BALLSGROVE, Ireland — At Holy Family Parish in the Irish town of Drogheda, final rehearsals are underway for their musical production of “A Little Bit of Francis,” which will be presented in Dublin during this week’s World Meeting of Families.
For years now, musical theater has been one of the most popular programs in this economically disadvantaged congregation. Led by Father David Bradley, parishioners have presented household favorites such as Godspell, along with original works on the life of Jesus, Mary, and St. Patrick.
Now, as the nation readies to welcome Pope Francis this weekend, he seemed to be the obvious subject matter for their latest undertaking.
Yet this is no ordinary biographical telling of the world’s first pope from the global south. Yes, viewers will hear a bit about Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s Argentinian upbringing and his journey into the priesthood, but they’ll hear more about the issues close to his heart, such as immigrant rights and the environment.
And to cap off this unconventional mounting, audience members shouldn’t expect an evening of Gregorian chant or hymns because “A Little Bit of Francis” is told not through pious sacred music, but instead, pop hits by the likes of Madonna and Amy Grant.
In an interview with Crux, Bradley said his troupe of 30 young people have been rehearsing for this since last Christmas and it’s been a way to build momentum within the entire parish over the past year.
While the World Meeting of Families is a global gathering organized every three years by the Vatican, there is a distinctive Irish influence on much of the programming. Throughout the country, a flurry of activities are underway in places like Ballsgrove where the peripheries are preparing to travel to the center.
In Dalgan Park, home of the Missionary Society of St Columban in Ireland, choir practice has taken place on a weekly basis since May, where 240 parishioners from the diocese of Meath will join a larger choir of an anticipated 3,000 vocalists in Phoenix Park on Sunday to sing for Francis — many of whom also sang for Pope John Paul II when he visited in 1979.
At a recent rehearsal, choirmaster Jim Walsh took a break from practicing the Mass parts to remind those on hand that they are not there just to be performing music but that their songs should be a form of prayer.
“Don’t be distracted by the pope, but remember why you’re singing,” he urged them.
Up further north, in the ancient pilgrimage site of Lough Derg, the physical groundwork for the World Meeting has been undergirded by the spiritual support of countless pilgrims who singled out this week’s meeting in their intentions during the past two seasons.
According to Father Laurence (La) Flynn, prior of the Sanctuary of St Patrick in Lough Derg, “Since May of 2017, we have asked our pilgrims to support the upcoming World Meeting of Families in earnest prayer. The response has been so generous: 10,000 hours of Station Prayer, offered bodily and in words and in heart.”
“Lough Derg is a place with a strong connection into family life and concerns,” he told Crux.
“Again and again, our pilgrims share with us their concerns for family members, for the quality of family life in our changing culture, and their deep appreciation for how on Lough Derg they have experienced God’s guidance and God’s answer to their prayer.”
As an estimated 37,000 pilgrims prepare to descend on Dublin for Wednesday’s kickoff of the Pastoral Congress of the World Meeting of Families — a number that is expected to swell to over half a million by Sunday’s mass with the pope — throughout Ireland, every diocese has been encouraged to host an evening prayer service on Tuesday evening.
The prayer service, which is meant to serve as a local opening ceremony, of sorts, is intentionally not a Mass so that individuals of other faiths and other Christian traditions can feel equally welcomed to participate.
After church bells across the country ring at 7:00 p.m., an evening prayer service will commence at 7:30 p.m., centered on the Psalms. The official prayer for the World Meeting will be prayed in all of the languages represented, and for many parishes that are hosting families from around the world it will serve as an occasion for integrating their visitors into the life of the local community for the first time.
“In the Irish tradition, the vigil is always an important time,” Father Robert McCabe of Navan Parish, who is playing host to a delegation of Portuguese pilgrims from the diocese of Léira-Fatima this week, told Crux. “The eve of an event is always a powerful occasion.”
“In Irish we say “tús maith leath na hoibre,” meaning a good start is half the work,” McCabe continued.
“Tomorrow evening is a curtain-raiser for the three days of the Congress, the Festival of Families on Saturday evening and the Mass with Pope Francis and the families of the world on Sunday afternoon.”
“It’s a prayer that God may bless the work of all host families, volunteers and pilgrim visitors from every time zone who light a candle at sunset tomorrow evening,” McCabe said.