- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 15, 2009

Spiritually inspired music isn’t known for making Billboard’s top 100 list, but a debut album from a trio of Irish priests is hanging on during the post-Christmas season.

Simply titled “The Priests,” the CD, released Nov. 18, went straight to the top of the Amazon sales chart as well as the No. 1 spot on classical and new-artists charts in the United Kingdom, Norway, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden, Norway - and, of course, Ireland. In the U.S. alone, 150,000 copies have been sold.

The priestly trio first appeared on a PBS special, “The Priests in Concert at Armagh Cathedral,” on Nov. 29. The show has been repeated numerous times since then, helping to drive up sales.

Such success can be explained by a release so close to Christmas. Yet, three weeks after the holiday, the white album, decorated only with a simple gold Celtic cross, is number 90 on Billboard’s top 200 albums. Meanwhile, it’s also No. 1 on the classical-traditional chart and No. 3 in contemporary Christian and Christian/gospel categories.

The reason?

“Music is a wonderful tool to bring the good news of the Gospel to listening ears,” said the Rev. Eugene O’Hagan, 49, the oldest member of the trio. “It’s a gentle way of spreading hope.”

“We aim to bring gladness to peoples’ hearts. We hope to help people see a different image of the clergyman,” other than the clergy pedophile so often described in the media.

The trio includes Father O’Hagan’s brother, the Rev. Martin O’Hagan, 45, and the Rev. David Delargy, 44, all of them tenors and parish priests in the Diocese of Down and Connor in Northern Ireland.

“They say ‘Catholics can’t sing,’ but the truth is, they can sing very well,” Father Eugene O’Hagan said. “In Ireland, we have been shy about singing because it’s been the Protestants who have sung and we, by contrast, don’t do what Protestants do.”

Traditionally, Protestants have also sung well, starting with 16th-century Lutheran chorales and hymns as well as 18th-century chorales by the Lutherans’ greatest composer, Johann Sebastian Bach. Catholics have not had the same tradition of congregational singing. Although Tomas Luis de Victoria of Spain and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina of Italy, both 16th-century men, composed popular hymns, most church music has either been Gregorian chant or slotted for specialized choirs.

The three priests’ reputation as a singing clergy trio began in high school, when their schoolmates called them “Holy, Holy, Holy” because of their shared goal to become priests. Their profile rose when they moved to Rome to continue priestly studies, and where they were called upon to sing at a Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II.

About a year ago, Epic Records, a division of Sony EMG, began searching around Europe for priests who had the ability to record a Latin Mass album. The Mass has soared in popularity, especially among the young, ever since Pope Benedict XVI restored its use worldwide in July 2007.

Sony heard a demo tape of the priests and gave them a recording contract to sing traditional and pop hits such as “Ave Maria,” “Pie Jesu” and “Panis Angelicus.” Americans will recognize the latter as the anthem Placido Domingo sang at the papal Mass last April at Nationals Stadium.

“Our investment in the priests is solely based on the talent,” said Nick Raphael, managing director for Epic UK, who signed up the trio.

There are several English-language songs as well, including “O Holy Night,” “Irish Blessing” and “Abide With Me,” the latter better known as a Protestant hymn. The priests altered the key and orchestration for their use.

What’s sold the album, however, is the angelic quality of the male harmonies recorded in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. When not performing, each man works as a full-time parish priest. Father Eugene O’Hagan also works on the diocesan marriage tribunal, which rules on annulments.

“We have always been faced with the challenge of working with our parishes and balancing that with music,” he said. “There are not as many clergy as we have been used to,” as there are few priests available to sub in when they’re on the road.

“My members say, ‘Don’t worry if you’re away two-three days. We are not going to lose the faith,’” he added. “We cannot go on tour like conventional groups because of our responsibilities at home and the diocese.”

Compared to the typical traveling act, the priests are low maintenance, although they do have a Web site: www.thepriests.com with an out-of-date blog (the last entry was in October).

No groupies come along for the tour. “Maybe our parishioners fall in that category?” Father O’Hagan suggests.

To recharge his batteries, he visits his father in Londonderry 75 miles away and prays the breviary, a book of daily liturgical prayers.

“We work from early morning to late evening,” Father O’Hagan said. As for off time, “We get very little of it as late.”

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