Friday, February 24, 2023

Singing for Pope Benedict XVI

In 2019 the London Oratory Schola — which sings the 6pm Mass at the Oratory Church on Saturday evenings — was invited to Rome to sing at the canonisation of John Henry Newman. During the days we spent in Rome, we sang on a number of occasions, including the canonisation itself. However, the most memorable highlight was a private recital for the Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI.

The London Oratory Schola, Fr George Bowen, Charles Cole, Daniel Wright (headmaster) and Dominic Lynch with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI
The night before the recital, the Schola gave a concert at the Collegio Urbano, where Newman himself studied. This seminary sends missionary priests into some of the most challenging and even dangerous parts of the world. Its students are a thriving group of young men who are incredibly committed to their faith. After the concert in the college chapel, the forty boys of the Schola were ushered into the large refectory for dinner with over a hundred seminarians. The boys sat amongst the seminarians and some of the stories they learned during the course of the meal were very striking indeed.

I particularly remember two boys telling me later that they had been speaking to a young seminarian whose uncle, a priest, had been sent to Pakistan where he was executed for baptising a Muslim. His nephew was absolutely frank about the fact that it was very likely the same could happen to him when he, too, returned to Pakistan, yet he was absolutely at peace with the path he had chosen. It brought to mind the words of Saint Philip Neri to the newly ordained priests of the English College in Rome as they were sent back to an almost certain death in Tudor England: ‘Salvete Flores Martyrum’ (Hail, flowers of the martyrs).

At the end of dinner, the Rector of the Seminary gave a wonderful speech and invited the Schola Prefect and the Student Prefect of the Seminary to come forward and shake hands together as a sign of friendship between us. He went on to tell the boys that as they had some spare rooms, any of them who wished to remain and begin life as seminarians immediately were most welcome to do so — to much laughter. Finally, he announced to his students that the following day, the boys were going to be singing for Pope Benedict. The words were barely out of his mouth before the seminarians erupted with huge applause and cheering. As we all walked back down the Janiculum to our hotel, I remember one of the Oratory school staff remarking to me “It’s going to be hard to top that experience.”
Walking from the Sistine Courtyard to the Vatican Garden
The following day we arrived at the Porta Sant’Anna, the entrance to the Vatican, and we were led through a courtyard and up a staircase into the imposing San Damaso courtyard, right at the heart of the papal palace. We were asked to wait there for a moment, during which a Swiss guard, in full regalia, came over to the boys and started asking them which football teams they supported. The boys were of course delighted, oblivious to the surreal nature of the scene, as they discussed the merits of Chelsea, Fulham et al with a Swiss Guard in bright blue, yellow and red plumage, complete with halberd in hand. We were then led up to the Sistine courtyard, where the director of the Sistine Choir had very kindly given us permission to use the Sistine vestry to robe in readiness for our recital. Anita Morrison, our vocal trainer, gave the boys a warm-up in the vestry after which we lined up in single file to be led up into the Vatican Gardens. Walking in silence, we climbed the path which wound its way upwards behind St. Peter’s, the sound of Roman traffic and bustling life melting away to be replaced by a beautiful stillness and birds singing in the trees. As we reached the upper part of the garden, I heard excited whispers from the boys behind me as one exclaimed “there he is!“ Looking to my left, at the far end of an avenue, two figures were seated on a bench, one wearing white, unmistakably papal, and the other in black.
The Schola warming up in the Sistine Vestry
As we were a few minutes early, our guide led us past the avenue to the Vatican’s replica of the Lourdes Grotto where we waited for the Pope Emeritus to finish his daily rosary. Moments later we were asked to walk down towards the bench. As we did so, the figure in black, Benedict’s personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, walked towards me, holding out his hand to greet me with a warm smile, “I am Father George, thank you for coming!” He asked us to line up in front of the bench where Benedict sat looking up with great wide eyes of wonderment. We sang Victoria’s Ave Maria, then Salvator mundi (I) by Tallis.

It is never easy to sing outdoors as there is usually a lack of acoustic or resonance. However, we could feel the sound lifting upwards and carrying far across the garden. I wondered what the tourists high up on the dome of St Peter’s would make of it, as we were out of sight underneath the trees. Benedict turned to Father George Bowen, our school chaplain who was seated beside him, and repeated in wonder “Tutti ragazzi!“, they are all boys, amazed that even the Tenors and Basses were schoolboys, with no professional men. After these two pieces and wary of tiring the Pope Emeritus, I turned to Archbishop Gänswein and asked if we should sing more or draw to a close. Turning to Benedict he said “Holy Father, would you like to give the boys your blessing now?” “No!” came the surprising response, “I want to hear more singing!“ So we sang Byrd’s Haec dies.

The Schola singing for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI
Afterwards, Pope Benedict blessed us and presented us with medals with his image upon them. Some of us spoke to him, and I took the opportunity to thank him for everything he has done for the liturgy. I was quite taken aback by how tightly he held my hand and the intensity of his gaze. I told him that I had been conductor of the brass for MacMillan’s Tu es Petrus as he entered Westminster Cathedral during his Papal visit in 2010. “Oh yes!” His eyes lit up even more as he recalled the moment, and Archbishop Gänswein leant in, saying, “Of course, we remember that don’t we! What an amazing occasion!”

We bade him farewell and Archbishop Gänswein thanked me once again for bringing the choir. We walked back down the hill, elated, yet with a sense of sublime calm, leaving the small man in white sitting on the bench, gazing out serenely over the garden.

Charles Cole is Director of the London Oratory Schola ( This article was originally published in the February 2023 edition of the London Oratory Parish Magazine.

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