by Neil Xavier O’Donoghue
A few years ago Pray Tell reported a viral YouTube video of an Irish priest singing a tribute to a newly married couple during their nuptial Mass to the music of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Commenters seemed to be divided between those who thought it was a good way to engage the couple and meet people at the level of popular culture to bring them to God, and those who considered this to be an inexcusable breech of the liturgical rubrics and good taste in general.
Now there is another video doing the rounds in Ireland. The video has been viewed over a million and a half times in the first three days it was on line. This is of a recent wedding where the niece’s uncle is a famous Irish singer Daniel O’Donnell. As a surprise to the couple, O’Donnell organized a rendition of the famous hymn “How Great Thou Art.” The priest sang the first line and other members of the congregation stood up and sung a line each (many of them were professional musicians). In contrast to the last video, this time the priest is not a soloist (the priest here only sings the first line) and the hymn is a traditional hymn and not an adaption of a piece of popular music.
The bride was in tears at the performance and commented afterwards “We had the best day ever and absolutely everybody said that the church was their favorite part of the day.” This must be taken in the context that nowadays the center of many Irish weddings is not the church and a lot of the guests do not even attend the religious ceremony with the reception being the popular high point of the nuptials.
Another factor to be taken into account is that congregational singing is still quite weak in Ireland. Irish people love a sing-song and will sing in a pub or a party, but it is very hard to get them to sing in a church. There are some fine choirs, but many people still have the attitude singing in church is something Protestant (and therefore it must be bad!) Thomas Day’s Why Catholics Can’t Sing is based on the assumption that penal times in Ireland when Masses had to be celebrated in secret, often in the middle of the countryside at a Mass Rock, was the end of congregational singing in the Irish Catholic Church. Day proposes that this Mass Rock mentality continues to this day in Ireland and the U.S. While this is a simplistic analysis, there is definitely some truth to it.
I can’t claim to speak for the whole Irish experience, but in the time that I have been ministering in Ireland I can say that the vast majority of Sunday Masses that I have celebrated have been without music. Those that have music (both regular parish liturgies and especially funerals) tend to have little or no congregational singing. One gets the impression that the cantor, musician and choir are regarded as professionals who have been brought in as a service to the congregation. Maybe this video shows that whatever the woes that the Irish Church has at the moment that maybe there is a new openness to some sort of congregational singing. Even if there is a long way to go and this involved professional musicians and not full congregational singing it could be a sign of hope and encouragement for renewed musical initiatives that might bear fruit in the future.