There is nothing unusual about a man with a name like Geoffrey O'Riada serving as a priest in Belfast.
But this particular clergyman will cause raised eyebrows next year when he returns to the land of his ancestors to start a mission. For Geoffrey O'Riada is a very unusual name for an Eastern Orthodox shepherd and Belfast is an unusual place to gather an Eastern Orthodox flock.
O'Riada is convinced his mission makes perfect sense when viewed through the lens of Celtic history. He also believes today's revival of interest in Celtic spirituality is a sign that many are searching for ancient roots and rites.
"The Celts had their own unique and beautiful approach to the Christian faith and were part of the one, undivided church before the split between Rome and the East," he said. "Now, a growing number of people like me believe it's time for Orthodoxy to return to the West, including to lands such as Ireland where it once thrived and produced generations of saints."
O'Riada's "Celtic Orthodox Christianity home page" on the World Wide Web features an icon of a bishop wearing green vestments and gold Celtic crosses, along with a famous prayer linked to St. Padraig, or Patrick. "May Christ be in the mouth of everyone who thinks of thee, Christ in the mouth of those who speak to thee, Christ in every eye that seeks thee, Christ in every ear that hears thy words, O blessed Padraig, our father."
The goal of O'Riada's research is to cover the history of Christianity in the British Isles -- from the viewpoint of Eastern Orthodoxy -- through the crushing of the Celtic church in the Norman Conquests of the 11th and 12th centuries. The site includes pages of essays, biographies of saints, prayers and a timeline of the bloody and convoluted history of Christianity among the Irish, Scottish, Welsh and English peoples. This timeline is 18 pages long and doesn't even address the rise of Protestantism.
When he reaches Belfast, O'Riada will almost be starting from scratch. There is one Eastern Orthodox parish in all of Ireland and that's a Greek parish, with a multi-ethnic congregation, in Dublin. A recent survey found 80 self-identified Orthodox Christians in Northern Ireland. There is, however, a Greek restaurant in Belfast that sells icons.
O'Riada himself is a Canadian of Irish and English descent. His father's side of the family emigrated from County Mayo in Ireland during the potato famine of 1845. He currently is a deacon and finishing his studies at Holy Cross Orthodox Seminary in Brookline, Mass.
"Our approach in this mission will not be to poach sheep from other flocks," he said. "We intend simply to live and worship as Orthodox Christians, manifesting a spiritual and liturgical life that is organically connected to the early church and to the life of the early Irish saints. ... Our desire is to invite western Christians -- Protestants and Roman Catholics -- to discover their roots. ... We want to become a beacon, a light on a hill."
Millions of Roman Catholics are, of course, convinced they already have solid roots into the Irish soil and most Protestants will simply see the Orthodox as another brand of Catholicism. Meanwhile, a surge of Western converts, especially in the United States, is raising questions for Orthodox leaders.
It will be impossible to take academic lessons learned from archeology and manuscripts and turn them, overnight, into a living faith practiced by people in a modern land, said O'Riada. The mission will be able to use many ancient Celtic prayers, honor Celtic saints and to embrace a legacy of Celtic art. There are ancient hymns and chants that can be blended with English-language versions of Orthodox rites.
"We are talking about trying to recover a tradition that was handed down from generation to generation. That will take time," he said. "But we can begin. We need to begin. ... The explosion in interest in Celtic Christianity reflects a profound dissatisfaction with the rationalistic and juridical forms of Christianity which have dominated the West. There is a deep thirst today for ancient, authentic faith."