Can gospel choirs bring Mass appeal?


Parishes have been turning to gospel music to try to attract young peopleto Mass. Georgina O'Halloran reports.

The venue is packed. It's a struggle to worm your way in. Inside the energy is palpable. People of every generation are crammed in, from the two-year-old dancing unawares to the seasoned 70-year-old, all moving and grooving, singing and swinging to the beat. Even the most inhibited are eventually persuaded to clap. And no, this is not a Westlife concert. It's Sunday evening Mass at St Francis Xavier church, on Gardiner Street in Dublin.

To combat the decline in congregations of the past decade, parishes are being forced to consider different ways of making Mass more relevant to people's lives. Churches used to be guaranteed a crowd on Saturday night or Sunday morning, but now we seem more inclined to go for something to eat. Only 48 per cent of us go to Mass every week; the figure is lower among young people.

The gospel Mass at St Francis Xavier defies the statistics. More than half of the Sunday-night congregation is between the ages of 12 and 30. One of its main attractions is The Gardiner Street Gospel Choir, which mixes gospel favourites such as Whenever God Shines His Light and Full Force Gale, by Van Morrison, with more recent hits, such as Where Is The Love?, by The Black Eyed Peas.

So why gospel? For Kevin Kelly, the choir's director, the idea came from the beliefs that Mass still had something to offer young people and that a gospel Mass could be particularly relevant to them. "Gospel music speaks to people in a way that words and other styles of music often can't," he says. "A lot of the artists in the charts, such as Destiny's Child, Mary J. Blige, Van Morrison, Sting, Heather Small and Macy Gray, have gospel backgrounds, so the music actually speaks to young people; it means something to them."

Louise Foxe, a 23-year-old from Clontarf, hadn't been to Mass for years before she joined the choir. For her the Mass is a spiritual experience. "It's an addiction for some people," she says. "Even if you're not religious it affects you."

Dublin now has many gospel choirs, but there has also been a ripple effect countrywide. Since the turn of the millennium gospel choirs and related Masses have sprung up in diverse places, from Kinsale to Cavan, from Castlebar to Clonmel.

Most gospel choirs are affiliated to a church, and many also put on concerts. One of them, Dublin Gospel Choir, tries to perform in parishes around the city, to get young people interested in Mass and foster a sense of community.

But all gospel choir Masses have common elements: vibrancy, young people, big crowds and great music. Most encourage as much participation from the congregation as possible. And it works. Infectious clapping and good humour signal the end of the service. You even get to have a cup of tea and a biscuit when it's all over.

This is no mean feat. Irish people tend not to participate, overwhelmed by a mentality of not wanting to "show off" and part of a culture where singing tends to be confined to the pub. "It's as though people need a licence to sing," says Kelly. Not here. People sing along, clap their hands and bask in the good humour and sense of belonging.

Although most love the vibrancy of this type of Mass, Tony Burke of Cabinteely Gospel Choir says that others find it less appealing. "On one occasion we started clapping and two elderly people walked out. Some of the older generation don't like what's happening simply because they are not used to that style."

But St Brigid's church in Cabinteely, where the choir performs, also offers a family Mass and a quiet Mass. Perhaps choice is the key.

Gospel and integration go arm in arm. Some members of Kilkenny and Gardiner Street choirs, among others, are seeking asylum here. Kelly says the arrival in Ireland of an African community has given choirs a multicultural flavour. "We've had a small handful of refugees singing with us who have been a very big part of what we are. At the moment there are two guys from Nigeria and Burundi and a girl from the Philippines."

Whether or not gospel gets young people back to church, it still has much to offer, even to sceptics. Kelly believes the

gospel Mass is all about fun. "If it gives people a sense of community and a space where you take time out of your busy life to look at the bigger picture, then that's great."