To understand why Father Ray Kelly, 60, is world famous with 15 million You Tube hits this weekend you have to consider the song he picked to celebrate a wedding the in Oldcastle, County Meath.
For such a celebratory occasion, Leonard Cohen’s blistering ballad "Hallelujah" is a curious choice. It’s a song about damaged faith. Its sentiments are raw and inconsolable.
That could be part of the reason why it resonated so deeply with the over 15 millions readers who visited You Tube in the past few days to see it.
With the endless abuse scandals in the church and the arrogance of so many clerics still refusing to acknowledge the depth of pain and revulsion they created, it’s a startlingly uncommon thing to see an Irish priest make himself look vulnerable nowadays.
On top of that Father Kelly picked a famous ballad about isolation and heartbreak and sang it at a wedding, of all things. What was so striking was how the unmistakable sound of sorrow and yearning in the original song – a timely sound – managed to remain completely intact.
Some critics can say that Father Kelly bowdlerized Cohen’s song with his syrupy lyrics about the bride and groom, but I would not agree. The sound is half its sense of Hallelujah and Father Kelly left that part untouched.
Poets can’t control what their poems will come to mean to people, no more than a singer can change what a song meant to the person who originally wrote it.
Cohen’s Hallelujah doesn’t promise you a Hollywood happy ending. As a matter of fact it assures you you’re going to bleed. It conveys great emotion. So did Father Kelly’s performance.
It's very surprising to hear a ballad about heartbreak and isolation sung by a priest, especially during a wedding he’s actually presiding over.
Weddings are supposed to be inclusive, celebratory affairs – and from the roar of applause at the end of Father Kelly’s performance this one was no different.
But Father Kelly managed to do something fascinating, he brought the sound of loneliness and bitter experience to a couple’s most joyful occasion, and instead of puncturing their dream day, he made the congregation jump to their feet in delighted applause.
Part of it can be explained by Father Kelly himself. With his Irish everyman looks – there’s no mistaking he’s a member of the tribe – you could have been forgiven for thinking you would witness another generic ceremony, one without surprises.
But the twinkle in his eye as he sings confirms a lively spirit at work, one that understands his own parish the way he understands himself. The bride and groom certainly weren’t expecting a Cohen number, but the band were rehearsed and they knew something special was about to unfold.
Ask yourself how long it’s been since you saw an Irish priest with such an understanding of the needs of his own parish? That’s because we live in an age where we are more likely to be talked down to than serenaded.
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 prevail against the exclusionary forces that 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 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.
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