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This past weekend the usual pomp and pageantry took place at the Vatican's St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, as Pope Benedict XVI officially elevated six new Cardinals in the Catholic Church. It's an official duty of the spiritual leader of the world's billion Catholics, among scores of other official events that are on the Vatican's website and broadcast to members of the media through press releases and Vatican statements.
But a couple of weeks ago an event took place, under the radar, that was not included in Vatican's public schedule.
It was an event that gives greater insight into who this 85-year-old pope is as a person and where his heart rests.
The event took place in the famed Sistine Chapel. Only a few invited guests were there to witness it. I was, to my knowledge, the only member of the Fourth Estate present. Under paintings by Michelangelo, Pope Benedict attended a small concert by the Sistine Chapel Choir, premiering a work composed by his brother, also a priest, Monsignor Georg Ratzinger.
Mgr. Ratzinger is a retired Choir Master of the Regensburg Cathedral Choirs. He was a well-known musician and Kapellmeister in Germany; that is before his younger brother, Joseph Ratzinger, became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. Now the nearly 89-year-old Mgr. Ratzinger, is primarily known as the pope's brother.
The piece he composed, "Missa Anno Santo," testifies to the "Year of Faith" that the pope has just ushered in, but also to the bond these two brothers share. And for just a few moments during the 90 minute performance, it seemed the two men were not the Holy Father and a subordinate man of the cloth, but merely two elderly brothers, together enjoying their lifelong common passions, God and His music; the marriage of Heaven and Earth.
The private concert was for high-end donors of an annual international music festival now in its eleventh year. The festival was created through a charitable organization called “La Fondazione Pro Musica E Arte Sacra” -- The Foundation for Sacred Music and Arts.
The foundation's founder and director is Dr. Hans-Albert Courtial, a German born businessman, who owns a travel company based in Rome. His passion and the foundation's purpose, is to bring sacred music and sacred spaces back together, where their impact is that much greater.
"I see the people cry," he says in broken English, when recounting an early concert performed by the Vienna Philharmonic and famed conductor Ricardo Muti at one of the papal Basilicas. "I see emotionally them touched."
To say that Courtial is a man of faith is putting it lightly. His offices are in the building of the Residenza Paolo VI Hotel, a hotel which his company operates.
It's a converted seminary right across from the Vatican's St. Peter's Square. The hotel is open to the general public but it is also the preferred choice for many clergy from the Unites States, including New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan, as its amenities are conducive to a life of faith.
From its veranda guests can view the pope at his window giving his Sunday blessing; the hotel simultaneously broadcasts the message from Vatican radio through the hotel speakers.
The Paolo Sesto (Paul the Sixth) as it is known to Romans, named after Pope Paul VI, is a hotel, where although guest rooms have modern conveniences like plasma TV's and mini bars, are Spartan in size with barely enough room for a bed and armoire. Each room has a crucifix on its wall, and instead of a daily newspaper, guests are given daily Bible readings every morning, printed on hotel stationery and slipped under their doors. In the readings there are offerings from the Old and New Testaments, plus a reading from one of the four Gospels.
It is a hotel that is as close as you could possibly be to the Vatican both in proximity as well as in philosophy. And this is where Dr. Courtial conducts business.
"I will fight for my church," he said to friends at a gathering following the Sistine concert. And the music Festival is his way of not only fighting for a stronger faith but also the structural integrity of some of its crumbling artifacts.
He is raising thousands of dollars for three restoration projects in Rome, the fountain outside the Sistine Chapel, the organs in the Church of San Francesco Saverio and at the Church of St. Ignacio of Loyola.
Courtial sees himself as a soldier of the cross, for the Catholic Church. The music festival then, is his ministry. Along with his American partner, Peter Bahou of Peter's Way Tours, they are "lay clergy" helping to bring top-notch choral groups and orchestra's from around the world to perform at one of several papal Basilicas in Rome during the festival's 10-day run in late fall.
While today most sacred music of the great composers like Mozart, Bach and Beethoven, and others, are performed in secular concert halls, the festival aims to reverse that trend -- at least in the eternal city. Their respective travel businesses make it all happen.
Bahou says even world-renowned musicians, who've performed for presidents and princes, are brought to tears when Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," or Mozart's "Requiem," are presented under the high altars of some of the venues like the grand Cathedral of St. Paul Outside the Walls, or the soaring arches of the Basilica of St. Mary Major.
"I used to escort many groups," says Bahou. "When they came in...I can see the emotion, goose bumps it used to give me, from people crying, singing , at the chair altar of St. Peter's Basilica.... just looking at their eyes, crying emotion."
One of the groups he brought this year was from New Jersey. Three school choral directors were his guests and the guests of the New Jersey based Continuo Arts Foundation.
Dr. Candace Wicke, the foundation's founder and director, collaborates with the Fondanzione to vet potential American groups for the festival. She says, "it is looked at as one of the foremost musical festivals in the world [but] in the United States it's not very well known."
She and the conductors were lucky enough to be present for the private concert at the Sistine Chapel. Sharon Byrne, the choir director and music teacher at Wardlaw-Hartridge School in Edison, New Jersey, was nearly speechless as the group was shown their seats.
"It was a once in a lifetime experience," she said. "To be looking up at Michelangelo’s ceiling, and hearing the voices of angels sing."
That this Pope Benedict is passionate about music is widely known. Why he is so passionate about music is not as well known. But Wicke and other musicians understand. She's conducted performances at Carnegie Hall and premiered a work by American Composer Stephen Edwards at St. Ignacio a few years ago in Rome.
She says that what most people are unaware of is the tie between Western music and the church."When you are teaching the history of Western music," she says, "You teach the history of the Catholic Church."
The Medieval time period is the era of the Gregorian Chant; The Renaissance period are the voices of Palestrina and Thomas Tallis, the Baroque period has as its Grand Maestro Johann Sebastian Bach.
Bach, a simple, albeit extremely talented, German church organist and choir director, gave the world enough music to fill churches into eternity. And a German citizen, brought up in a home of devout parents like that of Pope Benedict and his brother Mgr. Ratzinger, is bound to the music and to God, as if they are one and the same.
To hear such music on the sacred ground of the small Sistine Chapel, along with the Successor St. Peter, and the relics of the patriarch's bones under the basilica's altar, is one of the very few experiences on earth that can bring us closer to heaven.