The Reggae Priest (continued)

Published: Sunday | November 17, 2013 Comments 0

This week, we will continue a series of excerpts from Father Ho Lung's bio, written by Joseph Pearce  'Candles in the Dark'

It is tempting to draw parallels between Father Ho Lung, the 'singing priest', and Sister Luc Gabriel, the 'singing nun' who shot to worldwide fame in 1963, 10 years earlier, with her international hit single, Dominique, which went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States. Like Elvis Presley and a host of other top stars, the Belgian nun appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, a sure sign of success. Her appearance on the show in January 1964 was only a few weeks before the Beatles made their first live television appearance in the United States on the same show.

It is also tempting to draw parallels with Sister Janet Mead, an Australian nun, who had a hit record in 1974 with her rock version of The Lord's Prayer. Like Father Ho Lung, Sister Janet also made it to No. 3 in her own nation's chart, but unlike Father Ho Lung, she scored a huge hit in the United States, reaching No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Tragically, however, neither of the singing nuns dealt very well with their worldly success. Sister Luc Gabriel left the convent in 1967 and soon adopted a negative attitude toward the Catholic Church, becoming an outspoken advocate of sexual "liberation" and contraception. She also adopted a homosexual lifestyle.

COMMERCIAL FAILURE

Within months of leaving the convent, under her new stage name of Luc Dominique, she recorded a song called Glory Be to God for the Golden Pill, which was a commercial failure. In spite of many attempts to revitalise her recording career, she never managed to emulate the success of her one big hit.

In the late 1970s, she was prosecuted by the Belgian government for tax evasion. Citing their financial difficulties in a note, she and her 'partner', Annie Pécher, chose the final solution of despair and committed suicide by overdosing on barbiturates and alcohol in 1985.

The other singing nun, Sister Janet Mead, fared much better, although she describes the record's success as a "horrible time" in her life, citing her worldwide celebrity status as creating pressures that led her to question her faith. She survived the experience of fame, largely by shying away from it. Today, she is still an active Catholic and is involved in the Romero Community, which is described as a "conservative charismatic religious movement". She now works with the poorest of the poor, "assisting aged care, destitute men and women, refugees and the oppressed in Australian society and beyond".

It is gratifying to see that Sister Janet's path has converged with that of Father Ho Lung, not least because, like Father Ho Lung, she donated all the profits from her hit records to charity. The final sentence of the short biography on Sister Janet's MySpace page serves as a summary and summation of her musical legacy: "As a woman who had it all, gave it away and continued to be very committed to equality and social justice, she leaves many in the fickle music industry of today something to admire."

Father Ho Lung's sudden fame did not tempt him to take the path of worldliness and despair which engulfed and finally consumed Sister Luc Gabriel, neither was his faith threatened by his experience as had been the case with Sister Janet Mead.

SCARED OF POP SUCCESS

"When Sinner really took off, I ran away. I said to myself, 'I don't think I want that much to do with this'. I was worried about fame and glory. I was worried about pride and getting caught up in the pop world. I just didn't want to go in that direction. I pulled back from it. But it had made its point, thank God. It had made its point, and became very, very popular," Father Ho Lung said.

Although Father Ho Lung declined when the recording company offered him a record deal, the experience of success had given him the incentive to keep on writing songs. Flushed with this newfound confidence and enthusiasm, he wrote some of his most enduring and popular songs at this time, such as Enter into Jerusalem, in which the anger that had animated Sinner is replaced with the joyful inclusiveness of a life in Christ.

He recalls that most people in the music industry and in the wider establishment were accepting of him.

"People were delighted frankly. Overall, I think the music industry found it moving, and they were able to identify with a religious man, a Catholic priest, on that level. I was wary, I was watchful, but I could see that it was doing its work; the rich were hearing," he said.

DARK SIDE

There was, however, a darker and threatening side to the success. As Sinner was riding high in the charts, Father Ho Lung received a death threat.

"I received a telephone call from a man. He didn't identify who he was, but he said that he planned to kill me," Father Ho lung recalled.

The unidentified caller claimed that he planned to shoot the priest the next time he went to the airport. Father Ho Lung shrugged the threat aside and was even encouraged that his hit song had clearly made a real impact.

"It confirmed that something had struck home. The message, clearly, was right and needed to be heard," he said.

For the reggae priest, the music could never be separated from the message. Indeed, it was a servant to the message. The message was a call for repentance and renewal, and for the bad news of injustice to make way for the good news of the Gospel.

Like his Master, Father Ho Lung came to bring good news to the poor.

"He moves and creates in total solidarity with the teeming poor of the slums and the ghettos," says Brother Arnold. "His music throbs with their pain, grief, hunger - yes, with their hopes and fears and, sometimes, ecstasy. He is a Jesuit with about 10 years of university under his belt, yet he speaks the language of the streets and 'yards', both in his lyrics and his toe-tapping rhythms."

Ultimately, Father Ho Lung is the reggae priest because, first and foremost, he is a priest of the ghetto.

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