guarantee success. This is another lesson from Matt Talbot’s life: the whole process of changing requires the grace of God. Right away, Matt realized that he couldn’t overcome his addiction on his own; he had to surrender to God and allow the Holy Spirit to provide the strength he lacked. 

The morning after he took the pledge, fearful and anxious about not being able to keep it, Matt went to Mass and received Communion. He did this every day for the rest of his life. He was on his way to Mass, in fact, when he died of heart failure on June 7, 1925.

Especially in his first three months of sobriety, Matt learned to throw himself on God’s mercy. One day, plagued by an inner voice that kept saying, “It’s no use. You’ll never stop drinking,” he knelt with outstretched arms on the cathedral steps and prayed, “Jesus, mercy! Mary, help!” Another time, after going into a pub and almost ordering a drink, Matt spent the rest of the day in church, praying for help against temptation; he also decided never to carry money again.

If we’re making a change, we too can draw strength from frequent reception of the Eucharist and Confession. We can turn to the Lord in prayer. Devotions like the rosary are a great aid, as is spiritual reading—beginning with the Bible. Spending even ten minutes a day reading something uplifting can help us both rely on God and grow in resolve to face the challenges that come with living out real change.

Seek the Change that Matters. To his friends and even his family, Matt Talbot looked like an ordinary, hard-working man with a strong religious bent. On the inside, though, he was a warrior waging a spiritual battle that lasted forty years and made him a hero of the faith. His story shows us that the deepest and longest-lasting changes aren’t the showy, splashy announcements. They are the inner decisions that may only take a second to make but require a lifetime to live out.

This Lent, let’s ask the Holy Spirit for his guidance and power to help us address the areas in our own lives that need changing for the good. And as we do, let’s remember Venerable Matt Talbot, who stopped drinking in a moment—and spent the rest of his life making good on that change.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Lenten Journey with Venerable Matt Talbot

While there is a wealth of information and reading material available for this 2015 Lenten season, we remind all that there is one Lenten publication that is very special: Matt Talbot: A Lenten Journey (2014)

Details are available at, and this book can be read and/or printed free of charge at

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

"Venerable Matt Talbot and Don Bosco"

This article was published earlier today at by ANS (Agenzia iNfo Salesiana), an online almost daily publication of the communication agency of the Salesian Congregation in Rome.

(ANS - Dublin) - In the year when the Salesian Family throughout the world is celebrating the bicentenary of the birth of Don Bosco, in Dublin, Ireland, they are is also celebrating the 90th anniversary of the birth of Venerable Matt Talbot, whose remains rest in a Church entrusted to the Salesians. This gives rise to an opportunity to draw some points of similarity between the Irish Venerable and the saint from Piedmont.

For over twenty years, the Salesians of St John Bosco in Ireland have been entrusted with the pastoral care of Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Sean MacDermott Street, in inner city Dublin. Though in the heart of the city, it is very much a ministry to the marginalized and those effected by social problems and addiction. One of their initiatives is a community based, drug rehabilitation programme aimed at young people. It would be an apostolate very much to the heart of Don Bosco and Pope Francis himself.

The church hosts also the mortal remains of Venerable Matt Talbot, a Dubliner who died in 1925, and was renowned for his holiness, having overcome a crippling alcohol addiction, through prayer and penance. As a pastoral initiative, the parish is holding a number of special activities to mark the 90th Anniversary of Matt Talbot's death, and a Matt Talbot year was announced to celebrate his legacy.

The year was launched with the celebration of a special Novena Mass which was very well attended, with over 200 people coming from all over Dublin, and beyond. Fr Brian Lawless, Vice-Postulator of the Canonization of Matt Talbot,  presided over the Mass, assisted by Fr Richard Ebejer SDB, Parish Priest of Our Lady of Lourdes Church. At the end of Mass, Fr Brian blessed an Exhibition illustrating the life of Matt Talbot at the entrance of the Church, and officially opened a new Shrine Office. Objects belonging to Matt where also on display and his relic was then venerated after Mass.

In a recent article that appeared in the Irish Catholic, Fr Brian Lawless reported that a possible miracle involving a healing in the womb has been presented to Rome. If verified by the Vatican, it could mean that Matt Talbot would be declared ‘Blessed’ by Pope Francis.

