Why has one Irish priest’s soaring rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” during an April 5 wedding at Catholic church in County Meath spread like wildfire through Ireland and around the world, turning into an Internet sensation?
And Father Ray Kelly has done it before. This is from March 22, 2014.
While questions could be asked about the liturgical correctness of singing the song—even with the customized lyrics celebrating the bride and groom—at the altar during the Nuptial Mass, it’s as if Ireland’s currently pinched Catholic heart grew two sizes upon hearing it.
To understand why that happened is to understand the complicated history of Ireland and her Mother Church in the last century and a half.
In the wake of Ireland’s Great Famine, or An Gorta Mor, in in the mid- 1800s (in which everything grew except potatoes, but potatoes was all the Irish tenant farmers could keep for themselves to eat), society in many areas of Ireland, especially the countryside, broke down.
Families were devastated through hunger, disease and emigration; bodies had been dumped into mass graves, the mouths of some stained green from the grass they ate in a futile attempt to survive. Historians believe 1.5 million Irish died, and 2 million more emigrated, gutting the nation at every level.
The social dislocation was profound, and one of the few organizations able to keep some semblance of order was the Catholic Church. Subsequently, its influence grew, especially in rural areas. When Ireland became free of direct British control in 1921 with the establishment of the Irish Free State, that removed any political barriers to the Church.
The good fruits of Irish Catholicism and strong devotion are all around us, but especially in the post-World War II era, the stern control of the Irish bishops over daily life began to feel less pastoral and more dictatorial.
The arrival of material prosperity in Ireland during the Celtic Tiger years of the 1990s, the decreasing social and cultural isolation of the Irish in the Internet age, along with the increasing secularization of European society, began to draw people away from the Church.
Even though Pope Benedict XVI took strong action against the Irish bishops and apologized to the victims in a 2010 pastoral letter to Irish Catholics, it did little to stop Catholic Ireland from coming apart at the seams.
But, as the Celtic Tiger ceased to roar, culminating in a deep financial crisis that began in 2008 and continues to this day, a people beset by unemployment, debt and the bleeding off of the youth to emigration began to search once more for a stability that couldn’t be found in secular society. Here and there, Irish eyes began to look again at the local church.
Owing in some measure to the popularity of Pope Francis and his message of humility, fidelity to the Faith and care for the poor, the last year especially has seen green shoots in Ireland, where Mass attendance is up (also in neighboring England and Wales). Ireland is also re-opening its embassy at the Holy See.
In the end, though, if the Catholic Church in Ireland is to redeem Herself in the hearts of the people, it may begin where it always has, with the parish priest. In this case, it’s 60-year-old Father Kelly, the pastor of Oldcastle, County Meath, northwest of Dublin, since 2006.
He surprised Chris and Leah O’Kane and their assembled friends and family with a version of Cohen’s mournful yet uplifting ballad that spoke of marital love and added their own names.
Appearing on the “The Late Late Show” on Ireland’s RTE Network, Kelly told host Ryan Tubridy that he had told Leah at the rehearsal, “I might sing an old song for you, myself,” but it “didn’t’ really go in.”
Kelly revealed that the lyrics were written by a 10-year-old bridesmaid, who sang it at her godmother’s wedding in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, about four years ago. Kelly received voice training while working in the civil service in Dublin before entering the priesthood at the age of 27. He served with missions in South Africa for a few years before returning to Ireland.
Kelly said the visit of John Paul II to Ireland in 1979 deeply impacted him. He later traveled with about 1,000 others from the Catholic Youth Council to Rome on a reciprocal visit, where he was chosen to sing “Danny Boy” for the pontiff at his summer residence, Castel Gandalfo.
He said he’s been invited to Lithuania, Croatia and Japan for weddings, but added, “I’m not sure what my bishop would say about that.”
Kelly has released two albums for charity and is working on a third.
In an emotional piece for IrishCentral.com on April 12 – which richly deserves a click to read the whole thing –Cahir O’Doherty writes, “With the endless abuse scandals in the church and the arrogance of so many clerics still refusing to acknowledge the pain and revulsion they created, it’s a startlingly uncommon thing to see an Irish priest make himself look vulnerable nowadays.”
He continues, “So I think Father Kelly is on to something. He knows how to reach his congregation with complex and compassionate messages that celebrate their community and their faith. That’s the kind of awareness that used to make a priest what the Irish called a sagart.
“It’s also a timely reminder that it will be love and human goodness that will prevail against the exclusionary forces the even the Pope himself feels have often hijacked the Vatican and the faith.
“Father Kelly’s song was a beautiful moment, and such an Irish one, too, because it was a reminder that there’s hope for us yet. Good men can prevail against princes after all; all it takes is for one man to stand up.”