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Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

The Year of Living Musically. It’s been about a year now since for Father Ray Kelly of St. Brigid’s Catholic Church in the small manufacturing town of Oldcastle, Ireland captured the attention and hearts of ever since he captured the hearts of  over 40 people (and counting) with his soulful rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah during a wedding ceremony.

Now, he’s making his major label US debut with Where I Belong which is out via Manhattan Records (a division of Universal Music Group) on St. Patrick’s Day and is available for pre-order now via Amazon.  Besides the title track and, of course, Hallelujah, the song list includes such traditional standards as Amazing Grace, How Great Thou Art and Danny Boy, as well contemporary classics like Eric Clapton’s Tears in Heaven.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Father Ray about his love of music amplifies his love of God.

JWK: The Huffington Post has described your performance of Hallelujah as “iconic” which is pretty high praise when you consider the list of those have recorded the song includes the likes of k.d. Lang, Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, Michael McDonald, Justin Timberlake, Willie Nelson, Celine Dion, Jon Bon Jovi, Susan Boyle, Michael Bolton and Leonard Cohen himself. How does that feel? 

FATHER RAY KELLY: When I performed it going back to the fifth of April last, I didn’t see myself as doing anything special really, except just singing the song. The words were rewritten by a young girl just (to) make the bride and groom feel special by putting their names into the song…But I never realized it would reach as far and wide that it has.

JWK: How did the performance come about? Did someone ask you to do it or was it your idea?

RK: As a priest, I’ve been singing at the altar for many, many years — at wedding, funerals, sometimes at my regular Sunday masses as well. Traditionally, if there was a wedding, the bride and groom — if they were from the locality — they would know that I do sing but this particular bride and groom were not from the parish here or the area. The bride Leah was from Dublin and Chris was from Cookstown which is up in County Tyrone in Northern Ireland. They chose Oldcastle and my parish church because they were having their hotel reception about ten miles from here which wasn’t that far. They had the wedding booked for about two years. I worked with them on and off in meeting them, planning the wedding, etc. and doing all the paperwork and documentation and all of that.

So, we always have a wedding rehearsal as well. Two days before the wedding rehearsal, I did say to them, when we were going through the liturgy of the music, I might sing a song for you myself, kind of just smiling and in passing. It didn’t really register at all. They didn’t really know what I meant so it just kind of went above their head a little, you know? But I didn’t realize that, pf course. So, when the wedding day came, I had my track ready and I started singing Hallelujah. It was up on YouTube within 48 hours or whatever.

JWK: It must have been amazing when your saw the reaction.

RK: It was….After the wedding the bride and groom were heading off to Mexico and their honeymoon…They sent me an email to thank me for the lovely liturgy and the service and how everything went and, particularly, for the surprise they got with the song. And they said “by the way, you’re on YouTube.” So, they sent me the link as well. I hit the link and I started watching myself sing. I said “My God, where did that come from at all?!” I watched it a couple of times and, within an hour or so, the phone started ringing from local people (saying) “Father Ray, you’re on You’re on Facebook! You’re on Twitter! You’re on YouTube! You’re at a thousand hits! Two-thousand hits!”…It’s gone up about 30 or 40 thousand every day. People are still watching it a lot.

JWK: How did the album come about?

RK: After that, I suppose within a day or two, radio stations were ringing me from all over the world. There was an Australian TV breakfast show and local radio stations in Ireland…By Friday, I was invited to sing on…probably our biggest TV show here in Ireland called The Late Late Show.  The host is a man called Ryan Tubridy.

RK: I was interviewed. There were email coming in from all over the world congratulating me on how it warmed people and how special it was. More radio interviews and TV interviews. It was just kept going like that. Eventually, Sony Music and Universal Music, their managing directors here in Ireland contacted me to meet me for a chat. I met both of them, They came here to me house where I live. They chatted and were prepared to offer me a record deal and they were going to work out all the details. So, I kind of sat back and said “My God, where is all this going?!”

Within a few days, I rang somebody I know — kind of a solicitor. I told him my situation (and asked) “Is there anybody I might be able to contact to give me advice on this?” So, he put me in contact with somebody — a good man who was involved with dealing with music contracts for artists and all of that.

So, from there the to-ing and the fro-ing was going on for a couple of months between Sony and Universal Music. Eventually, I signed a deal with Universal Music and I was recording the album here in my house from about August/September — over the two months. The last week of recording I spent in Vienna. I finished in Vienna because the two music producers were from Vienna.

JWK: How did you Where I Belong choose as the title track? I would have expected you to go with Hallelujah

RK: We thought maybe (actually going with) Hallelujah might be a bit cheesy or something. We decided (on Where I Belong) I suppose because it’s nice to put the title track of an original song.

JWK: How were the songs chosen?

RK: We sat down and we kinda talked about it. The (producers) talked about what they liked. I suppose we were planning as well not only for the Irish market and the European market but particularly for (the U.S. market). I was on Fox News and I was sent a link to that as well. I think it was Megyn Kelly on Fox News. Somebody told me I was up on the big screen in Times Square. We said “Obviously, the story is big in the U.S. as well.” We kind of felt that we’d love to be able to put some Irish songs on it that would kind of appeal to the U.S./Irish market as well. So, we had Danny Boy, Galway Bay, Isle of Hope. And then there are two original songs. We have, of course, (Leonard Cohen’s) Hallelujah. There’s a new wedding song, as well,  called Together Forever.

