The most famous singing priest of Ireland discerned his call after St. John Paul II’s visit to the country in 1979. He hopes that Pope Francis’s trip in August will also spark new vocations.
“I suppose people are a bit down over the Church. Certainly, vocations are down,” says Father Ray Kelly, the 65 year-old pastor of St. Brigid′s & St. Mary′s parish at Oldcastle, County Meath.
“I am hoping Pope Francis, when he comes next month, will help,” he said, pondering that the situation of Catholic Ireland is actually “a lot better than the media portrays.”
Kelly went viral on the Internet the first time in 2014, after singing an adapted version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” song in a wedding. It was supposedly just another wedding day in his church, but the video surprisingly got more than 64 million views on YouTube.
More recently, Kelly resurfaced on social media for his participation in the reality show “Britain’s Got Talent.” The priest got a standing ovation for a moving version of “Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M.
He did not go through to the final of the TV show – when he planned to sing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” – but he was happy to get to the semi-finals.
Above all, Kelly believes the experience made him not only an Internet sensation, but also transformed his ministry. He has been reaching out to people who suffer and motivating them to “hold on.”
“One particular lady sent me an e-mail. She was suffering from chronic pain for years and she had her suicide letter written. She told me: ‘I happened to go to YouTube and see you singing ‘Everybody Hurts,’ and the Holy Spirit just came over me. I am living with pain, but I am also living with hope,’” he says.
Kelly gave an extensive interview to Crux, by phone, on 26 July, in which he spoke about life before and after he turned into an Internet sensation.
About future plans, he reveals that he would have been excited to sing for Pope Francis during the World Meeting of Families, as he did once for John Paul II. But the invitation never came.
However, the Irish pastor is happily planning a concert tour in the United States in September this year.
Domingues: You went viral when you sang ‘Hallelujah’ in a wedding. Do you often sing at your weddings?
Kelly: Yes, I had this wedding in my parish here in Oldcastle and there is nothing unusual about that, because I have them all the time. It’s a popular spot here. That one was on the 5th of April 2014, a Saturday. The groom and the bride were from Dublin and Cookstown. They chose my church because their reception was in a hotel quite near here.
At the wedding rehearsal, a few days before, we went through everything. Normally, if they were a local couple they would say “Father, you have to sing a song for our little wedding.” But this couple didn’t say that because they were not local.
They didn’t know you are a singer?
No, I said to them after the wedding rehearsal: “I might sing a song for you myself.” And they kind of looked at each other, almost suspiciously, probably thinking “What is he talking about?” But I just presumed the message had gotten through.
So, I stepped up to my microphone, just before the final blessing at the wedding ceremony. I pressed my backing track and I started singing a personalized version of Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah,” incorporating the bride and groom’s names in the song. I had done that many times before.
A few days after the wedding, a Tuesday, the couple sent me an e-mail to thank me for the lovely wedding and for the surprise. They said the song was up on YouTube and they sent me the link. I wouldn’t be very familiar with YouTube, then.
That was when it all started?
I watched the video a couple times and thought “My God! Where did that come from?” Then, the phone started ringing with people saying “Father Ray, you are on Facebook! You are on Twitter! And you are a thousand hits, two thousand hits!” It went on and on like that. And it is currently over 62 million hits on YouTube. That is when it all started!
The TV started moving in, and then the radio shows, interviews for papers. This was about a week before Easter Sunday, so I had so much of media that I had to say “Back off, I have to concentrate on my Holy Week ceremonies!” Life goes on in the parish. By Easter Monday or Tuesday it came back all again… by that stage, the video had 10 or 15 million hits.
What did you do between 2014 and 2018, when you got back to the international spotlight in “Britain’s Got Talent”?
It kind of went crazy after that. Universal Music and Sony Music were knocking at my door about recording an album. All I thought was “Where is this going?” This was not familiar at all. I was like a sheep without a shepherd! I was lost. I rang a friend of mine who is a solicitor and he advised me. We got in touch with another guy who is used to dealing with contracts for recording.
Eventually, I e-mailed them in Vienna. They were very anxious to record with me. We met in Germany and, later, we agreed to record the album. But I said, “Since I am so busy in my parish, wouldn’t it be good to try to record the album in my house?” They actually set up a recording studio in my living room here.
Is this your Christmas album?
It came out for the Christmas of 2014 and it was called “Where I belong,” which is a selection of Irish songs, other hits from artists and a couple of songs that were written for me. We weren’t sure if we would get permission from Leonard Cohen to record “Hallelujah” with the wedding words. But, eventually, word came through that we could record it, which was great.
And in the meantime another wedding song had been written for me, called “Together Forever.” Another song, “Where I belong,” was especially written for me, as well. The album went platinum here in Ireland and it sold well in America and other places.
So, in the midst of all that, did you have time to be a priest?
I was being a priest in my parish, working all the time, yes! Over and back to London sometimes for interviews. Over and back to Germany a couple times. Last year I spent five weeks in America, for ten or twelve concerts all over the country. We are heading back there in September.
How did you decide to participate in “Britain’s Got Talent”?
They had phoned me a couple of times, about going into the competition. And I was very reluctant. My own personal view was that it is all about the judges and how they react, not so much about talent at all. I thought about it for a year. And then I thought it would be good exposure on ITV and on TV3. So, they contacted me again and I said “OK, we’ll go for this.”
It was an amazing experience and, I have to say, one of the most positive experiences in my life.
Then, you sang “Everybody hurts” and went viral again…
It went on amazingly well. Simon Cowell said it was one of his favorite auditions ever. The reaction of the other judges was very positive, as well.
