Music as a Medium to Engage Young People in Church Life

DUBLIN — A recent Youth Mass at St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral in Dublin started with a song that seemed to fit better in an evangelical worship service than among the Catholic rituals. A five-piece band led the congregation in an upbeat version of “Blessed be the name of the Lord, Blessed be Your Name.”

The next day at Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral, part of the Church of Ireland, a choir from the University of Richmond sang Sanctua, Oread Farewell and the Irish Blessing. A few miles away at Our Lady of Victories, primary school students dressed in plaid were practicing songs for their concert Emmanuel 2024. In an informal homily, they were encouraged to keep singing.

The University of Richmond choir at their concert at Christ Church Cathedral (Photo by Genevieve Charles)

After the Youth Mass at St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, in the Oratory, a group of young adults, and on occasion a few older folks, gathered together in a circle, and after introductions began to sing. The community is called Shalom Dublin. It’s based on the original Shalom Catholic Community from Brazil. People were drawn into Shalom by its charismatic qualities of speaking in tongues or by the spontaneous worship music.

The sounds of music are everywhere these days in Dublin’s churches. While rates of religious affiliation are rapidly dropping in Ireland, the music continues. Church leaders believe that music can touch young people and keep them open to exploring faith.

Music is what drew Mirielle Abreu, 39, deeper into the Catholic community. Abreu is one of the singers in the band at the Shalom community in Dublin. Originally from Brazil, she found herself going to Shalom after a friend invited her. In 2016, while she was working in Brazil as an actress, she had a back injury. “And I thought: I cannot dance, I cannot act because of my back. I think I’m gonna sing and I would like to sing to the Lord, and I started.” She moved to Dublin in 2022, and has continued to sing.

In her experience, Shalom focused a lot on the youth. “They are the generation, they are the future,” Abreu said. She sang a song in Portuguese to demonstrate. The lyrics translate into “I want to offer my life and spend my days for love, for the church, for the youth.” A lot of the songs sung at Shalom Dublin were written at songwriting retreats by Shalom members. “In Brazil, every single church that you go, they are singing Shalom songs,” Abreu said.

In the Oratory, the room was dim except for the two candles lit at the front. Music missionary and co-founder of Shalom Dublin, Meggie Teixeira Correa and Leon Dominic Thomas, two of the other singers in the band, sang Ruah (translated to God’s Spirit), a Shalom song. The words were repeated over and over again. “Come Holy Spirit, inflame our hearts, Kindle in us the flame of your life. Come and renew us by the power of your love,” mirroring the Catholic prayer, “Come, Holy Spirit.”

Abreu noted that some of the things that weren’t common to others, like speaking in tongues, were familiar to her from her upbringing in Brazil. For her, Shalom is just “one way of being close to God. It’s a family.”

Another Shalom Dublin regular, Olivia Lívia Alencar, 23, recognized that people enjoyed the singing at Mass on Sunday nights. She recalled an elderly lady saying, “That was a beautiful ministry.” Olivia got to know Shalom in Rio after her best friend invited her to a prayer group. Many of the people at Shalom Dublin were foreigners, from different parts of Europe, and the charismatic element of the group was new to them, Olivia said.

Music is also a focus of Catholic efforts to reach the youth. One of the composers of contemporary Catholic music is Ciaran Coll, a music teacher at one of the schools that participated in Emmanuel 2024, the contemporary liturgical concert. Emmanuel is a big event, spanning three days and over 2,000 students all over Dublin. Coll has composed some of the pieces performed at Emmanuel the past five years. As a teacher, he teaches his students songs for the concert from early September to February. “If young people weren’t engaged in liturgy and the church or going to church, this was a way in that appealed to them,” said Coll.

At Catholic schools, events such as the first mass of the year and school graduations that revolved around the Eucharist needed music, but teachers were relying on secular music to reach their students. Emmanuel provided students with a greater variety of music, drawing on both traditional hymns and contemporary liturgical music. “I’ve seen, over the last number of years doing it, that students love the music so much that when it comes to school masses or graduation, they’re reaching for their Emmanuel book,” said Coll.

Coll led one of the practices for Emmanuel 2024 the afternoon before the concert, playing the piano as students sang “Amen.” The main goal with having students join groups or audition for a solo for Emmanuel is to open students to a wider world of what church music is really like and to engage them in the school setting. “By doing this, you have a group of students who are there and available to then hear from somebody, to have somebody to speak to them, to do a short reflection or homily with them,” he said. 

Participating in the act of creating music with their classmates can also make them curious for more. That curiosity could trickle into other areas. “It may bring them to a deeper connection that they want to seek a little bit more and ask a few questions of their faith,” said Coll. 

Coll has learned a lot about teaching his students liturgical music over the last five years. He strives to keep students engaged by choosing songs they like. “Is there a buy-in from them? Will it speak to them?” he said he asks himself. “And so, I think, it’s about listening to them and being open to see what really touches their hearts.”