Italy Meditation - Schola Cantorum's 2013 Italy Tour - Rita Spillane
Reprinted with permission from Sacred Heart's The Spirit Newsletter - Fall/Winter 2013

Sound. Silence. Simply stated, this is the extraordinary gift of music. Buoyed by the generosity and good wishes of Monsignor Walton and Sacred Heart parishioners, Schola journeyed to Italy in June for 8 days to share voices, spirituality, reverence and enthusiasm for the word of God in song. We were veritable “musical hucksters” in delighting and moving our audiences to grins, to reverie, and to tears of joy in Rome, Florence, and Venice. We spread the beauty of sacred choral music with curious tourists, solemn pilgrims, and surprised, and delighted, passersby intrigued by 30 adults in billowing black gowns singing in piazzas.

Without missing a beat, we embarked upon a walking tour of Rome upon our arrival. Such a plan helps to acclimate us to the time difference and to immerse us in the overwhelming sights and sounds of the ancient city of Rome. An impromptu performance at the Roman Pantheon, now Basilica of St. Mary and the Martyrs Catholic Church, was thrilling for both choir and tourists. This 2 nd c. monument was slated for destruction in 609 AD when it was narrowly saved by the Catholic church which purchased the building. The brilliant natural lighting streaming through the dome and the reverberative acoustics gave wings to the piece, Jesus I Adore Thee. Surely the angels must have joined in with us.

The following sunbathed summer morning found us with thousands of other pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square awaiting the arrival of Pope Francis. We stood within just a few feet from the edge of his route. While waiting we regaled our appreciative neighbors with songs. There was an electricity in the air when Pope Francis arrived. In covering the square by car to greet the pilgrims, he eventually came right to where we were standing. He stepped down from his vehicle and came over to kiss one of the many toddlers held out to him for his affectionate embrace. His warmth radiated to all of us and seemed to hold each of us in an embrace of love. With the public introduction of each parish and group announced in that vast square that morning there came a feeling of one church, one people of God, one body of Christ. While we are many parts, with questions and struggles within and without, we were inspired in the exhortation of Pope Francis that morning, echoing the words of recently canonized Pope John XXIII, to focus on what unites us: that we are all brothers and sisters, beloved children of God, redeemed by Jesus Christ. Hot and thirsty though we were, the gathering of so many believers was a moving experience.

That same evening we gave our first formal concert in St. Cecilia’s Church in a Rome neighborhood of Trastevere. A convent of Ursuline sisters and Vatican Radio employees helped to swell the ranks of the audience who were most appreciative. This 9th c. Romanesque church houses the remains of St. Cecilia the 3 rd century martyr, the patron saint of music. Her remains were safely removed from the St. Callixstus catacombs outside of the city to this resting place in 821 AD. To sing in the place where the relics of this holy woman lay stirs the soul to ask questions about what it is that we hold so dear that we would be prepared to give our life rather than to betray this belief. Meditating on the word martyr, this Greek word means witness, begs this kind of self-examination, this inner exploration. Do we in the 21 st century witness to our faith with similar courage, not to the point of death, but to the point of risking to be unpopular or out-of-step with popular values? Where do we store our treasures? (Mt 6:19)

On Thursday morning we returned to St. Peter’s Basilica where Monsignor Colino, the Emeritus Chapel Master of St. Peter’s Basilica, warmly welcomed us. We met Monsignor Colino in Rome for the first time in 2007. We were ushered to the chapel behind the Baldocchino where we sang for Mass celebrated by Monsignor and attended by pilgrims to St. Peter’s. What a joy and privilege it was for us to sing at Mass here and for Jim McCormick and Don Kendrick to be asked to be the readers for this Mass. Monsignor was effusive in his gratitude and praise for our singing as well as the hymn selections chosen by Don. He recommended that since the city from which we hail is named after the Sacrament that we should give a concert with the sole emphasis on the sacraments and Eucharist in particular. He also requested that he be sent a copy of all of the music we sing. I don’t know if he is ready for the semi-trailer to unload!

