Brennan Manning

Brother Manning, on the road

The preacher's blue jeans are faded and artistically patched to symbolize the ragamuffin theme in his ministry.

The speaking voice is gentle, until the occasional verbal storm shakes the room.

The demons are familiar. Cigarettes, alcoholism and a lifelong struggle with guilt can give a 70-something orator an edge. Once a Franciscan priest, now a divorced Catholic layman, Brennan Manning is the only superstar on the evangelical speaking circuit who goes to daily Mass and to confession as often as he can.

The angels are familiar, too. Manning always begins with the same gentle joke: "In the words of Francis of Assisi when he met Brother Dominic on the road to Umbria -- 'Hi.' " What follows are flights of intellect, hints of poetry and blunt appeals to the emotions that lead to a common theme.

"God loves you just as you are," said Manning, during a swing through South Florida this past semester. "Not the way that you should be, because no one in this building is the way that they should be."

At the Last Judgment, he said, here are the questions that Jesus will ask every sinner: "Do you believe that I love you? That I waited for you day after day? That I longed to hear your voice?"

Year after year, the New Orleans-based Manning speaks in conferences and retreat centers nationwide. He has strong ties to Christians in the music industry, via his 1990 bestseller, "The Ragamuffin Gospel" and a dozen other books. An author's work is going to spread when he draws the attention of Michael Card, Michael W. Smith, Bono of U2 and others.

This message of divine love triumphing over shame, fear and guilt also strikes a chord in a setting that some might find surprising -- modern college campuses. While Christian colleges strive to offer a different environment, many of the issues are the same, said Manning, who as a priest once served as a campus minister.

"Based on my pastoral experience, I think there is serious guilt among college students today," he said. "It may not be guilt about some of the things that older adults think they should feel guilty about, but there is guilt all the same.

"It's guilt that is totally based on friendships and relationships. Most of it is about their peers. ... Many students feel as if they have given their hearts away and then they have been abandoned. Now they feel that they cannot even trust God."

Students may feel tremendous guilt about their parents, often for what to outsiders will seem like paradoxical reasons, he said.

It's natural for the young to feel resentment or hostility toward parents who have neglected them, especially workaholic, distant fathers. Often, they have been given large amounts of their parents' money, but not time and attention. Then there are families that have been splintered by divorce, abuse and various forms of chemical dependency.

These students feel anger, said Manning, but they also feel guilt about their anger.

Then there are the students whose parents have been highly involved in their lives and have sacrificed time and money to help them succeed. This creates a different kind of pressure and, thus, guilt.

"What if," he asked, "you knew that your parents had taken out a second mortgage on their home just so you can go to college? What if you knew that they were really making sacrifices for you, yet you also knew deep down inside that you are a bit of a slacker and a partygoer? Then you would feel guilty because of your own lack of gratitude, your own lack of love."

Over and over, Manning tells his listeners that they must accept that God loves them -- no matter what. As a result, his many critics insist that he is preaching "cheap grace," a kind of Christianity Lite that shortchanges hard teachings on sin and repentance.

Manning insists that his critics are missing the point.

"You see, you do not have to change to earn God's love and compassion," he said, near the end of one sermon at Palm Beach Atlantic University, in West Palm Beach. "This love always precedes the repentance of sins. Repentance is about you. It is about allowing yourself to be loved by God. The love comes first."