Fr Eugen O'Hagan on meeting the Queen at Buckingham Palace
Fr Eugene O'Hagan (59) is one of two Vicars-General in the Diocese of Down and Connor and also Diocesan Chancellor.
He works closely with Bishop Noel Treanor and representative bodies of clergy and lay men and women in strategic planning.
He served in Andersonstown and also in marriage tribunal work in Armagh, Belfast and other dioceses. He was weekend assistant in Drumbo, becoming administrator in Ballyclare and Ballygowan in 2003, until his appointment as Chancellor in 2016. With his brother, Martin, and colleague Fr David Delargy he is a member of the hugely successful classical vocal group The Priests.
Q. Can you describe your family background?
A. My father, Frank, was a potato inspector with the Ministry of Agriculture. When we lived in Claudy, he missed by minutes the bomb outside the Beaufort Hotel. Several people we knew died in the blast. My mother, Joan, nee Daly, was a nurse, but also a very talented musician and singer. I am the second of six children. I have three strapping nephews, a grand-nephew aged six, and a grand-niece, aged two. Times were never easy and my parents worked hard to provide for us. We were all musical and we won a family group competition in Cookstown when I was 10. That was the beginning of "stardom"!
Q. How and when did you come to faith?
A. My parents were regular attenders of Mass and parish volunteers. Faith has been part and parcel of my everyday life to this very day. My brother Martin and I probably represent the last of the tradition of boys from a diocesan college leaving school and going directly into a seminary.
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I attended St McNissi's College in Garron Tower and then Queen's University, Belfast, where I studied for a BA and for the priesthood. I sang my way through Queen's under the tutelage of Frank Capper. He was a taskmaster, who became a great friend and role model.
Q. Have you ever had a crisis of faith?
A. In 1986, I was ordained as a priest and appointed to St Agnes' in Andersonstown. Joyriding was a regular occurrence in the area and it was a time of considerable unrest. I asked myself if I had made the right choice by becoming a priest. It was a crisis of faith and a personal crisis. I was overwhelmed by the responsibility and felt that I was inadequate.
I was fortunate to get to know a couple in the parish, who were a great support. I never told them just how much of a help they were to me. Sadly, they are both deceased, but I owe them and my deceased parents and other family members a lot for the support I have received. Sometimes, the circumstances of life, sometimes even people, have caused me to question my faith and the reality of God. Having doubts has helped my faith, rather than hindered it.
Q. Have you ever been angry with God? And, if so, why?
A. Never angry, but perhaps disappointed that God has been slow to either answer my prayers, or ignore them. However, I've been surprised by the ways in which some of my prayers have been answered. Often, with the benefit of hindsight, in unexpected ways.
Q. Do you ever get criticised for your faith?
A. I've been criticised by some people in circumstances when, as a representative of the Church, I have not given a decision in a person's favour, or when the beliefs, theological and moral, held by the Church have attracted criticism and have been directed at me as a priest.
Q. Have you ever been ashamed of your own Church, or denomination?
A. I've felt great shame over the revelations of the abuse of minors and vulnerable people by some clergy and by the way the Church has all too often floundered, or seen to be slow, or hesitant, in its response.
Q. Are you afraid to die?
A. Not at the moment. I do wonder what it might feel like, knowing that death is near. I do have a sincere hope of life beyond what we experience now and that does lessen the fear of death. I don't picture Hell as being a place of fire, or torture, in any physical sense. Hellfire is a metaphor for constant regret at not having lived well, or having made consciously good choices in this life.
Hell is a state of having lost and squandered the opportunity of being reconciled with one's fellow man and with God for the hurts one deliberately causes in life. Resurrection is the unity of body and soul in experiencing, in an altogether new way, the endless revelation of the mystery of God and of all that there is for the mind and soul to know.
Q. What about The Priests?
A. That was a phenomenon and the 11th anniversary of signing the Sony contract occurred this week. The experience of our debut album selling over one million copies worldwide and picking up platinum and gold awards, as well as singing in some of the most iconic venues, has been thrilling and frightening. It's been a whirlwind experience and each of us has had to draw upon our inner human and spiritual resources.
Q. What were some of the most memorable venues you've played and people you've met?
A. Appearing in front of audiences in the Odyssey Arena, Waterfront Hall, The Point in Dublin, the Royal Albert Hall and the Vatican. Also, meeting people and bands like Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras, Tom Jones, Boyzone, Take That, Susan Boyle, the Queen and the Royal Family and our 'boss', the Pope, have been cherished experiences.
Q. Who impressed you most?
A. Not an easy question. For me, it was Joanna Lumley, whom we met on the Jonathan Ross Show, when she was championing the Gurkhas, and also the Queen. At a gathering of Irish artists and musicians at Buckingham Palace, she spoke with us directly for a good 20 minutes. We asked if the Corgis would be joining us, but she said they would be too frightened by the crowd. We chatted about Pope Francis, whom she was due to meet later in that week.
Q. Would you rather have been a priest or a very successful performer?
A. I'm like my mother. You can't separate me as a priest from the music, or the music from me the priest. All music is a kind of ministry and being a priest makes it all the more so. I've not been lucky, I've been blessed.
Q. Returning to issues of faith, what do you think about people of other denominations?
A. I have the highest respect and regard for people who express and evidence their Christian belief. Similarly, I have the highest respect for people of other faiths, who do not share my Christian beliefs, but who wish to know and praise God in accordance with their traditions and set of beliefs. The test of that is in how those other faiths relate to and respect all fellow human beings. Any time I have met with people of a different faith, I have always learned something about the world and my place within it. That's enriching.
Q. Are the Churches here fulfilling their mission?
A. Many are doing their very best to be relevant and remain true to their religious beliefs and traditions. It's very difficult, if not impossible, to measure the Churches' success in tangible figures, or achievements. The seed of faith often blooms where least expected.
However, many see organised religion as being out of touch with modern living, or irrelevant to their everyday lives, or unnecessarily restrictive. As a Catholic, some may see, justifiably, the institutional Catholic Church as lacking credibility in the face of historic cases of abuse. I can understand why some may reject formal organised religion.
Q. Has religion helped, or hindered, in Northern Ireland?
A. A bit of both. For some, religion has played an ambivalent, or even detrimental, role in the Troubles. In those dark days, some retreated into denominational fortresses, but those times are receding. That's not to forget that there have been, and still are, many unsung heroes and heroines of faith, who do not view differences through the prism of "us" and "them".
Q. What is your favourite film, book and music, and why?
A. My favourite film is Amadeus - a great storyline, plus the glorious music of Mozart. My favourite book would be The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. JS Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring is the purest of musical experiences to hear, or to sing.
Q. Where do you feel closest to God?
A. As a priest, when I celebrate Mass. A close second would be when I find myself surrounded by the beauty of nature, or in a beautiful building.
Q. What inscription would you like on your gravestone?
A. Sing a new song to the Lord (Psalm 97).
Q. Have you any major regrets?
A. Not telling my parents often enough how much I loved them and how much I was indebted to them for all that they had done and sacrificed for me.