Eddie Cotter, Jr., Dead Theologians Society, and Ireland

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Eddie Cotter, Jr. with his bodhran

Eddie Cotter, Jr. playing the bodhran

Two St. Patrick’s Days ago I was seated at a table with my husband and a dear friend at a fundraising dinner for the Dead Theologians Society, a popular young adult apostolate in my area that meets in cavernous church spaces regularly to pray, learn about the saints, and grow in friendship with God and fellow teens. The founder, Eddie Cotter, Jr. and his band, The Kells, were the headliners for the evening.

Eddie, with his trademark red curls, and his companions took their places on stage. After an introduction about the history of their band and their common love for God, the driving force behind their art, they dove into their set–high-spirited, intense, ancient-sounding Irish traditional music.

I simultaneously beamed with pride that “my people” were the authors of such transcendent music–as if the Irish had always had their thumbs on the pulse of what it means to live a truly Christian life, truly alive in all senses and in union with Our Lord, their music the score of that life of sacrifice and struggle–and I was also brought back in time, seven years before that night, to my year abroad in Ireland. The beats brought to mind the gorgeous greens of the landscape, the beautiful smiles and humor of my friends there, as well as the shockingly empty churches and the searing pain of the revelation of the widespread clergy abuse. It had been 2005.

How, I wondered, was the Church in Ireland faring almost ten years since my time there? Were any more young people attending Mass or considering a religious vocation? Had time healed any wounds? Graciously answering all these questions and more, Eddie Cotter took the time to get me up to speed on the state of things in Ireland as he’s experienced it through his music and missionary work in Ireland with the Dead Theologians Society and what he sees as the “new springtime” in that ancient Christian land.

In the 16 years since DTS began in Ohio, it’s truly flourished. Your newsletter mentioned that over 11,000 young people have participated in almost 500 parishes in the U.S., Canada, Africa, and Ireland! God is so good–that’s amazing growth. This World View Wednesday we’re taking a look at Ireland in particular. What’s been your experience of the state of the Church there? 

I’ve been visiting Ireland regularly for the past thirty years and have been there so many times that I’ve actually lost count! My frequent visits have been in a variety of capacities. In my early twenties I would go to visit friends and connections that I met growing up in the Irish community of Columbus, Ohio. There was, and still is, a vibrant Irish community in Columbus with organizations like the Ancient Order of Hibernians, The Shamrock Club, Daughters of Erin as well as world-class Irish musicians and Irish step-dancers. Many friendships were formed between the Irish-Americans and the native Irish who would visit back and forth.

During my rock n’ roll years back in the “Big 80’s” I had a band-mate from Ireland and we’ve been friends ever since and I try to visit him often.  In my thirties and forties as a Youth Minister at my parish in Ohio, I frequently led pilgrimages to Ireland for our parish teens and youth ministry team. Other than a couple of music projects with my traditional Irish band, The Kells, for the past five years the majority of my visits to Ireland have been for missionary activity to establish the Dead Theologians Society apostolate in Ireland.

I’ve had the privilege to travel all over the country for the past thirty years and have had the opportunity to experience “the Church” as  a young man who attends Mass, as a middle aged man leading pilgrimages, as a musician, and in my current missionary work experiences.

Back in the 80’s, weekend Masses in Ireland appeared to be fairly well attended, but I usually noticed that the women occupied the pews in the front half of the church while the men gravitated to the back, and it was not too uncommon to find a small crowd of gents standing in the back and just outside the front door visiting with each other while fulfilling their obligation! Most of my college-age and young adult friends who worked away from home would only attend Mass with their parents when home on holidays. I specifically remember having this very conversation with Irish friends and it was a consensus that this was becoming the norm.

It was my impression back then that the Catholic Church still held a high degree of influence in government and in the culture as a whole. Television and radio programs would break and broadcast the Angelus while people young and old would recite the prayers. It was also standard that almost every home had an Enthronement picture of the Sacred Heart with a little light bulb burning beneath. The influence of the Catholic Church was reflected in Irish Law with things like divorce and abortion being outlawed. The rights of parents, especially the rights of the mother to her children over the State, were protected. Pornography and artificial contraceptives were nowhere to be found in the public sphere.

Even though the Church held a prominent place in the Irish culture in the 80’s, it was certainly my observation, at that time, that many young people had either stopped going to Mass altogether or still went purely out of social convention. In the 90’s I really began to notice the decline in Mass attendance among young people as well as an expression of faith. Many of the outward appearances were still there but it appeared the outward appearance was a bit stronger than what was being lived out.

I have a very dear friend in Limerick, who is now in his mid-eighties, and who frequently laments about the loss of faith in Ireland. He was a very young man when Ireland was a new and independent republic and he’s told me that the faith of the Irish people at that time could be seen and heard everywhere and expressions of “Thank God, Please God, and God bless” constantly flowed reverently and lovingly in everyday Irish speech.