What did you feel when you got that standing ovation?
I sang that song many times before. But there was a pause, only a 2 or 3 second pause… Normally when you sing a song and people like it they are up on their feet before almost you are finished. But in this case the pause was just when I finished the last note of the song. It stopped. It was like 2 or 3 hours! And I felt “What is happening here? This is a walk off. Just go home, Ray, and be quiet.”
And then Simon stood up and started cheering. And they gave me a standing ovation, the other judges… I began to get nervous, then! I began to shake. It was such an amazing reaction to a song. I did not get through to the semi-finals, but I have no regrets.
What happened, in your opinion, that you did not get to the final?
I sang another beautiful song there, called “Go Rest High on That Mountain.” It is a song written by Vince Gill, after his brother had died from an overdose. I came across it soon after my own sister died of cancer, about two and half years ago. I found it very comforting. Sometimes I sing it at concerts, for people who have lost loved ones from cancer. It didn’t get through to the final, anyway, but I have no regrets. It was one of those amazing experiences.
Do you think the choice of the song was the problem?
Possibly. One of the judges said she never heard of the song before. Some people did. Simon Cowell said it was the right choice of a song at the time. I had another song prepared for the final, as well, because there is only two days between the semi-final and the final, if I got through. It was called “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” It is a Simon and Garfunkel song – I’d love to record it. Maybe if I had sung this one first. But who is to say?
How do faith and music intersect in your personal life history?
I came from a musical family. My parents were very musical, my brother and my sisters were musical as well. I love to sing. I was about 26-27 when I went to the seminary and I worked for about ten years in the civil service at the Irish government. I had a lot of friends in Dublin and we used to go out to the pubs at night and maybe I’d get up and sing a few songs. We had talent competitions in different pubs… some I’d lose, but it was great entertainment.
But, then, I joined the seminary at the Saint Patrick’s Missionary Society, the Kiltegan Fathers, in 1982. Music was always part of it. We actually formed a boy band called “Rafiki,” which in Swahili means “friends.” We even recorded one song, for fundraising in youth projects in Africa. I was a missionary priest in South Africa for a couple years. Music was always part of the journey of priesthood.
How was that experience as a missionary?
I went in 1989, so it was just a break of the apartheid. Nelson Mandela had just been released in February of that year. It was gradually, slowly changing. I was about two and half years there. I went in September 1989, but I had to go home before Christmas, because my dad was very ill, with a brain tumor. He died in February of 1990. I went back a month or so after he died.
After three months my mom went into Intensive Care after a heart attack. I felt guilty to go home again, but I did. She did survive, and died only in 2004. I went back to Africa but after this I just couldn’t settle. My mind wasn’t in the right place. I decided to work in Ireland for a while, in various parishes, and eventually I was incardinated into my diocese.
Ireland is getting prepared for the World Meeting of Families and Pope Francis’s visit. How would you analyze the current moment of the Catholic Church there?
I think it is a lot better than the media portrays. I suppose with the whole abuse problem, a few years ago, and then the laundry situation with all these unmarried women put into homes… all this is coming to light now. There is a lot of history there, and I suppose people are a bit down over the Church. Certainly vocations are down.
I am hoping Pope Francis, when he comes next month, will help. I always maintain that my vocation came from Pope John Paul II, because he came to Ireland in 1979. The following year a group of us went to Rome to thank him. He said Mass with us in Castel Gandolfo and I remember singing “Danny Boy” in a concert for him. That was where my vocation really came from. In 1980, I started thinking seriously about priesthood.
So, you sang for a pope once?
Yes. Actually, I was a bit disappointed, recently, because there is a concert for Pope Francis in Croke Park Mill [during his visit to Ireland] and I haven’t been asked to sing in that one. Another man has been asked to sing the song “Everybody hurts,” which annoyed me a little bit. But, anyway, it is history now.
I hope the event raises vocations. We are struggling here… there are a lot of old men parish priests and parishes without a priest. We are very fortunate to have African priests to help, those who are studying here, as well. Also Romanian, Polish priests. We are doing OK in that sense.
You have reached many young men and women on the Internet, which is rare for a 65 year-old priest. Thinking there will be a Synod of Bishops on young people, how do you relate to them?
I love young people, and part of it is that I have 14 or 15 nieces and nephews and 25 grandnieces and nephews! Well, I started singing and I realize that it has become a ministry, rather than being just an artist. After I sang “Everybody Hurts” I received several letters from people thanking me, because they had a way to look to the Church again.
One particular lady sent me an e-mail: she was suffering from chronic pain for years and she had her suicide letter written. She told me: “I happened to go to YouTube and see you singing “Everybody Hurts,” and the Holy Spirit just came over me. I am living with pain, but I am also living with hope.” I thanked her for her honesty. She said I’ll never realize how many people I’ve reached out to. She is on new medication which eases her pain… I am not putting myself on a pedestal here, but to say that this is the kind of people I have reached out to.
You’ve been trying to touch people who have suffered, who are lonely, unmotivated or unhappy. Why did you focus on this public?
Initially, I wouldn’t realize that I was capturing people like that. But now that I am, that is beautiful and I am so pleased about that. The important thing is that we bring hope, light and peace into people’s lives. I’ve sort of discovered that, to a very minute degree, maybe I am doing this to some people. And if I am doing it, I can’t ask for any more. I am only being used by the Lord. That is just amazing. People can relate to songs and this brings them calm and peace. That is what it is all about, isn’t it?