So, I know that you are all wondering-what about the pope. He didn’t make it to the concert, clearly. How about the papal audience? Most of our trip benefits were arranged through Cardinal Keeler, the Cardinal Archibishop Emeritus of Baltimore. Unfortunately, Cardinal Keeler fell ill right before our departure and consequently was unable to come to Rome. Because he was our primary contact here, plans began to fall through left and right. My heart so went out to Cantor Claire Franco and Gunther Lawrence who had dedicated untold hours into this trip only to have this happen now. Strings were pulled, pulled, and pulled again, allowing a small portion of people in the group to get VIP passes to the weekly papal audience. Everyone else would get general seats with the rest of the crowd. Debate went back and forth about who the lucky few would be. A lot of non-Cantors paid very dearly to attend this trip. They should surely get the tickets. But, wait- this is supposed to be a cantorial mission. Cantors should go. A compromise was reached. Some people graciously gave up their place and the group that ultimately went was a mixture of cantors and lay people. There were, however, enough cantors to sing when, and if, we were acknowledged by the Pope.
Our group name would surely be on the list. I was granted the honor of being in this section in large part due to my association with George Bryant, my accompanist from the synagogue who had joined me on this journey. As one of the ones who had paid for the trip, and a Catholic, he would go. I got to go with him. I cannot imagine what an amazing experience it must be for a religious catholic like George to stand so close to the pope. Of course, George had done it before! He was here with his choir 17 years ago. They were acknowledged and they sang.
The scene at the Vatican was amazing. Thousands of faithful pilgrims had flocked here to catch a glimpse of the Pope. Groups in the VIP section were practicing their songs. Bands of musicians in the general crowd were practicing as well.
We were debating what to sing if we got called. Should we send the simple message of Oseh Shalom or Shalom Aleichem, or should we wow them with the magestic beauty of the Kol Haneshamah section of Lewandowski’s Halleluyah. Many of us were concerned that the other pieces would not be loud or powerful enough to leave an impression. but we settled on the Kol Han’shamah section of Lewandowski’s Hal’luyah. We decided to practice to see how it sounded. When we finished, the entire section burst into applause! Later when I went to the front to take some pictures of the Pope’s chair, a man took me aside to ask if I was part of that wonderful choir. He wanted to know who we were and where we were from, I told him that we were a group of Jewish Cantors, clergy in charge of music, from America. He responded, "That was JEWISH MUSIC?!?"
The pope came out in his Pope mobile to the adjurations of the crowd. When he arrived at the front, he sat in his chair and delivered a sermon about Saint Julianna (I think). It was all in Italian and I only understood bits and pieces of it. Still, it was mesmerizing because his speaking voice is so lovely, so gentle, so kind.
After he finished speaking, Cardinals introduced the pilgrims from various countries divided by the language that they spoke. The Pope responded to each one by welcoming the group in their native tongue and speaking a little bit again about the Saint. I heard that the Pope speaks twenty languages (I looked it up later and it’s only 10.) I heard him speak Italian, German, French, Spanish, Portugese, and English (not in that order). As various communities were named, many sang or played instruments for the Pope. When the Cardinal got up to announce the English speaking pilgrims, we took our pitches for our song and prepared to greet him. Unfortunately our name was not called. Maybe, we thought, he was naming only catholic pilgrims at the point and others would be named at a later time? Unfortunately not.
We need to give the Vatican the benefit of the doubt and know that something went wrong in the communication, not that we, as Jews, were being snubbed. I understand that things at the Vatican can, at times, be disorganized, and it is easy for things to be overlooked. So, we never met or sang for the Pope. We knew from the beginning that nothing was totally guaranteed, but of course, we were disappointed.
In thinking about it now, I wonder if we miss the point by being disappointed. Gunther said that we made history on this trip. We were the first group of Jewish Cantors ever to be invited to perform in a Basilica. We had interfaith conversations and our music and voices were heard and respected.
When I spoke with that reporter before my trip, I told her that I hoped we would make the world a more peaceful place. She thought I was naive, I think, but I don’t care. Every journey begins with a single step. When children learn to walk, they don’t just stand up and start running. They take a few tentative steps, they fall down, they cry, they get back up and keep walking.
I’m ready to keep walking. Will you join me?
P.S. This is not the last post about the trip. I promised sound recordings of rehearsals, more pictures, and a copy of the program. These will come in the next few days. A documentary was made about our journey in addition to a recording of the concert. We are looking for donations to help underwrite the production of this historic film. If you enjoyed reading about my trip, I hope you will consider helping to underwrite the productions. There will be more word in upcoming posts on how to do that, although I am sure that a donation to the American Conference of Cantors, earmarked for the production of this film, will end up in the right place!