From my own experiences the state of the Church in Ireland has continued to decline. The Irish political parties have not only rejected traditional Catholic positions and values, but have actually become hostile towards the Church. Many Irish laws now reflect the rejection of Catholicism. Many Irish schools both primary and secondary have failed miserably to catechize and evangelize Irish young people. Many parents have left the Catholic Church and have failed to pass on the Catholic faith to their children. The number of vocations to the priesthood and religious life has seen a steady decline over the years. Several religious orders and communities that had thrived in Ireland for hundreds of years have disappeared.

Many Irish were angry and disillusioned by the clergy abuse scandal and were more incensed by the cover-up. Adding to that, a liberal Irish media foments hostility towards the once-respected Irish priests, and many Irish priests whom I know personally no longer wear their collar in public for fear of hostility. Just two years ago I read an article in a major Irish newspaper that Islam is the fastest growing religion in Ireland.

Again, from my own vantage point, I don’t believe the young people of Ireland have actually rejected the Catholic faith as much as they simply do not know the Catholic faith. It is their parents’ generation who rejected the Catholic faith and as a result, broke a chain of faith that had lasted for hundreds of years. I’ve been shocked and saddened by the number of priests who lack faith, courage, and the commitment to being shepherds of their flocks, especially when it comes to catechizing and evangelizing the young people.

How has DTS impacted the Irish communities that it’s been a part of?

DTS is very new to Ireland so the impact is a bit hard to measure right now for the most part. The immediate reception and impact is quite encouraging. Our first DTS chapter was in the community of Moyross in Limerick, known as one of Ireland’s toughest neighborhoods.

We were very fortunate to work with the great Franciscan Friars of the Renewal who are in Moyross. Brother Thomas, a CFR whom I’ve known for years was instrumental in inviting me to present DTS to a group of young people in Moyross who enthusiastically embraced it. The Friars host DTS at their youth center at St. Patrick’s Friary in Moyross. The DTS in Moyross is in its third year and has been well attended by young people in the community. Several of the young women who were participating are now in the convent or are seriously discerning a religious vocation. Others are choosing to invest in learning and living their faith and are courageously rejecting the lure of gangs, drugs, and violence.

I certainly don’t want to claim this is all because of DTS! I believe most of the credit needs to go to the great work and witness of the Franciscan Friars and the courage of so many of the wonderful people of Moyross, but I do believe DTS is playing an active role with the Friars to help win the souls of the young people of Moyross for Christ and His Church.

In the north of Ireland there are three quite successful DTS chapters, although still less than three years old. In Derry there is a young adult chapter with close to fifty members. They, like the Moyross chapter, receive much encouragement and participation from the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. They are now at a point where they may form and lead a DTS chapter for the teenagers in the area. The young adults from our DTS chapter in Antrim recently lead a Confirmation retreat for over 100 teens. Their involvement in DTS and the inspiration drawn from the lives of the saints helped to equip them to take an active role in evangelizing others. With our commitment to DTS in Ireland, please God it will continue to grow and truly make an impact for the good in the Irish communities where we have DTS chapters.

Do you see any signs of hope for the once-vibrant Church in Ireland that’s reeled, not unlike in other parts of the globe, from abuse and scandal, low Mass attendance, and few vocations?

Yes, I see tremendous hope!!! I’ve met some of the most inspiring and faithful disciples of Christ and His Church the past few years in Ireland. Youth 2000 and NET Ministries are two vibrant ministries of about thirty of which I’m aware, that are revitalizing the Faith throughout the country. There are still many holy, hard-working priests, nuns, and lay people who are changing lives. This current time in Ireland is often referred to as “The New Springtime” in the Irish Church. I was privileged to see and meet many of these great evangelizers at the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin two years ago where DTS had a booth.

Something that really encourages me is since Ireland is a small island, just as things got bad relatively quickly over a thirty to fifty year period; things can get good again quickly. Starting somewhere in the 60’s, many of Ireland’s “movers and shakers” decided that Ireland needed to become “modern.” Some of the ideas and motivations might have been well-intended, but it contributed to the problems that Ireland now finds itself in.

Young people have seen that the false gods of money and prosperity have come and gone. The time of prosperity, known as the Celtic Tiger are gone and the “Tiger” devoured itself. There is a commonly repeated sentiment among many Irish that says: “We used to have small houses and big families and we were happy. Now we have big houses and small families and we’re miserable.” In recent years, suicide rates have spiked to all-time highs, and things like divorce and abortion have contributed to the misery.

The way that I find hope in this is that most young people, I believe, are smart and can tell the difference between what is authentic and what is baloney. I believe the young people in Ireland will embrace the Catholic faith if it is presented to them with sincerity, with conviction, and with passion. Priests, parents, teachers, youth ministers, and missionaries must love Jesus and love our Catholic faith. We have the same Holy Spirit that the Apostles had, and we MUST make use of it!

In Ireland, as in America or anywhere, we simply cannot continue to run students through mediocre religion classes in mediocre Catholic schools or parish programs that are taught by uninspired and faithless teachers, teaching our Catholic faith as if it is just another subject on par with the other subjects – and expect the outcome to be evangelized young people on fire for their faith! It just doesn’t work that way.