Off to Florence next, a city awash in spectacular architecture and history. The location of our next formal concert was unique. Orsanmichele was a structure originally built in 1337 as a grain market and then was converted into a church 50-60 years later. It was used as the chapel of Florence’s powerful craft and trade guilds. If heaven has an earthly annex, this is it. Despite its humble beginnings as a grain market, the velvety smooth and glorious sound produced in this building could be sold as an elixir of spiritual harmony and tranquility. Enticing the Florentines and tourists by powering through a gusty performance of Giovanni Croce’s Buccinate (Blow the trumpet at the new moon) right outside the front door, our Pied Piper Don led dozens of curious onlookers into the church for a moving performance. In this amazing space there was an energy generated among the choir that created a seamless body of sound, a single voice, proclaiming the wonder, the glory and sublime beauty of God. In hushed whispers we marveled, “O Cross, more radiant than the stars” and then in anguish we implored God to come to the aid of those suffering famine, “Ease my spirit, ease my soul”. The blessings of singing such prayerful and moving pieces of music are countless. To immerse one’s self in prayer through song is a balm to our moments of discouragement, a light to our dark days, and a hope for strength in our life ahead. To see in the eyes of others, and to hear from listeners, that these words have fallen on ears open and eager for truth and for beauty (Mt. 13:5) is a great blessing to we singers and a great affirmation of the ministry of sacred music. Á la William Randolph Hearst, the choir is hopeful that we can relocate, lock, stock and barrel, this beautiful building back to East Sacramento! Hope springs eternal.

In Venice, we visited two churches, the renowned St. Mark’s Basilica and the little known parish church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli, also known as the marble church. Visiting choirs often get to visit the ‘tucked away’ places in great churches and St. Mark’s was no exception. We were ushered in the back, down the stairs, and beside the scaffolding. We prepared to sing for Mass underneath the sanctuary area where there are found old chapels, beautiful sculptures, mosaics, and altars. The wash of history, the echoes of choirs and composers, Giovanni Gabrieli of the 16 th c. for example, seemed to welcome and enfold us. In 1 Peter 2:4-6 Peter tells us we are living stones, chosen and precious in the sight of God. To think that we, living stones, are joined with these ancient quarried stones of St. Mark’s that have housed Eucharistic celebrations for hundreds of years is awe inspiring and humbling. It was here, at a regular Sunday Mass, on the feast day of St. John the Baptist, that we were able to use our Italian Mass liturgy aides to pray. While all the words were not immediately familiar, the cadence and rhythm of the prayers, the Creed and the Our Father blessedly were.

The next day we performed our final concert at Santa Maria dei Miracoli. Austere but elegant, this church contained a grand staircase leading to the altar where we stood to sing. The effect of these ‘risers’ was brilliant. At the conclusion of our concert we lined the audience on the aisles to sing our final song wherein we enveloped them in song. They loved it!

At this our final concert in Italy, the choir was able to relax. We reveled in each piece. We let the words and music flood our minds and hearts. While tired at the end of our 8-day tour together, we rested in knowing that we had reserved enough strength to finish strong. From the grandeur of St. Peter’s and St. Mark’s to the humble churches of St. Cecilia’s and Santa Maria we were sincere and stalwart musical pilgrims.

In the sound and the silence of every composition that we sing we remember that we are instruments of God’s. God has no hands but ours, no voices but ours. We are like Aeolean harps that stretch across an open window or door. Without anyone plucking the strings, the strings will resonate with the passing breeze. One can imagine the working of the Holy Spirit breathing upon us, the breath of the Holy Spirit passing over the strings of our lives. Let us learn to be open to the stirrings of the Holy Spirit, to keep our minds and hearts, the windows and doors of our lives, open to the gift of God speaking to us and through us. Music will stir each of us in the depths of our being when we allow it to do so. Each time before the choir gathers to sing we pray that what we sing and how we live our lives will bring honor and glory to the holy name of Jesus. We thank God, the support of the parish, the leadership of Monsignor Walton, the artistry and talent of our conductor Don Kendrick, the countless hours of Jim McCormick organizing and fine tuning the tour, and the dedication of the choir members for this successful and holy pilgrimage to Italy.

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