“Matt Talbot is very highly regarded, particularly in the US. With all the difficulties and problems people are facing as a result of addictions, now is the time that people need a patron and Matt is the obvious choice,” Fr Lawless said.

In an interview with the Irish Catholic, Fr Ebejer said: “We want to present Matt Talbot as a role model for young people. Many think of him as an old man but his conversion was at 28 years of age. He can speak to today’s young people … St John Bosco used to say that no matter how wayward a young person may be, there is always a spark of goodness that needs to be tapped into.  Matt Talbot is a living proof of how right Don Bosco was! Indeed, Matt has a powerful message for today’s youth, for today’s families and for today’s society.”

Monday, February 16, 2015

Spending Time at the Venerable Matt Talbot Shrine

As part of our commemoration of the 90th anniversary year of Venerable Matt Talbot's entry into eternal life, we might consider spending private time at the Venerable Matt Talbot Shrine during this Lenten season. 

In addition, we might attend the novena Mass on Sunday 22nd February at 3:00pm in his shrine at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Sean MacDermott Street, Dublin, and join others in praying for those suffering from addictions, those in recovery, their families, and the wider community affected by alcohol and drug misuse.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

"Lines for a Sidewalk Sanctified Where Matt Talbot Died"

One of the San Francisco Bay Area’s most charismatic poets, international speaker, mother of seven children, and a member of the Saint Albert's Chapter of Lay Dominicans, the late Mary Rudge (1928-2014) published multiple books of poetry, including For Ireland (2011). One poem from that volume is presented here:

Lines for a Sidewalk Sanctified Where Matt Talbot Died

On this ordinary place where anyone can walk,
sanctified by pain and faith, in the path of holy,
you, Matt Talbot, of the sidewalk,
can lead us.

The chain scars wrapping your body showed
how you bound it against cravings,
bound it to God,
and the rosary, a link of prayer,
beads on a chain,
these were the strengths you could claim.
You pit your slight self with the power of prayer,
strength of spirit,
against the centuries
of what medicine, science, sociology, psychology,
could claim about addiction—that the
body craves and craves again
against its will.

For the love of God and your own sake,
and the poor mother so hard pressed
to find food out of thin air to feed you,
when all you had belonged to drink,
all you had earned from hard labor was given,
you pawned vest and coat and boots,
pledged-away for next week’s wage
for now a swallow, desperate, captive,
unable to think free, needing to drink.

For your sake and your salvation,
you wrapped yourself in chains,
drug them on your body through life,
vowing to never be any other prisoner
but that of love of God, accept
the body God’s perfect gift to return to God.
Wrapped as a gift, falling in your chains
on the sidewalk,
Were you bead on the Holy Mother’s
Rosary, she who prays sinners be healed?

This is your legacy,
to all us little people who are so human:
lifetime of hard labor,
lifetime of little schooling,
lifetime of innocent wonder
at love’s praises, that
and beyond lifetime, that other
holy mother who clasped you to her
by chain of rosary, pulled you
into heaven and free.

Note:  One source of information about Mary is

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Impact of Visiting the Venerable Matt Talbot Shrine in Dublin

We are grateful to readers of this blog who share their reflections about the perceived impact of Matt Talbot in their lives. One such reader, Brian W., has given us permission to post his reflection:
“In 1978, as a tourist to Dublin, I serendipitously visited the shrine of the Venerable Matt Talbot. At the time, I was a non-practicing Methodist. In spite of being the grandson of a Methodist minister, I had left that denomination over the politicization of their services and lukewarmness of their spirituality.
I had also developed a drinking problem—I slowly became aware that I was spending every waking moment either getting drunk or recovering from the previous occurrence. I had quit drinking unsuccessfully many times by that point.
When I visited the shrine, I was unfamiliar with the Catholic veneration of saints, but thoroughly intrigued with the story of Matt’s history and conversion. I spontaneously gave as sincerely a prayer as I ever have for Matt to intercede to me quit drinking.
This did not happen immediately. But on New Year’s Eve, 1980, I become very ill from drinking. On this occasion, I finally did succeed in quitting. The more time has passed since that inflection point in my life, the clearer it seems that it was the intercession of Matt Talbot in response to that prayer that made the difference.”

 Note:  The Venerable Matt Talbot Shrine is located at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Sean McDermott St, Dublin