Whether it is a spot on Dancing With The Stars or singing on Britain’s Got Talent, Fr Ray Kelly knows how to hold an audience.
Yet the current disruption to church life in Lockdown Ireland requires a different set of skills for the Parish Priest of St Brigid’s and St Mary’s.
Having become an internet sensation in 2014 when his singing of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” during a wedding ceremony went viral on YouTube, through his turns on talent and reality shows, he clearly knows how to draw a crowd in even these restricted times. You might say, to tap into his Father Ted tribute on DWTS, that Ray Kelly “gives good Mass”.
More than 27,000 viewers are tuning into his online Masses from the church in Oldcastle, Co. Meath, but there are more personal, more emotional interactions with parishioners that require something different from a local priest. Like telling a bereaved family they can only have 10 people at their loved one’s funeral.
“It was very difficult. I had no choice in it but it must have been hugely difficult for them,” Fr Ray, 67, told the Irish Examiner.
“Fortunately enough it has been the only funeral I’ve had since coming out of Dancing With The Stars. It was strange, though. When the man died I contacted another parish to see what the regulations were. They said we could have 20 people in the church and around the graveside but with social distancing in place, so the family is scattered around the church. The priest doesn’t give out anything, there’s no sign of peace, no homily, no eulogy, just commending the departed to the mercy of God and the Mass.
So the family were to be in the church but totally not involved. Then on the eve of the funeral, I got word that the number attending had to be cut down to 10 people and I had to get the list of the 10 people permitted to come into the church for the funeral of their loved one.
"And it was so weird because I couldn’t even meet the family, we had to talk at a distance so it was difficult to tell what level of grief was going on because I wasn’t communicating with them in the way you normally would for preparing for the funeral of a loved one.
“Hopefully afterwards, when all this is settled, we can have a memorial mass and deal with all of that, get together, but people will have moved on in a sense. They will have moved on with their grief a little bit, possibly, and I will have moved on myself as well and it will be a new experience when it happens, if it happens.”
Life has changed in many other ways during the Covid-19 outbreak. We talk during Easter week, which makes the Government’s restrictions on mass gatherings all the more poignant for Fr Ray.
“This is the biggest week of the Church’s year and for all priests all over Ireland and the world. I would be having ceremonies in the church and all of that and getting two or three people to help me with the readings but luckily our mass goes out on TV (mcnmedia.tv) and local radio.
“I was actually onto the company last week and asking how were things going and they said, ‘you’re the most popular mass in the world, 27,500 people tuning in to you every Saturday night and Sunday’. Apparently there are even people tuning in from Vietnam but I sing a couple of songs at Mass so perhaps that’s the reason why.”
While Masses continue, life’s landmark ceremonies have been put on hold. “I was fortunate enough I had my confirmation ceremony the first week in March so I got that in but first communions, normally I’d have two ceremonies coming up in the next month or so but I genuinely don’t know when those are going to happen now.
“I had three weddings booked in April and they’re postponed until next year. There were one or two baptisms lined up as well but they’re in no rush.”
Perhaps it is just as well for Fr Ray as he readjusts to life not just post-Dancing With The Stars but the knee surgery he required on his departure, thrown off by the judges on March 8 as the last dancer to be eliminated before the final, held in a closed studio with no audience and won by Lottie Ryan.
It is fair to say the judges were probably pleased to see him waltz off into the sunset, such were the consistently low marks they gave the priest and his long-suffering partner, Kylee Vincent, although Fr Ray said he had been suffering from an injury far more serious than anyone had realised.
He speaks on the phone while out with Buddy, his King Charles Cavalier spaniel, trying to get the stiffness out of a left knee that had troubled him throughout DWTS.
“During my dancing weeks I was complaining of sciatica in my left leg, at least everyone told me it was sciatica because it happened about a week before I started dancing, but lo and behold, I danced away and was taking painkillers and panadol and anything you could take for it. After I came out of the show I got it checked out, went for an MRI and it revealed I had a torn cartilage in my knee.
So I had that operated on two weeks yesterday and got the stitches out yesterday so I’m out doing a little bit of walking and getting the strength back in the knee again.
So he danced through the whole series with a torn cartilage? “Seemingly, yes,” he replied with a laugh. “Now you know why Brian (Desmond, one of the DTWS judges) could only give me a one!” Perhaps he should ask for a recount? “No, I don’t think so!”
The day job has far more appeal, it seems and if anything Fr Ray has detected a subtle shift back to faith during this public health emergency “The church remains open and the candle shrines are groaning with the candles that are lit. It’s people’s way of trying to get in touch with their faith again. For some, I suppose it’s difficult because maybe they have let their faith drop a bit but they are searching and that’s a good thing because a seed was sown from their early days and people do try and come back to a level they were at.
“I find as well, even on my own Facebook page, I put up a song every week and the number of people that may reach out to that and are asking for prayers and assuring me that they are praying for me as well, that’s huge. That helps, just any kind of contact, whether it’s through social media or the church being open, it all helps.”
While accepting Ireland is a much more secular society now, Fr Ray does not believe people have lost faith.
“I think they do have the faith. It is there. We always feel there was a generation lost due to the whole abuse thing going back a couple of years and because that generation was lost the next generation is sort of semi-lost as well, so it’s trying to reach out to that. The faith is there, though.
"People still hunger. When they are in need they still talk about prayer, they still talk about God and because of that it’s not lost. That gives hope and we all have to hope, even now we still have to be clinging to hope.”
Hope, too, that people can stay committed to the “sacrifices” being asked of them by the Government.
“I think we’re four or five weeks now into self-isolation, I think if we just got a glimmer... maybe from the Taoiseach or the HSE that this is working, that what we’re doing, the sacrifices we’re all making, are really working.
"I think that would give us all a little bit more encouragement that yes, we can do this, we can go on. That’s all we need, I think, just a little bit more encouragement, that we’re doing okay, we’re doing the right thing.”