I’ve had faithful friends in Ireland say that the best thing that could happen for the Church in Ireland is for it to be officially outlawed. Then the Irish, who love a good fight, would be going to Mass in droves! I am absolutely convinced that the overwhelming majority of Irish young people would become great Christians if more people help to make them Christians. Irish adults need to invest their money and partner with authentic Catholic missionary efforts. Priests need to rediscover their vocation and place the evangelization of young people as a top priority. Yes, many may be “gun shy” in this post-abuse scandal and hostile environment, but they must not abandon their post and their duty when it comes to the souls of their young people.

There is a legend that before St. Patrick died he had a vision that most of the work he had done would almost disappear, except there would be scattered throughout Ireland “little flames of faith” that would continue to burn. Then eventually those little flames would grow and once again spread throughout the island. I like to think that DTS is one of those little flames of faith and will contribute to the roaring flame of the re-evangelization of Ireland.

What keeps you fueled spiritually to head up this international apostolate, and how has this mission helped you grow in your faith?

There are many things that keep me fueled spiritually to try my best to lead the DTS apostolate. Without the Sacraments there would be no hope for me! Confession and Communion keep me happy and hope-filled. The Sacraments help me to be more patient and charitable in my disposition. Believe me, I know the downside of the temperament of a red-head from the west side of Columbus with Irish DNA!

The inspiration that I’ve personally drawn from getting to know the saints over the years is a source of inspiration and encouragement. I really love the saints and hope to know as many as possible in this life before, please God, I can meet them in Heaven someday. I owe them a lot really. St. Patrick, Venerable Solanus Casey, and St. Don Bosco are just a few of my greatest heroes and teachers.

St. Patrick and Venerable Solanus wrote and spoke of the gratitude they felt for what God had done for them. This resonates deeply within me for I’ve had a life that is blessed far more than this sinner deserves – and I really mean that. Showing a bit of this gratitude to God by trying to win souls for Christ and His One True Church is the very least I can do. To do this work in Ireland is especially close to my heart for my faith and the faith of the Cotter family came through Ireland. Establishing DTS throughout Ireland is a sincere gesture to try to return the favor and express my gratitude to all of the Irish who lived the Catholic faith and died for the Catholic faith.

I would be remiss if I forgot to mention that I’ve been very blessed in my life to see the true miracles that occur when a young person becomes converted to Jesus. To witness a life that becomes filled with love and purpose and hope is beyond words. For me there is nothing more important than to lend a hand or play a part in leading a young soul to Jesus and ultimately to Heaven, and it is such a privilege to get to do this work. The openness and response of young people to the Catholic faith, when they actually learn it and live it, continues to inspire me, encourage me, and really helps me grow in my own faith.

For many years you’ve been a member of the Irish band The Kells that’s toured the U.S., Ireland, and other places around the globe (and that I’ve had the honor of hearing–such an amazing band!). What kind of connection is there between your missionary work in Ireland and your music?

It is no secret that I love Irish music! As a child I was inspired to play the drums after watching the Hanna-Barbera Claymation program “The Little Drummer Boy” and how that poor little kid expressed his love and made his prayer to the Christ Child by playing his heart out. Accepting that it might sound hokey, I readily admit that it still breaks me up whenever I hear that Christmas tune and watch the program when it’s on at Christmastime.

When I was about twenty I met a group of Irish young men and women who were about the same age as me when they visited Columbus. One guy had a bodhran (the Irish drum) and he let me take it home for the night. I fell in love with the drum and found it as a way to express what I feel inside as a person.

I am not super-articulate nor much of a writer, but I have always offered up my music playing as an expression of the love that I feel for Jesus and others, as well as a prayer for souls in Purgatory, especially those souls who were Irish traditional musicians. Playing with The Kells has been a tremendous blessing as all of us love Our Lord and hope that our music conveys that love and gratitude to others.

We chose our name, The Kells, as homage to the Irish monks who used their art to illuminate the Gospels in the beautiful Book of Kells, now located in Trinity College, Dublin. Inspired by them, we try to use our artistic gifts to do the same through our music.

It blows me away when I reflect on how that simple frame drum (bodhran) has afforded me the opportunity to play for and meet people all over the country and outside of the country. Last year we played in Ireland twice and did concerts at the Irish College in Rome and at Saint Paul Outside of the Walls in Rome. All of us in the band were truly moved and aware of what a blessing this was as it was all unfolding. And playing at World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil was something I will never forget. We played impromptu street concerts as well as a concert on a massive stage for a crowd that some estimated was in the hundreds of thousands. Many in the crowd had never heard traditional Irish music before. To express our love of Christ and His Church before a young crowd from around the world by playing my Irish “soul-music” is something I will remember for as long as I can remember anything! An added blessing was that my college-age son, Rory, was there to share in the experience by working as one of our valuable road managers.

I guess to try to put it into one sentence, spreading DTS and playing Irish music are both genuine efforts to express my love and gratitude to God and to help lead souls to Christ.

To learn more about DTS and how to start a chapter in your own parish, visit deadtheologianssociety.com. To hear the Kells in action, visit kellsband.com/Kells/Welcome.html.

Copyright 2014, Meg Matenaer

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