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A white Irish Catholic sings Black Gospel

Stephen Kirk is a Catholic composer, singer, musician and worship leader who lives in Canberra, Australia. He regularly teaches on prayer, music, and liturgy in a variety of contexts. In coming editions he will be sharing his ideas on liturgy and music in Catholic schools.

I would like to tell you a story about me. Well, really the story is not so much about me, but about God, music and Catholicism.

I was born in 1971 as the youngest of six boys in a very musical family, and throughout my life have been heavily involved in various types of music; from classical to black gospel, funk to folk. My Dad – a research scientist by profession but an Irish peasant at heart – used to play Irish music to us at breakfast every morning in the hope that it would train our brains to handle complex melodies. Together with the fact that each of my elder brothers played various instruments, this meant that I was literally surrounded by music from a very young age.

I was raised as a Catholic and went to Catholic Schools throughout my school years. I did all the Catholic Sacraments, and every week went with my family to Mass. Yet somehow in the midst of all that Catholic culture the beauty, wonder, and power of our Catholic faith passed me by, and Catholicism seemed to me to be merely a cultural thing; a set of rituals for those of my parent’s age, but not something that had much relevance or power in my life.

As a result I never paid much attention to my faith until 1992 when at the age of twenty-one I went to live in San Diego on an exchange year at the University of California. During my time there I sang in the black Gospel Choir which was part of their music faculty. It was an enormous choir of around 1,100 members directed by a big African American guy called Ken Anderson, who was one of the most amazing musicians I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, but was also a man of deep faith and great love.

One of the things about black gospel music is that a lot of the songs have solos. There was one particularly beautiful song that we sang called ‘Jesus you’re the centre of my joy’. Later in my time there I was privileged to be chosen to sing the solo to that song, but initially it was the director, Ken, who sang the solo. Every time Ken sang that solo, I had the somewhat unsettling experience of becoming aware that God was there, present with me. It wasn’t a Saint-Paul-being-knocked-off-his-horse-on-the-road-to-Damascus kind of moment. It was just a moment when I became aware of the simple, unassuming presence of God; that he really was real, and present to us.

Why was this moment unsettling for me? Well, because up to that point I had assumed that faith had nothing to offer me, and so had set about trying to fill me life up with all sorts of things, completely oblivious to the presence of God. In that moment though, through the music, I became aware of what my Catholic faith had been telling me all along; that God really is real, that he has come close to us in Jesus, and that we are made to be with him. That realisation turned my life around; not that it made me a great saint (I am still not much of a saint and may never be!), but prior to that moment I was doing my best to walk away from God, and in that moment I realised that he was the one I had been yearning for all along, and started my first faltering steps back to him.

I share this story because I think it reflects some truths about God and music and Catholicism to us. It reflects something of the depths of God’s love for us, that he would take me halfway around the world into a culture completely different from my own in order to draw me back to him. It shows us what a powerful tool music is in his hands; that the simple gift of music given to him can change people through his grace. And maybe it reminds us that is possible for us to be surrounded by Catholic faith and teaching from birth, but not realise what an amazing gift this is, and what power God has to change us through it.

Since my days in San Diego God has taken me on a very winding road; from being the only white member of an African American gospel church, to coming back to my Catholic faith through a lay community, (almost) becoming a Carmelite monk, meeting and marrying my beautiful wife and being blessed with six children.

These days I find myself being called back into working with students and teachers, parishes and communities, in schools and other contexts, helping people to understand what amazing things these gifts of faith, prayer, and liturgy are, and how powerful a tool music is to draw us into them. In the weeks ahead I look forward to sharing new ideas and insights with you about the role of music in a Catholic school and what we can achieve together in this very special area.

Visit Stephen’s website

Forum Questions:

  1. Have you had a personal experience of God through the gift of music?
  2. What has been your experience of the quality of music in the life of Catholic schools?