The Register’s Allison Hunwicks, second from right, relished the chance to perform before Pope Benedict XVI in Rome. Photo by Tara Leerdam

United in song, and blessed by the pontiff

  • February 16, 2013

“He looked right at me.”

Those words, expressed with both reverence and excitement, came from the mouths of almost every member of the Our Lady of Sorrows Ecumenical Choir, just after having been blessed by Pope Benedict XVI at the Papal Mass for the Presentation of Our Lord at St. Peter’s Basilica — certainly, given his resignation announced Feb. 11, one of his last celebrations as our Holy Father.

Some choristers were non-singers who had just learned to read music; some were life-long choir singers who came from the ranks of St. Michael’s Choir School; some were professional musicians who have sung with institutions like the Canadian Opera Company — and, being an ecumenical choir, some were not members of the Catholic Church.

However, such was the power of this experience — wherein every individual felt personally touched and regarded by the Pope’s presence and soft, beatific smile.

As a choir, we were there to join the Sistine Chapel Choir as one of the principal choirs in singing the Gregorian Mass of the Angels — a massive honour for a group that had just formed in mid-2012 and which was in Italy to perform at some of the most historic and religiously significant locations in our faith, and experience myriad moments of epiphany and reflection along the way.

Formed by Our Lady of Sorrows pastor Fr. Nino Cavoto and music director Gordon Mansell, the choir was made up of Kingsway-area (Etobicoke) residents who wanted to undertake the challenge of preparing for a week’s worth of musical engagements in Rome, Florence and Assisi. Joined by pilgrims, the journey took us from our humble beginnings — rehearsing in the parish basement — to lifting our voices in song and Christian unity behind the towering altar at St. Peter’s.

In addition to the honour of singing for Pope Benedict, the choir gave two concerts (at St. Ignatius, Rome, and Holy Trinity, Florence, respectively) and sang Masses at St. Francis in Assisi, St. Mary Major in Rome, and were the principal choir at the Archpriest Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. Posters could be found plastered to buildings all over the city announcing our concerts. I don’t think that there could be a greater thrill than seeing your name mere steps away from the archways of St. Peter’s Square.

Walking through some of the greatest monuments not only of Catholic history but of our Western culture, was, to say the least, a little overwhelming. With no real frame of reference to view such grandeur through, it is sometimes easy to lose one’s self in the temporal awesomeness of the spaces.

However, like all great endeavours, it is the small moments that truly help make up the greater reflection: a bus-ride rehearsal in the early morning chiaroscuro of light over the Umbrian hills; the genuine delight of the pastor at St. Francis Basilica to have a choir travel so far to sing for them; a pair of turtle doves nesting amidst the thornless roses of St. Francis.

After getting lost (numerous times) in the winding, cobbled streets of Rome’s Trastavere neighbourhood, my personal moment of reflection came as I knelt at the altar in St. Cecilia’s Church — she, the patron saint of musicians and martyred for her faith — and, as a musician, felt fully aware of the immensity of what we had come to do.

Particularly important, in this Year of Faith and just days after the week of Prayer for Christian Unity, was that a group of singers of mixed faith came together to perform some of the greatest sacred music in the canon. From Fauré and Mozart to great Canadian composers like Togni and Bédard, it was an honour to sing this music and to utilize our musical gifts in places so far from home. While definitely a challenge to prepare for, the result was a beautiful way to come together and pray together as Christians.

Pope Benedict XVI is known as a lover of music, and this was evident as his voice rang clear, though sometimes laboured, through the Mass of the Angels — and, how each member of the choir, Catholic or not, was impressed by his presence. I think that it speaks to the testament of the strength of our musical tradition in the Catholic faith, and its ability to bring together all Christians through something so simple and perfect as a song.


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