'X Factor' for priests anoints a chart-topper
An Irish-inspired group of priests have been raising funds and roofs in France, writes Aoife Drew
When times are tough in Ireland, and Europe seems to have turned its back, it's nice to know that there's still something inspirational about us. Les Prêtres, a French boyband with a difference, is topping the French charts -- and it's all thanks to a group of singing Irish priests.
The new album by Les Prêtres (The Priests), Gloria, has reached number one, fighting off stiff competition -- just as their first album, Spiritus Dei, did last year.
The music is a mix of religious, spiritual, classical and popular songs, such as an adaptation of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake and Beethoven's Ode to Joy, and the new album gives the Irish a nod with the much-loved French ode to the West of Ireland, Les Lacs de Connemara.
Les Prêtres themselves aren't even remotely Irish. The group is made up of two French priests from Gap in the French Alps and a seminarist originally from Vietnam. However, the idea to launch the band came from the very successful Northern Irish singers The Priests.
Back in 2009, Monseigneur Jean-Michel di Falco Léandri, Bishop of Gap, along with his composer friend Didier Barbelivien, were looking for ways to finance two charity projects. Barbelivien, impressed by the commercial triumph of the talented Irish Priests, suggested that the bishop recruit a band of a similar nature.
So, they set about organising auditions, a sort of a religious X Factor. Fr Jean-Michel Bardet, the curate from Gap cathedral, Fr Charles Troesch, from the Ardennes region, (both trained singers), and self-taught singer Dinh Nguyen Nguyen, were selected for the job.
Once the group was put together, the bishop contacted TF1 Musique, the musical branch of France's most-viewed private TV channel, and asked for backing, which they won. Les Prêtres went on to have a platinum disc and win huge popularity.
"It's a huge surprise," confesses Monseigneur di Falco. "The Priests have topped the charts, the music has been translated to Italian, they haveve sung in Canada -- they've sparked off huge enthusiasm."
It seems that the spiritual aspect is a draw for their fans. "We have received a lot of letters from people who say that the music has been therapeutic for them. We get a lot of requests for concerts. The concerts we have done in France and abroad have been moments of communion, peace, comfort, true happiness. We've met more than 30,000 people in this way."
The band is not deliberately seeking a religious audience. According to Fr Bardet, their choice of songs is based on human values, not necessarily ecclesiastical ones. "Hope, love, tolerance and compassion can reunite believers and non-believers."
But is the business of making music compatible with a higher calling? There's been some backbiting from colleagues who clearly don't think so. Fr Bardet says: "We're not doing this for ourselves. It's not our egos at stake, but our message."
Indeed, all the proceeds from the albums go to their charity Spirale, so the group can't be accused of trying to make a few euro. And yet, many traditional Catholics in France have sniffed at priests getting involved in the lowly business of show business.
To this criticism, Monseigneur di Falco responds: "We've been receiving around 30 letters a day from people expressing how much joy and hope the album has given them. And that in itself has to be a sign that the whole project fits in with our calling."
The priests hope they are doing something useful for clergy everywhere. Fr Troesch explains: "The media attention works as an advantage for us. People start to realise that a priest is someone ordinary, far removed from the common caricatures."
They may feel ordinary, but their success has been nothing short of miraculous. And it's all owing to the divine Irish inspiration, bien sur.