Musical Tour de Force; an Artist at Adoration

Choir of U.S. Basilica Tunes In to Rome for CD

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By Catherine Smibert

ROME, MARCH 10, 2005 (Zenit.org).- The Choir of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., has been in Rome over the last week on a recording tour to honor John Paul II.

The choir is working on a CD, due for release this autumn. The idea for it came from the Year of the Eucharist and the man behind it, according to the choir's musical director, Peter Latona.

"I'm always coming up with new activities for this professional chorus in addition to them providing the ordinary and proper texts at midday liturgies of the Eucharist on Sundays and on principal solemnities," he told me. "This Pope and Rome offered too great an inspiration to resist."

Latona explained that the choir aims to record a new CD each year (usually comprised of Marian hymns), but that the Year of the Eucharist provided a good excuse for doing something different.

"This Pope has been a key element when it comes to strengthening the liturgy of the Church and encouraging music to be an integral part of that," Latona said. "It was time for us to honor him for his broad contributions that honored traditions such as music that have existed in the Church throughout the years"

"When it came to choosing the Eternal City, many forget that it was here where some of the greatest Church music was born," he said. "For example, people aren't as familiar with Palestrina as they are with Michelangelo.

"In that sense, bringing the tradition of music to life in these places is the equivalent of exhibiting a famous work of art in the Vatican Museums, so it really relies on performing ensembles, professional choirs, organists and the like in order to reach back into the roots of the Catholic Church with its great art of the past and strengthen that connection with music."

"Thrilling" was the word the choir members used to describe their experience of re-creating this art form in places such as the tomb of St. Peter, where they sang an excerpt from "Tu Es Petrus."

"Singing in these places makes one's experience of the Church come to life," Latona said. "You can imagine the powerful sensation you get when singing a motet written for the feast of several martyrs which speaks of the blood they shed, then looking at the walls and actually seeing paintings of the first Christians being martyred, in a church dedicated to martyrs that has barely changed over the centuries."

But once a pilgrimage was decided upon, finding an exact location to record in Rome was tricky.

The choir wanted to show the connection between this city, the United States and the universal Church.

The U.S. shrine's acting rector, Monsignor Walter Rossi, told me: "At first we had considered St. Peter's as the most likely option. But then we realized that as we are a Marian shrine in the U.S., it would be even more appropriate to have the recording take place inside the oldest church in honor of the Blessed Mother, St. Mary Major."

The monsignor said the choir directors saw this location as being equally and ideally reflective of the Pope's devotion to Our Lady. Yet, it is not just this Marian element that links the CD project to the Holy Father.

"When we were brainstorming ideas of how to really present the Pope's life in this CD, we opportunely ran into his biographer George Weigel," Latona said. "He helped me think through what to focus on and pointed me in the direction of the various encyclicals looking at areas of freedom, dignity of life, family, Mary, sainthood, the Eucharist etc."

Thanks to Weigel's assistance, Latona and his team have extracted appropriate quotes of the Pope's to be read out prior to each sacred musical piece. Carl Anderson, benefactor of the CD and Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, will read the selected quotes.

"I'm hoping," said Latona, "that people will use this CD as an overview of the teachings of the Holy Father. The average person will not have read all his teachings and so this gives them a little taste."

The CD, "Pope John Paul II: A Celebration of Life and Faith," is expected to comprise 20 tracks and will begin its distribution through the bookstore of national shrine in Washington.

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Strumming at the Gemelli

You don't have to be a member of the Roman Curia to visit John Paul II in the hospital.

The Gemelli Polyclinic, where the Pope is covering from a tracheotomy, provides a television linkup between its chapel and the Holy Father's room at certain hours, as one pilgrim happily discovered.

David Vogel was on a flight from Ohio to Rome for a pilgrimage when John Paul II was readmitted to the hospital in late February. Saddened on hearing that news when he arrived at Da Vinci airport, Vogel instantly decided that he would pay the Pope a visit somehow.

"I did some quick research and took all necessary public transport which had me at the hospital by 6 p.m. on the Friday evening," Vogel told me. "It seemed quite chaotic, so my first idea was to go to the hospital's chapel."

After praying and playing his guitar in the chapel for a while, Vogel was approached by a priest who explained that there was going to be a holy hour of adoration for the Pope, via a linkup, and in turn invited him to play music at it.

"I was delighted to be able to offer my services to such a special cause," Vogel said. "But you can imagine my joy when I was informed that the Holy Father would be participating in the event by a TV link."

Vogel, a Catholic recording artist, said he has been directly inspired in his pro-life, musical work by John Paul II.

"I had always wanted to play for him and here was my chance," he said. "Together with the official organist before the Blessed Sacrament, we played and prayed that it would lift the spirits of both the people and the Pope."

Vogel said that he has seen the power of both prayer and music especially in palliative care and would encourage anyone else to take up the opportunity to "virtually visit" the Holy Father in this time of suffering. "I really hope it's as beneficial to him as the experience was as beautiful to me."

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Vatican Vittles

If you are hungry and happen to be at the Vatican, where can you grab a bite to eat? The answer may depend on where you are.

Tony Polzer, director of acclaimed tour company Three Millennia, recommends that his groups enjoy the tiny snack bar just prior to entering the Sistine Chapel.

"This little place in the side of this Vatican wall offers the simple Italian delights of espresso, 'cornetti' and 'panini' accompanied by luscious outdoor greenery and floral decor," he told me.

Another little restaurant with table seating offers foods the average Italian snack bar doesn't, such as whole-grain breads.

And "for those lucky few able to do research in the Vatican Archives or Library, there is a special place where they may replenish themselves," Polzer said.

That eatery, found beyond the brick-paved veranda at the back of the building which links the library and archives, was explored by a professor of art history at Rutgers University in New Jersey, Tod Marder, in an article entitled "A Scholar Visits the Vatican Library."

"Once finished checking in at the Library," he wrote, "climb the stairs ... and the café makes it possible to extend the hours of a visit and to work with an intensity uncompromised by hunger, thirst or a lack of caffeine."

And Polzer says that if you are up on the cupola of St. Peter's Basilica, there is the little rooftop snack bar at your service. "This brand new place, though petite, offers visitors a pit stop without disturbing their view," he said.

For the employees of the Vatican State, dining takes on a whole different meaning.

The average worker can take lunch at a massive catering hall with a fixed, yet delicious Italian menu. Members of the Curia, for their part, receive fresh food for breakfast straight from the "Vatican farm."

That farm is a tract situated at the Vatican summer residence of Castel Gandolfo which provides organic produce such as fresh eggs, milk and yogurt from the fowl and livestock for the Holy See.

Vatican employees can also benefit from this agricultural produce when they shop at the Vatican supermarket. If they get there early enough.

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Catherine Smibert can be reached at catherine@zenit.org.