GREEN BAY — They call themselves “The Priests” because that’s what these Irishmen are, and they sing their faith to audiences around the world. On March 20, they’ll be at the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts in Green Bay as a part of a short U.S. tour.
However, they’re not just singers who happen to be priests. Their priestly vocation is front and center in their lives, and all are pastors in churches about 40 minutes away from each other in Northern Ireland.
“We are, all three of us, ordained over 25 years now, and in that time the parish has always been the focus of ministry, with God’s help,” Fr. Martin O’Hagan said in response to a set of questions emailed to him in Ireland. They are away from those parishes only two to three weeks a year, which also includes their holiday time. In fact, clauses in their contract emphasize the priority of their pastoral work.
“Even though we have been singing together for 40 years, our parishioners form a crucial part of the journey. They are delighted at the sense of ministry that the music involves, and we keep our parishioners informed about the concerts on a regular basis. In many ways, the parishioners are right in there with us, and there is a humble pride on their part in what we do.”
The Priests are Fr. O’Hagan and his older brother Fr. Eugene O’Hagan, originally from the village of Claudy, County, Londonderry; and Fr. David Delargy from Ballymena, County Antrim. They met while in college, where they were dubbed “Holy Holy Holy” because of their determination to enter the priesthood.
The men pursued their individual scholastic paths, ending in Rome where Fr. Eugene specialized in canon law, Fr. Martin specialized in moral theology, and Fr. David focused on sacramental theology and education. It was there that they studied under musical masters, and their combined talents were recognized. They were invited by the pope’s private secretary and master of ceremonies to sing for Pope John Paul II in various liturgical settings.
The trio then returned to Ireland to take up their parish duties — still getting together to sing and becoming known in wider and wider circles. They are founding members of the internationally acclaimed Belfast-based choir, Cappella Caeciliana, with whom they have recorded four albums.
Finally, in 2008, they signed a contract with Sony BGM and made their own first album, recorded in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. Others have followed, as well as a book called “Soul Song: Reflections on an Unexpected Journey.”
The men have become stars. They’ve performed before the British Royal Family, the Irish president. They shared the stage with Pope Benedict the XVI in Britain’s Hyde Park, sang for the 50th Eucharistic Congress in Dublin and last year performed at a special gala concert in Toronto for the “Occasion of the Canonization of Two Popes.”
But, no matter where they perform or for whom, the men walk out onto the stage in their Roman collars and clerical clothes, then stand unassumingly in the center of the stage to blend their voices in songs both sacred and secular. Might this, Fr. Martin was asked, contribute to the new evangelization mission issued by the church in recent years?
“We have been privileged to bring this sacred and secular music into many contexts, realizing that it can touch the hearts of everyone — those in faith, and those who may not have a faith background,” he responded.
“I suppose our experiences in life influence the way in which we interpret the music and ensure that it does speak with authenticity and can reach hearts.”
Although the men may not actively proselytize during their concerts or on their CDs, Fr. Martin said he believes music is a means of contributing to the new evangelization.
“We have a love of music that was nurtured in all three of us by wonderful people who in their own right were evangelizers,” he said. “We in turn endeavor to bring a gentle message that is rooted in faith, but as I insist, music in itself has an innate flexibility and can overcome all boundaries to reach all.
“If faith is experienced, all the better, but we leave all that to God.”
Fr. Martin said he knows there are people who travel to work listening to their albums because of the “sense of calm that descends,” and others who listen at times of vulnerability and loss in their families.
“We even know someone who does the ironing listening to the music … and I know someone who, when driving and losing her way, will put in her CD of The Priests for tranquility and a prayer to find her way again.”
He said he finds the music has particular impact in hospitals and has often “burst into song” even in the intensive care unit.
“I was in a ward once and the tea lady barricaded me in saying, ‘You’re not getting out until you gives us a song,’ so I did, but insisted on a cup of tea.”
The proceeds from these concerts and recordings aren’t kept entirely for themselves or even for their diocese. The Priests Charitable Trust, to which they donate the vast majority of their royalties, helps build schools in places like Uganda, Thailand and Cambodia, and helps look after retired priests and the homeless.
Although The Priests have performed in the United States previously, this is their first visit to Wisconsin.
“We brought The Priests here because they have a fantastic reputation around the globe,” said Diane Nagy, marketer for the Weidner Center. “This is a limited United States tour and we are lucky to have them.” After their Weidner performance, they will perform in Milwaukee at the Pabst Theatre on March 21.
“We tend to have intensive rehearsals this week before we leave for the States, but there is always a spoonful of good humor among the three of us!” Fr. Martin said.