Before his first child was born four years ago, Matthew Kelly had already learned a great deal in life. He had to in order to provide content worth listening to in his countless speeches and reading in his best-selling books. Yet, despite all the knowledge he had taken in, there were some priceless pearls of wisdom he had yet to acquire. These would be the irreplaceable gifts daily given by his children.
Matthew Kelly, the 40-year-old founder of Dynamic Catholic, spoke with Catholic Digest about how marriage and fatherhood have changed his life for the better. He also shared his thoughts about his favorite books, his upcoming projects at Dynamic Catholic, and the great adventure otherwise known as public speaking.
You’ve given literally thousands of talks over the past 20 years. Did public speaking come naturally, or did you have to work at it?
I have never been on a roller coaster, but I imagine public speaking is like riding a roller coaster. The first time, it scares you pretty good. The second time, it scares you less. If you rode it 4,000 times—as I have done in the case of giving speeches—you learn to enjoy it. Today, there are few things I would rather do than stand up in front of an audience and engage them in a conversation about what matters most in life.
Some Catholics who have heard one of your talks or read one of your books may not know that you also have your own consulting firm. What are the most pressing needs for businesses today?
Business will always be about people. There have been incredible technological advancements in the last 50 years, but on both sides of every business transaction, you still find people. When businesses forget this, they start to treat people in ways that, simply put, are counterproductive and just bad for business. Businesses exist for people; people don’t exist for businesses. In a similar way, the Church is a gift from God to his people. The Church exists for people, to help them walk with God in this life and to God in the next. The Church exists for people; people don’t exist for the Church.
You had your first battle with cancer at age 35. How did that change your life?
I remember the doctor saying the word “cancer," but I was surprisingly calm. I was so calm it worried me a bit. Of course, I was surrounded by care and concern from others, and I have never felt like people were praying for me like I did then.
The big lesson for me throughout the experience came as I walked out of the doctor’s office, drove back to the Dynamic Catholic offices, and had a full day of meetings. It occurred to me that I had just received life-altering news—possibly life-ending news—but the world doesn’t stop. The world moves on, pressing on in perpetual motion and activity.
Most of all, cancer taught me that we are all carrying around something—some life issue we’re wrestling with or some big question we’re grappling with. The lesson: Be gentle with people. You never know what cross they are carrying in their lives. You never know what is going on inside them, but you can be sure, something is going on in there. We all have our battles.
What are the top five Catholic books that have influenced you?
I love books. I love reading them. I love writing them. There is just something about books, these portable instruments of wisdom, that has captured my imagination since I was young. Most of my favorite books are in the Dynamic Catholic book program, and the ones that aren’t, I am working on obtaining rights to.
Some of my favorites are Jesus Shock by Peter Kreeft, Confessions of a Mega-Church Pastor by Allen Hunt, Ordinary Lives, Extraordinary Mission by John Wood, Made for More by Curtis Martin, and Walking with Purpose by Lisa Brenninkmeyer.
Books change our lives because what we read today walks and talks with us tomorrow. I truly believe that if every Catholic read one great Catholic book a year for 10 years, we would completely transform the Catholic Church in America. That’s why I am so passionate about the Dynamic Catholic book program. Game changes are simple, and the book program is a simple and effective way to evangelize and re-engage Catholics.
What are some of the things you think the Catholic Church does best today?
I think the Church proposes the best way to live, even though that message may not be welcome. The Church is also exceptional as the premier defender of human rights and social justice. And one of the great movements of our age is among the laity. More and more laypeople are hungry to get involved and champion the mission of the Church. God is doing something here, stirring hearts to action.
What do you think the Church needs to do better?
At Dynamic Catholic we talk a lot about “meeting people where they are and leading them to where God is calling them to be." As a Church we need to get really, really good at this. At the moment I feel like we are standing on one side of a very busy eight-lane highway, yelling at people, “You should come over here!" We need to cross the road ourselves, take them by the hand, and help them cross this treacherous road.
I also think we need to do a much better job of engaging people in what we call the “Catholic Moments" of baptism, reconciliation, Communion, confirmation, marriage preparation, RCIA, and others.
This is why we have chosen to focus on these Catholic Moments at Dynamic Catholic. Our 10- year plan focuses on 10 programs that we plan to deliver and make available to every parish in the United States for free. We have just launched our first of these programs for confirmation. The program is called “Decision Point," and it’s made up of 72 short films which are accompanied by online components, an app, a workbook, and a leader guide that have been designed by a group of incredible artists.
Over the past decade 85 percent of young Catholics who were confirmed stopped practicing their faith within seven years. We want to change that, which is why we chose confirmation as our first topic in the Catholic Moments series.
What are you most excited about with your work as you look to the future?
The confirmation program has been all-consuming for the past four years, and while I have published books during that time, with the exception of The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic, these books were written before I began working on “Decision Point." So, I am itching to write…and really looking forward to having some time to write again.
But, if you really press me, I am most excited to see how the research behind The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic will change the way we do what we do. I am constantly fascinated about how the research can guide us to get better at everything we do. I think some people think of it just as a book. I think of it in much broader terms as a blueprint that shows us how to re-energize the Catholic Church in America.
You are now a husband and a father. How has marriage and fatherhood changed you?
Marriage was like coming home, finally coming home, after a long, long journey. Being a father really surprised me in a hundred ways. The biggest lesson is that if I can love my children as much as I do—and I am fragile and broken, wounded, and weak—imagine how much more God loves us. I mean, I’ve always believed that God loved us, but now I have a sense, like never before, of the incredible love of God.
Being a father is an amazing gift. It is so immense—and as a result, incredibly humbling—when you really start to reflect on the gift and responsibility of fatherhood. But the joy of everyday life is indescribeable. I have three children, Walter (age four), Isabel (age three), and Harry (age one). It’s amazing how they have these little personalities right from the beginning. God has sowed the seeds of personality, gifts, talents, and abilities, and watching and help them emerge from each of my children is awesome.
Most of all, I think the kids bring perspective to my life. Each night I have story time with them. I lie down with them and talk about their day, and then tell them a story. Right there, in that moment, is the ultimate examination of conscience. It is a moment that puts everything in perspective. I may have spent the day wrestling with or stressed about something, and more often than not, this moment with my kids tells me that some of the things I have been focused on are just not as important as I thought. If I listen carefully and watch closely, the kids remind me of what matters most—and what matters least. But I am a slow learner.
And then, there are those moments when you are just struck by the awe of how their little minds work. Like when Walter walked into my home office a week before Christmas, sat on the couch, and very thoughtfully said, “Daddy, I have some questions."
“What’s your first question?" I asked.
“Well, Daddy, is it going to be Christmas soon?"
“Yes, eight more days," I told him.
“Well, Daddy, do you think I will get some presents?"
“Oh yes, Walter, I’m sure you will."
“Well, Daddy, if it is Jesus’ birthday, why do I get presents?"
Wow, I thought to myself. I took him in my arms and hugged him tight. It was one of those moments you try to hold onto, but even as you try to hold onto it, it slips away.
Jesus talked a lot about children, and he invited us to be like them. That is a message, one aspect of the gospel, that our modern culture has rejected. And we are poorer for it.