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Requiescat in Pace

Most of you have probably had enough of the coverage of the death of Pope John Paul II, which has reached an astounding level of media saturation (5,558 articles available from Google News at the time of this writing). However, I continue to watch CNN regularly and am deeply moved by the outpouring of love for the former Pontiff. It is a cliché by now, but he is the only pope that this Catholic has ever really known. Well, I was alive during the papacy of other popes, but when John Paul II was elected, I was 9 years old, and he was the only pope to register on my consciousness.

The picture shown here was taken in May 1993, when I had the intense experience of meeting the pope and kissing the Ring of the Fisherman. At that point, I had been singing with the professional choir of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for less than a year. We made a trip to Rome, singing at Mass and in concert around the city for over a week. (I still pray, in thanks, for the blessed man, no longer with us, who funded that trip, Benjamin T. Rome. He was also the great benefactor of the School of Music at Catholic University, where I went to graduate school. Mr. Rome, who was Jewish, was appointed by Pope Paul VI to the rank of Knight Commander of the Order of Saint Sylvester, in gratitude for his philanthropic efforts.)

You can imagine how my life was turned upside down on that trip. I had never been to that part of Italy before and had no idea of the artistic and musical delights that awaited me. The highlight of our performance schedule was a private audience in the Sala Clementina, a resplendent, high-ceilinged audience chamber in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican, where we gave a special concert for the Holy Father with members of the Orchestra of Catholic University. The culmination of the concert was the choir's performance of Palestrina's 6-part motet Tu es Petrus, a piece composed by Palestrina for the Vatican choir that sets the words Jesus spoke to the apostle Peter, which are inscribed around the dome in St. Peter's (see this post about our most recent choir trip to Rome in March). A sextet, including yours truly, sang alone on the secunda pars. It was surely the greatest moment in my life as a singer. When we had the chance to meet the pope afterward in a receiving line, he told me in his heavily accented English—and I am not making this up—"very great singing." No doubt he said that to everyone in the line, but I can still picture him saying it to me as if it were a video in my brain.

Of course, people are entitled to their own views of John Paul II, the papacy, the Catholic Church (Mike Grass at DCist did a great roundup of the wide range of press reactions; James Wagner's viewpoint is not unusual, although it is extreme). Many people, even Catholics, chafe at some of his views and decisions, but it was his mission to remind us that Christ's message is not always easy and it does not fit in with "the age," no matter what century. What made him so charismatic was that he lived what he preached. This was true up to the end, and although it was painful to watch him struggle with illness and torment, visibly frustrated by the terrible loss of his faculties, that it was what we are all called to do. Like Saint Paul, he ran the good race: although I am saddened by his death, I am relieved that he has gone to his rest.

Thanks to artist Anna L. Conti, who blogs at Working Artist's Journal, for taking the time to touch up the photograph in this post in Photoshop, which looked pretty terrible because I took a digital shot of an actual photograph. The version of the image there right now is the result of her digital wizardry. Thanks again, Anna!

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