Fr Eugene O'Hagan, Parish Priest Ballyclare and Ballygowan in the Diocese of Down and Connor, Northern Ireland

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
23 Nov 2009

When Fr Eugene O'Hagan, the eldest in a family of four, told his mother he had decided to become a priest, she was thrilled and proud. But she also offered a word of warning, insisting that no matter how devoted he was to his vocation, he must ensure that music remain part of his life.

"You'll not be giving up your singing, now," she said.

Ministering to 400 parishioners spread across two churches in the emerald hills of Northern Ireland, Fr Eugene celebrates Mass twice a day, attends to liturgies, hears confessions, writes the weekly Parish Newsletter, visits the sick, conducts funerals, performs baptisms and marriages, and confirms young people into the Church. In addition he sings each week with a choir called Capella Siciliana and every fortnight or so, makes the three hour trip to Belfast where he is Judicial Vicar on Northern Ireland's Marriage Tribunal.

It's quite a workload for any priest and Fr Eugene admits with a twinkle in his blue eyes that "manpower in the Diocese is stretched a wee bit thin."

But not only does this 49-year-old cleric find time to care for his flock at their two churches, but since April 2008 he has had to juggle the demands of his Parish with constant attention from the media not to mention ongoing demands for one-to-one interviews and requests from countries around the world for a concert tour.

As a member of The Priests, the three singing clerics who have taken the world by storm, Fr Eugene has been catapulted from the sleepy rural backwaters of Northern Ireland into the public eye as one of the music industry's newest and most unlikely superstars.

Fr Eugene along with his younger brother, Fr Martin O'Hagan and their friend from childhood, Fr David Delargy made history in April 2008 when they signed a $A3 million singing contract with Epic Records, a division of Sony BMG. The trio who have been singing together since they were 13 year old boy sopranos at St MacNissi's College in County Antrim, were "discovered" by an Irish Sony talent scout who had gone on a search for a priest to be the main singer for a recording of the Latin Mass which the company hoped produce and sell to world's Catholics.

But instead of finding one priest, the talent scout found three and the moment Sony executives heard the demo disk of the trio's soaring harmonies, they decided to expand their original idea and rather than the Latin Mass, create an album of liturgical and religious songs.

Fastest Selling Classical Album Ever

Titled simply The Priests, the album was released in November 2008 with Fr Eugene and Fr Martin tenors melding perfectly with Fr Delargy rich baritone. The album quickly became the fastest-selling classical record of all time and shot up the charts in 32 countries, outselling all-comers including favourites such as Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. Within two months, the album had clocked up an incredible 1.3 million sales and showed no signs of waning.

The tracks on the album ranged from Ave Maria to Panis Angelicus and Pie Jesu and were recorded, with Pope Benedict XVI's permission, at St Peter's Basilica in Rome with the Vatican Choir. Sony BMG had imagined The Priests' album would appeal to the world's Catholics but what surprised everyone was that Fr Eugene, Fr Delargy and Fr Martin's interpretations of Church favourites appealed not only to Catholics but people of all faiths - and even people with no faith at all.

"I think the popularity of our album is evidence of a resurgent interest in spiritual matters and suggests people are looking for some spiritual encouragement, perhaps," says Fr Eugene who believes recording albums and giving concerts is "a chance for us to take the music and bring a message of God's love to an increasingly agnostic world.

"It is also an opportunity to portray faith and we hope by its very nature, the music will cross boundaries and speak to all," he says.
His Parish and Parishioners Come First.

However although the past year has been a whirlwind of juggled engagements and concert tours as well as a live concert at Armagh Cathedral in Belfast which became The Priests second album, and recording a second studio album, Harmony, Fr Eugene insists that his parish and his parishioners take priority.

Before signing their music contracts, each of the singing clerics, insisted that their roles as singers and performers must not be allowed to interfere with their work as parish priests and insisted they not be away from their parishes for more than two or three days at the most in any given week.

"We have a specific indication in our contract with Sony that our duties in the parish won't be in any way compromised and we are delighted with that and most grateful," he says.

The only exception to this rule was in April this year when the three singing clerics flew to Australia for a one night only concert at Sydney's Entertainment Centre. "But that was because of the length of the flight and the distance between Ireland and Australia," Fr Eugene explains.

In the past year balancing his role as a parish priest with international singing sensation has required careful juggling and some weeks it's a case of working within his parishes until Tuesday evening, hopping on a plane on Wednesday and working all day on music that day and all day Thursday and Friday morning, and then back to the parish on Friday afternoon and normal duties once more.

One recent Saturday, after three days of recording, Fr Eugene drove home to Ballyclare and at 10 pm was putting the finishing touches to his sermon for the next day which reminded parishioners they must constantly nurture their relationship with the Lord.

"As with any garden, if you don't tend to it, weeds begin to take over," he wrote.

Decision to Become a Priest was no Damascene Moment

For Fr Eugene, his commitment to God is all important and the over-riding factor in his life, and just as he advises his parishioners, he continually re-commits and reaffirms his faith.

"I believe I grew into my vocation and it is something I feel I have to renew every day," he says, and reveals that while he has had not a moment of regret since entering the priesthood, his decision to follow a priestly vocation came not as a "Damascene conversion," but rather as a gradual awakening.

Encouraged to enter the priesthood once he left school, Fr Eugene says he was torn between his love of music and his love of God. Eventually, though at age 18, after much thought and prayers, he entered the seminary and began his studies at Queen's University in Belfast, and later at the Pontifical Irish College in Rome.

"With each day I grew happier and more certain this was the life the Lord had chosen for me but it wasn't until I was 27 and ordained that I became fully committed," he says describing entering the priesthood as a bit like a marriage. "Before you cross the threshold there are no strings but once you are ordained, there is the ongoing challenge to live up to your priestly commitment."

Fr Eugene gives his mother, Joan full credit for instilling her faith and her love of music into each of her children and although she died five years ago, he is convinced she has a "hand in" the extraordinary success of the singing clerics, The Priests. But his true joy at the success of The Priests is the chance it has brought to inspire people with God's love.

"It has been a wonderful opportunity to reach out to people across the world and uplift them spiritually and bring them closer to God," he says and fully believes that he and the other two are helping fulfil Pope John Paul II's decree to spread the gospel in new ways and evangelise their faith.

"Sometimes the only contact people have with the spiritual is with music and it is a way for them to keep in touch with their spiritual side."

Music a Way to bring People Closer to God

For Fr Eugene being able to continue his work as a parish priest while touching people's lives worldwide with his singing is the best of all possible worlds. "I have two arms - the ecclesiastical arm and the musical arm and if one is tied behind my back I am not functioning at my fullest potential," he says and describes singing as another way of praying and praising the Lord.

"There is a profound and mysterious relationship between music and hope, between song and eternal life."

The millions of dollars The Priests have earned from their album sales and concerts have been put into a charity fund and will be used to help the homeless, the poor, the disenfranchised and those on the margins. In addition, some of the money will be used to care for priests in their retirement.

In this the Year of the Priest, Fr Eugene, Fr Martin and Fr Delargy have not only brought their music  to the world, but have shown the quiet joy and fulfilment each has found in his vocation as a parish priest. Although each denies they are on vocation recruitment mission, Fr Eugene admits that their success has helped give people a far more multidimensional view of the priesthood.

He is also eager for any of those considering the priesthood to realise how individual talents and gifts can be make a difference and expand their role as priests.

"I hope young men thinking of entering the seminary will see us as an example of how you can bring your talents with you. You don't have to pack them away somewhere but can use them for the glory of God."