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US school choir recalls thrill of singing for Pope Francis

St. Peter's Basilica

TTstudio | Shutterstock

J-P Mauro - published on 01/13/24

Students from South Hills Catholic Academy in Pennsylvania were given a once-in-a-lifetime chance to sing Mass at the Vatican for Pope Francis on New Year's Day.

A choir of students from South Hills Catholic Academy in Pennsylvania are recalling the thrill of singing for Pope Francis in Rome. The school choir recently made the trip to Italy, joining a wide array of 90 choirs from around the world that united to sing the Mass for the Solemnity of Mary. The performance took place on New Year’s Day, when the academy’s students religiously rang in 2024. 

Speaking to the Post-Gazette, 13-year-old Marie – an 8th grader at South Hills – described the surreal experience that the rare opportunity to sing at the Vatican offered: 

“Just being there was one of the most amazing experiences of my life,” Marie commented. “It was crazy that our school was a part of that. Our school was a part of bringing joy to all of those people.” 

She explained that the group included choir members, school staff, and parents who chaperoned the trip. While the New Year’s Day Mass was the apex performance of the journey, the choir pulled double duty on the trip. The kids performed for Pope Francis not once, but twice, and they also sang three Masses at other locations in Rome. 

One such performance was held at St. Paul Outside-the-Walls Basilica on the Friday after Christmas, where the academy joined a 1,000-student choir from 19 schools. This Mass, however, was performed in English. Joseph Helinski, the academy’s music director, commented: 

“I was so proud of our kids,” said Helinski. “They musically were top notch and even more the way they held themselves at Mass and represented our region abroad.”

In a video interview, featured above, 7th grader Alistair commented that he didn’t believe it when he was first told that the choir was headed to Rome. He explained that the hardest part was learning the Latin Mass, as well as keeping track of his part. Traditional Mass settings are often composed in a difficult-to-sing style called polyphony. In this style, each voice part bears its own melody, which can be difficult for young singers. 

Helsinki noted that the kids were especially taken with the sights of St. Peter’s Basilica, but Pope Francis stole the show. He recalled how they were touched by Pope Francis’ address, when he told the students: 

“Singing and music can touch hearts, give beauty and restore zest and hope in people’s lives,” Pope Francis said. “This is what gives us joy!”

Read his whole address here.

While the school has yet to release any footage of the concerts the academy’s students gave in Rome, they do have an example of their fine young choir singing the “Dies Irae” in honor of the passing of Pope Benedict XVI in January 2023.

Tags:
CatholicismEducationRomeUnited States
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