As a DJ, village priest in Portugal cues up faith and electronic dance music for global youth

LAÚNDOS – Guilherme Peixoto, a village priest in northern Portugal, has been busy this month celebrating Masses at his two parishes, presiding over remembrances for the dead — and preparing the electronic music set for his next international DJ gig.

What started nearly two decades ago as a novel way to fundraise for the local churches has become essential to the ministry of this 49-year-old Catholic priest in a rapidly secularizing continent where religious practice is dropping fast — especially among young people.

“With electronic music I can take some message, I can be where young people are,” Peixoto said a few days after returning to Laúndos from playing at a large Halloween festival in Italy. “They can think, ‘If it’s possible for a priest to be DJ, it’s possible for me to like music, and festivals, and be Christian.'”

The priest broke onto the global stage when the organizers of World Youth Day in Lisbon asked him to “wake up the pilgrims” at 7 a.m. before Pope Francis’ open-air Mass in August.

Peixoto, who’s also a military chaplain, had been preparing for the sets he would play with the Portuguese Army’s symphony band in late October, but he put everything aside and started prepping for the huge event only a few weeks away.

On that Sunday morning, in his clerical collar and large black headphones among a crowd of white-robed bishops and before an estimated 1.5 million faithful, Peixoto swayed to the dance beat he mixed with clips of papal speeches.

Early into the 30-minute set, the 1978 exhortation by St. John Paul II to “not be afraid” to open one’s heart to Christ sounded out in Italian. Pope Francis’ words that the Church has room for all — “todos, todos, todos” in Spanish — closed out the set as pilgrims danced and Peixoto smiled broadly.

He’d been up all night to mix in audio of Francis’ speech from the previous evening. And as soon as he received Communion at Mass, he traveled more than four hours back to his village for a procession, said Silvana Pontes, one of his parishioners who volunteers at the club in Laúndos where “the DJ priest” plays on several weekend summer nights.

“You don’t think that we’re in a bar with a priest. You just feel it. It’s so natural and people notice that,” Pontes said in Ar de Rock, the parish’s little open-air club on a shrine-topped hill above the village. “People see that we’re joyful.”

When Peixoto was first sent here in the mid-2000s, the parish was cash-strapped and in debt from renovations to the main church. But parishioners were tired of bake sales and door-knocking campaigns, so Peixoto called onto the youth choirs to start karaoke fundraisers.

And since he’d been in two bands in seminary — though he had sold his equipment and sound systems before ordination, figuring his music career was over — he livened up those events playing rock sets from his laptop.

Within a few years, debts were paid off, fresh church renovations were completed, Peixoto was taking professional DJ classes, and most parishioners had come to take it for granted that the priest mixed a wicked beat at Ar de Rock.

“In the beginning it was strange, but now it’s the norm. They understood the priest is also a person,” said Tania Campos, who was born and raised in Laúndos where she serves as catechist, choir singer and Ar de Rock volunteer. As parish secretary, she’s also been fielding increasing numbers of calls and emails from post-World Youth Day fans.

Five dozen volunteers kept the bar going this summer on Friday nights — not Saturday, since Peixoto celebrates Sunday morning Mass — as hundreds of people, sometimes three generations of the same family, came to dance and mingle until 3 a.m.

On the last night of the season in September, volunteers in the kitchen — decorated with license plates brought by visitors from Arizona to São Paulo to Switzerland — prepared 300 “francesinhas poveiras” sandwiches, said Irene Pontes, a member of the parish council and volunteer for more than a decade.

The gooey meat-and-cheese specialty from northern Portugal is especially welcome after the bar’s powerful signature drink, caipirinha. More than 1,000 of those were sold the first night they were offered at a few euros (dollars) a glass, said Andreia Flores, who volunteers behind the bar and belongs to Peixoto’s second parish in the nearby village of Amorim.

Food and drink sales, as well as other donations, all go back to the church, which is readying its most ambitious building project, a new center for youth activities.

“This is why I’m happy to be here,” Flores said. “Faith is to make others happy.”

For Peixoto, DJing in and far beyond the village has become a vital new way to evangelize.

“I’m making these messages arrive where the church is not,” he said of engagements like the Halloween festival with some 30,000 partygoers. There, he re-mixed electronic dance beats with words from Pope Francis’ encyclical about protecting the environment.

“The people are dancing with sentences from ‘Laudato Si’,’” Peixoto added with a chuckle. “It’s not so much — two-three sentences from the Pope — but if I wasn’t there, it’s no sentence. It’s like a small seed, and the Holy Spirit will do his work.”

In fact, it was another document from Pope Francis, urging clergy to go find “the lost sheep,” that pushed Peixoto to work harder on his music skills so that professional-sounding sets could become a way to reach those who might never step inside a church.

In Portugal, about half of young people say they have no religion. Most participate less in services and have less confidence in the Church, and pray less than older generations, according to a recent study by Eduardo Duque, a professor at the Catholic Portuguese University in Braga.

“Padre Guilherme says, ‘If we can’t bring them to church, we’ll bring the church to them,’” said Silvana Pontes. While most who patronize Ar de Rock don’t go to Mass, she added, some become curious enough to ask about worship times.

So Peixoto plans to continue to improve his DJ skills to bring a Christian message to audiences who might have never heard of Jesus — while remaining committed to all regular parish activities.

As soon as he came off the stage just before dawn at the Halloween festival in Italy, Peixoto and his team of 12, who handle everything from lighting to video, rushed to the airport for flights back home so he could celebrate afternoon Mass for All Saints and All Souls celebrations.

“It’s very important to me to not only be the priest DJ, but be the shepherd of the community,” Peixoto said. “The world is not so closed to Jesus. But you need to speak the language.”

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