Sixth-grader, John Ross of Mountainside Middle School was captivated by the Colosseum in Rome, still imagining the gladiators who once fought there. He was impressed that it was still standing 2,000 years later.
A favorite moment for John’s older brother, James, an eighth-grader at Mountainside was the unexpected private tour of the Sistine Chapel.
“They explained to us why all those pictures are painted on the walls and ceiling,” he said. “They even let us take pictures, which you normally can’t do.”
And while a picture is worth a thousand words, the boys, alongside fellow singers from St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s youth choirs at the Scottsdale parish — cherubs, choristers and teen schola — said no words would suffice in describing their recent performance for Pope Francis, even though they sang in three languages.
Sam Barrett, a junior at Notre Dame Preparatory in Scottsdale, said the experience was unreal.
“I couldn’t believe it at the time, and I still haven’t processed it,” he said. “Knowing what he does for the world, it was great to be able to sing for him.”
Homeschooled senior, Rebecca Martin agreed, adding that the entire experience was quite interesting.
“I also was able to talk with kids from choirs in other countries. It was really cool that we were able to meet them and they liked talking with kids from America,” she explained. “I also liked St. Peter’s Basilica because it’s so big. It’s really humbling to realize you’re just one piece in a great big worldwide church.”
The local chorus of 47 students, from fourth through 12th grades, joined a throng of more than 4,000 singers from all over the world, including more than 1,000 from the United States. The choirs participated in five concerts during the 40th International Congress of Pueri Cantores, an international Catholic student choral organization Dec. 26-Jan. 2. The combined international choirs performed Jan. 1 during the World Day of Peace Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica.
Singing for the Pope — a mere 5 feet away — was a once-in-a lifetime experience, even for choir director Kent Campbell, a convert to Catholicism.
“I didn’t plan on becoming Catholic, but if anyone had told me I would be preparing Latin music for a Mass for the pope in Rome, I would have thought you were crazy,” laughed Campbell. “It was a great experience and I think the best was when we met with Pope Francis after singing the Christmas concert. He entertained questions from four of the children in attendance. One girl asked how he liked the choir and if he can sing. He explained that though he enjoys music and enjoyed listening to the opera as a child, he really can’t sing well and sounds like a donkey! He kept repeating ‘Canta e cammina,’ which means ‘Sing and Walk,’ a quote from St. Augustine.”
The opportunity to perform for the Holy Father took two years of planning. Campbell began as the St. Bernard choir director in 2008 and had hoped to bring the students to Rome in 2010, as the Congress is held in Rome every five years.
“We didn’t have that many people in the Pueri Cantores then and the economy was bad, so we decided to put it on hold,” he explained. “Then, we thought, let’s do this in 2015, so I had a travel agent come out here two years ago and we had a great response and more students decided to join the choir.”
In August, Campbell received the special music booklets that the students would need to learn before the congress.
“We were all really excited; there was 90 pages of music and very little of it was in English,” he said. “Most was in Latin and Italian and a lot of it was difficult for them to learn. But, with a lot of extra practices, the students did very well.”
The group of 135 students, family and friends filled two and a half busses, visiting sites such as the Colosseum, Roman Forum, Pantheon as well as some tasty Italian restaurants.
“It was really a great experience for the kids and the ability to see beyond our little area in Arizona, get out of the country, hear different languages and experience other cultures,” said Campbell. “We prayed for peace with Pope Francis and that was a very important thing the students were doing and I know that God heard their prayers.”