01-05-2008 - Traces, n. 5

NewWorld / benedict xvi in the usa

A Choir of Friends
Singing for the Pope

On April 19th the CL Choir was invited to perform for the Pope during the Youth Rally at St. Joseph’s Seminary Yonkers, New York

by Santiago Ramos

The conventional wisdom used to be that Wojtyla was the artist–the playwright, the actor–and Ratzinger was the scholar–the theologian, the Inquisitor. After Ratzinger became Benedict, however, that dubious wisdom was quickly jettisoned as the international media learned about the new pontiff’s skill as a pianist and his love of Mozart. His writings about the Liturgy, and the frequent references to literary works within his own theological studies, are signs of a man and thinker who is keenly appreciative of the place of beauty in human life. As he recently said to a visiting Chinese orchestra in the Vatican, “Music, and art in general, can serve as a privileged instrument for encounter and reciprocal knowledge and esteem between different populations and cultures; a means attainable by all for valuing the universal language of art.” Coming from the mouth of almost anyone else today, these words would sound like sentimental, maudlin mush; yet this pope can’t help but communicate confidence, conviction, and certainty.
It would be quite a challenge, then, to play music for such a pope. How to satisfy a man with such an understanding of beauty? That is precisely the challenge that befell Christopher Vath, conductor of the Communion and Liberation Choir in New York, in the months preceding the papal visit to that city. Diocesan coordinator Sister Marie Pappas was in charge of organizing a youth rally for the Pope during his Apostolic visit to the United States; among the many musical acts, she was supposed to find a choir. Fr. Rich Veras, a teacher of religion in a New York high school, received a message from Sister Pappas, and he put her in contact with Vath, an accomplished pianist who himself had already been invited to perform for the Pope, at Castel Gandolfo in 2005. This time, however, Vath would be part of a larger ensemble: Sister Pappas invited the CL Choir to became part of the youth rally.

The New York Communion and Liberation Choir was formed in the early 1990s, in the Brooklyn apartment of one of Chris Vath’s first friends in CL, the musician Jonathan Fields. “We were not formal in any sense,” says Vath. “We were around six people who really wanted to sing.” Despite the fact that there were few, if any, community events for the choir to sing for, the group prospered, even during the three-year period while Vath studied music in Europe. When he returned in 1994, the group had grown to around 12 people. Their first real concert took place in Advent of 1995.
By the time Sister Pappas called, however, there were 44 members.

“People Who Have Faith”
According to Fr. Veras, Sister Pappas said that she wanted “people who have faith.” She was very happy with the people that she found in the CL Choir. Unfortunately, she also wanted a specific list of songs–among them, “Pan de Vida” and “City of God”–which were not in the choir’s repertoire. The choir is used to singing more complex and sublime pieces of music.
But this did not deter the singers. “I told all the members of the choir to approach this as a service, for the Church and for the world,” says Vath. The performance occurred at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York, on April 19th. Around 25,000 people came to see the Pope. The event included a pre-rally concert with such famous acts as Kelly Clarkson, Third Day, Salvador, Toby Mac, Three Graces, Father Joseph Espaillat, Father Stan Fortuna, Fragile Tomorrow, and Full Armor. In his address to the youth, the Pope asked: “Friends, again I ask you, what about today? What are you seeking? What is God whispering to you? The hope which never disappoints is Jesus Christ. The saints show us the selfless love of His way. As disciples of Christ, their extraordinary journeys unfolded within the community of hope, which is the Church. It is from within the Church that you too will find the courage and support to walk the way of the Lord.”
The choir sang, directly to the Pope, with all their hearts. They sang “Happy Birthday” in German; during the Litany of Saints, their song became prayer. Afterwards, they were able to approach the Pope and greet him; a few shook his hand. In the end, what they sang didn’t matter; everyone was happy. “Quite often in the past, I’ve seen the choir happy, pumped up, after concerts, etc.,” said Vath. “I’ve never seen a choir as happy as this, though. People were hugging me as we got off the bus.” Another choir member, Anthony Giacona, concurred: “It was the greatest day of my life.”
And now, how do you top singing for the Pope? What is next for the choir? “I joined the choir because I wanted to follow something beautiful,” Giacona continued. “When you do that, beautiful things happen–like singing for the Pope. So I imagine more beautiful things will happen in the future.”