Happy New Year! I hope your Christmas holiday and New Year celebration were filled with family and old friends. As you know, I traveled to Rome with 60 pilgrims from the Austin Prep community – students, parents, grandparents, faculty, and staff – to support the Austin Prep Choir in their performances in Vatican City and Assisi.
For choir ensembles, few opportunities can match singing in St. Peter’s Basilica or for the Holy Father. The Austin Prep Choir experienced both. Dr. Hans-Albert Courtial, the Founder and President of the Foundation for Sacred Music and Art, was instrumental in Austin Prep Choir’s opportunity to participate in the 6th Annual Youth and Adult Choir Festival. “This Festival strives to celebrate the Christmas Season in the Vatican,” he shared, “featuring the most beautiful masterpieces of sacred music performed by renowned international choirmasters and excellent choristers. The aim of this Festival is to gather choirs of young and adult voices together to encourage musical excellence and to promote the unifying power of music, which improves contacts among cultures, traditions, and people.”
This Festival in which the Choir participated was a unique and special program aimed at creating experiences not found in any book or classroom. I’m pleased to share some of the highlights of trip with you.
An Ancient City: December 28
Arriving in the Eternal City, we visited the sites of ancient Rome – the Roman Forum, Coliseum, Victor Emmanuel II Monument, the Arch of Constantine, and ended the day visiting the Church of Saint Peter in Chains. The Church, completed in 440 A.D., houses in a reliquary under the main alter the chains of St. Peter that were used in his final imprisonment before being crucified.
A Papal Blessing and Mass: December 29
We attended the noon papal blessing in St. Peter’s Square. From the window of the Apostolic Palace, Pope Francis offered a reflection on the family and imparted his blessing to the crowd. Later that evening, we were escorted by members of the Swiss Guard, the Pope’s Army, through Bernini’s Colonnade to a private entrance in the Basilica. We attended a mass celebrated by Cardinal Angelo Comastri, Archpriest of St. Peter’s Basilica, at the Altar of the Chair (of St. Peter). Austin Prep Chaplain Father Patrick Armano concelebrated the mass with Cardinal Comastri and our Choir took its place in the choir stalls of the Basilica in front of the Basilica’s pipe organ to sing during the Mass.
Following the mass, the Choir was invited to sing Oh Come Let Us Adore Him at the tomb of Pope St. John Paul II. Months spent rehearsing chants, responses, and hymns under the direction of Stephen Williams, Music Faculty and Choir Director, came to fruition in one of the most sacred places on the planet.
Immersed in Art History: December 30
We began our day touring the Vatican Museums and visited the Sistine Chapel which contains Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement, incredible artwork detailing the Second Coming of Christ. We participated in a guided tour of St. Peter’s Basilica and had an opportunity to see Michelangelo’s Pieta, visit various chapels inside the Basilica, including the Chapel of St. Sebastian which contains the tomb of Pope St. John Paul II where the Choir sang the previous evening. That afternoon, we roamed around Rome visiting the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps, the Piazza Navona, and the Trevi Fountain.
Of course, many of us threw three coins into the bubbling waters of the Fountain guaranteeing a return to the Eternal City some day! That evening, we were treated to a Gala Dinner in honor of the Choir at a traditional Roman restaurant on the Appian Way.
A New Year’s Eve to Remember: December 31
We spent our morning visiting three Papal Basilicas: Saint Mary Major, Saint John in Lateran, and Saint Paul Outside the Walls. Later that evening, we entered Saint Peter’s Square as the sun set over the Basilica. With the Choir dressed in their red robes and white stoles, we secured a space immediately across from the Vatican Nativity Crèche. When the vesper service inside the Basilica ended, the space in front of the Crèche was cleared of visitors and dignitaries arrived to await the arrival of the Holy Father.
Just before the Pope’s arrival, we heard the beat of drums of the Swiss Guard and the cadence of their boots marching across the cobblestones of the piazza. Moments later, Pope Francis arrived in the piazza. The Pope blessed the Nativity Crèche, offered his prayers, and then began to greet visitors. As Pope Francis turned to face the crowd, the Austin Prep Choir burst into song and the Pontiff made his way to where we stood. Pope Francis touched the hands of many in our group, including students and parents.
A Papal Mass & Festival Concert: January 1
That evening, the Choir performed a public concert for the citizens of Rome in the Basilica of St. Ignatius of Loyola, which dates from 1626. The baroque Church celebrates the founder of the Jesuit Order, St. Ignatius, and is the burial place of St. Robert Bellarmine. When I arrived for the concert, there was a sizable line extending into the piazza in front of the Church. When the concert began there were more than 800 Romans and tourists in attendance, including the former maestro of the Sistine Chapel Choir!
An Excursion to Assisi: January 2
Home at Last