JWK: Do you have a favorite of all the songs?

RK: I still love Hallelujah and I love (this) version of it. We’re blessed that Leonard Cohen and his company gave us permission to record Hallelujah with the new wedding words on it…I still love Hallelujah. I just kind of get goosebumps every time I listen to it.

JWK: How have your parishioners reacted to your recent fame?

RK: They’re very, very excited. Initially…people were calling them and ringing and saying “Is that your parish priest singing on YouTube?” They’d say “Yeah, yeah.” They’re all really excited over it and they kinda see it as putting Oldcastle on the map.

JWK: Are there are other priests in your parish?

RK: No. There’s a retired man living in the parish who helps me out but, other than that, I’m on my own.

JWK: Has the bishop been on board with all of this?

RK: Yeah, he’s been very positive about the whole thing and very supportive. Before I was appearing on the TV shows in Ireland here, he rang me up to wish me well, among other things we were talking about. Only recently, he rang me up to ask me how the album was going her in Ireland. It went platinum here in Ireland which was great. He’s been very positive about it and he’s been very obliging. If I have to go away for a few days — like I had  to go to Germany twice already– he’s been able to get some help to just to cover for me here.

JWK: In your opinion, how important is music in helping people connect to their faith?

RK: I suppose that’s one of the reasons why I started to sing. I’ve had some negative stuff thrown at me as well — like, for example, people have said “Oh, you shouldn’t be clapping in church!” and “I upstaged the bridge and groom.” I don’t see it like that. I kind of believe that singing in my voice — and it’s not that I just do it at weddings. I do it every Sunday — is part of prayer for me because I think, as St. Augustine said, “To sing is to pray twice.” I think it helps people to pray. I think music is essential in liturgies and in church.

JWK: Where do you see all this leading?

RK: The important thing is for me to be able to balance my priest work and my music…so that one doesn’t take over from the other. I’ve been a priest for 25 years…So, I’m sort of fairly (settled in) as priest. I suppose with the music business coming into my life now as well, it’s just a matter of kind of (adjusting my) priesthood (work) just a little bit, just to make space for the music. I’m incorporating both and, hopefully, they’ll work well together.

JWK: And I guess it’s good for the Church to have such a positive, so to speak, out there.

RK: Yeah. That’s what people have even said in emails and letters. You know, “It’s lovely to hear. It was so positive to hear coming out of the Church” and “It’s good for the Church.” People were even saying it could be good for vocations. I don’t know. I don’t see it in that light at all. I never considered that there were going to be comments like that. Even priests in my diocese and even other priests that I meet (say) “Oh, you’re the guy! Oh, that was fantastic! Well done! Congratulations!” They’re all so positive about it which is lovely.

JWK: They say “God works in mysterious ways.”

RK: That’s exactly it!

JWK: You’ve been a priest for 25 years. Earlier, had you ever considered going into music?

RK: I suppose I did, Jack. Yeah, I mean when I was younger, I worked for about ten years, eleven years actually, before I went into the priesthood.

JWK: What kind of work did you do?

RK: I worked for the Irish government in the Irish Civil Service. When I was working there…in Dublin I would have gone and had my voice trained for about four or five years, then friends from work and myself might go out to the local pubs or whatever and sing in talent competitions or whatever. Some you’d win, some you’d lose but it was a nice outing and a bit of entertainment — and an excuse to have a few drinks.

JWK: Well, the fact that you won any of them is an indication of singing talent. I’m pretty certain I’d lose all of them.

How old were you when you became a priest?

RK: I was 27 when I started studying. It took seven years. So, I was 34. I was 35 when I was actually ordained. I’m going back into the late seventies. You know, with the Irish, Lent was coming up in preparation for Easter. (As I) grew up, I had a very strong faith. I might have been a regular mass goer but I decided to do something during the season of Lent. The church was just across the road from where I worked. So, I would get up early  every morning and I’d go to mass or do something like that during the season of Lent. Then, Easter came and I said “Oh, that’s lovely to do. I’ll just go on and do it as much as I can.” I suppose within a year or two of doing that — maybe even less — I started having thoughts like “Ray, maybe you could be up there like that priest.” Then I’d kind of slap myself (and say) “Don’t be stupid, now. You wouldn’t be up for anything like that.” So, this kind of to-ing and fro-ing was going on in my head for maybe about a year. Then, I suppose you get to stage where you have to talk to somebody about it. I did.

It was around that time that Pope John Paul II, now a saint, came to Ireland in 1979. That visit had a huge impact on all the Irish people. The following year we decided to pay a return visit to Rome. A thousand young people from the Catholic Youth Council in Dublin, we went over to Rome for five or six days and visited him at St. Peter’s. Then we visited him out at Castel Gandolfo at his summer residence. He said mass for us there. Then we put on a concert for him at Castel Gandolfo one night as well. I remember I think I sang Danny Boy or something like that at the concert. We got presented with Rosary beads afterwards. Looking back at it, of course, it’s a wonderful memory. I suppose I have to say now that, obviously, that had some kind of an influence and had an effect in making my decision to become a priest as well.

JWK: What to you hope people take from this album when they hear it?

RK: I hope people will like it and enjoy it and realize that I’m a priest but I’m just an ordinary guy like anybody else. I don’t seem myself as anything special. If it reaches the heart of people with my music then I’d be really and truly delighted over that because I think music has kind of a language of its own in many respects…May this album carry the song of God’s Heart to all who will hear.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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