Detroit — A year of practice, reviewing the music time and again, finalizing the travel itinerary, gazing at pictures of St. Peter’s Basilica: The truth is, nothing can prepare you for singing before the pope. Just ask Joe Balistreri.
“Walking into St. Peter’s, you’ve already seen the pictures and Mass on TV, but you’re not prepared for the size, the beauty of the place,” said Balistreri, who led the Archdiocesan Chorus of Detroit in a performance in Rome with the Sistine Chapel Choir on the Feast of the Epiphany with Pope Francis.
The chorus was invited to perform at St. Peter’s with two other visiting choirs and the Sistine Chapel Choir, alternating between groups singing the traditional Roman Missal at one of the Church’s most iconic places of worship.
“There is such a spiritual impact of the space,” Balistreri said. “This is the rock upon which the Church is built. It brought everything you believe in into a tangible existence.”
The chorus arrived in Rome on Jan. 5, celebrating Mass at Cardinal Adam J. Maida’s titular church, San Vitale in Rome, with the chorus’ chaplain.
The Mass prepared the group for the next day, singing before the successor to St. Peter at St. Peter’s Basilica. The chorus sat behind Pope Francis, off to the right for people who entered through the front of the basilica.
Being so close to Pope Francis added to the gravitas of the moment, according to Balistreri, who said the chorus wasn’t nervous during Mass.
“We were so close to him, you could see right into his eyes,” Balistreri said. “My first thought was, ‘I can’t believe this is actually happening. Once Mass started, it just felt like Mass. It felt so comfortable, much like it does at Blessed Sacrament.”
In addition to being a part of the Epiphany Mass, the group also had time to visit several markers around the city, including the Coliseum, the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, the Basilica of
St. Clare, the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran and St. Mary Major Basilica.
“It was all very beautiful,” Balistreri said. “Some went on the Scavi Tour, where you see St. Peter’s bones. You see the very clear apostolic succession, right there where the Church is literally
For chorus member and Blessed Sacrament parishioner Frances Watson, it was her second trip to Rome and had a very profound spiritual impact on her.
“The high point of my time in Rome was singing in St. Peter’s,” Watson said. “I’ve gone to Rome before and saw a lot of all this, but to actually be a part of the Mass was amazing. To sing with the magnitude of the voices, singing with the Sistine Chapel Choir.”
Balistreri said there’s a big difference between visiting Rome and seeing all the great artistic works in the Church’s history versus being a part of the liturgy celebrated by Pope Francis.
“There was a complete integration; the music we sang was part of the Roman Liturgy, we become part of the fabric of the beauty of the space,” Balistreri said. “We were fulfilling our purpose as artists in the same way all the artists did the painting and mosaics.
“When we celebrated the Mass of the Epiphany, it felt like church. When we went back for the tour, it felt more like a museum.”
After celebrating the Epiphany at St. Peter’s, chorus members went to St. Regina’s, where Watson said she had a personal experience with the Lord.
“At St. Regina, when we celebrate Mary and went there, singing,” Watson said, “I saw the statue when we were singing ‘Ave Maria’ in the chapel, and I had this religious experience. It was so exhilarating. The statue is so large, so I prayed, got to the point of her toes and it was a like an electrical bolt when down my arm when I touched it. When I brought the arm down, tears came down my face; I never experienced something like that before.”
Every member of the Archdiocesan Chorus had their own personal story or memory from the trip to Rome, which Balistreri said, “really was the trip of a lifetime.”
“I haven’t been to Rome before, but we went to a different church almost every day for Mass, and it was great seeing all the different churches and the artwork,” said Mary Zelinski, chorus member and music director at St. Gerald Parish in Farmington. “I never thought I’d be in Rome this soon in my life for any reason.
“I joined the Archdiocesan Chorus this year, and the whole thing felt surreal. It was definitely moving; music has the power to move people in different ways, but to sing the traditional Roman Missal in such large numbers is powerful.”
Chorus members said the highlight was singing before Pope Francis, but nothing prepared them for seeing His Holiness in person for the first time.
“I was moved to tears during the Mass,” Zelinski said. “I remember during the procession — Mass at St. Peter’s has a really long procession to the altar — as we were singing the opening hymn, we knew he was coming.
“I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the moment. I cried the instant I saw him. It was a little hard to sing while holding back the tears, but words can’t describe what it’s like to sing in the presence of the pope.”