James Hawkey reports on an extraordinary event which saw the Choir of Westminster Abbey sing alongside the Choir of the Sistine Chapel
This year, on the Solemnity of SS Peter and Paul, the choir and clergy of Westminster Abbey made an extraordinary pilgrimage. At the invitation of Pope Benedict XVI, the Choir of Westminster Abbey sang alongside the Sistine Chapel Choir – the Pope’s personal choir – at the Papal Mass of the Solemnity, at which Roman Catholic archbishops from all over the world each received a paUium, symbolizing their communion with the Holy See. In a city where actions and symbols speak louder than words, the Pope’s invitation to one of the most famous Anglican choirs in the world to be the first choir ever to sing with the Sistine Chapel Choir, at the Mass which symbolizes more than any other communion with the Holy See, was an unprecedented reaching-out and honouring of the very heart of the mainstream of the Anglican tradition.
Pope Benedict’s instruction was very clear, and conveyed to us by the Maestro of the Sistine Chapel Choir, Mgr Massmimo Palombella. The two choirs should form one choir to express their common Christian vocation. We should sing the Palestrina Missa Papae MarceUi together, and the Pope requested that there should be music from the Anglican tradition within the liturgy, and in English prior to the Mass itself. The Sistine Chapel choir, with their own rich history and vibrant tradition, came to Westminster for a rehearsal in May; differences in culture and style were integrated into one extraordinary and moving sound.
Gradually, over the months before our visit, a full programme emerged. We sang a concert of English Sacred Music in S Maria Maggiore, where Palestrina was a chorister, culminating in a standing ovation of over 1,000 people andthe choir singing Palestrina’s Sicut Cervus as an encore. This was attended by cardinals and other senior members of the Roman Curia, as well as diplomats and representatives of the great families of Rome. The choir sang an unforgettable private recital in the Sistine Chapel attended by a large curial delegation led by Cardinal Bertone, the Cardinal Secretary of State, who used musical imagery to imagine the reunion of Christendom where diversity constitutes the unity of the Church.
Honouring St Peter
St Peter, of course, is patron of Rome. He is also patron of Westminster Abbey, and although we had experienced the wonderful privilege of singing at his tomb that morning, we also wanted to honour him and seek his prayers ourselves as a collegiate community on his feast day, in the city of his martyrdom. So it was across the Eternal City that the choir and clergy raced to S Maria sopra Minerva to sing traditional Solemn Evensong, again in the presence of cardinals, and a basilica packed to capacity.
S Maria sopra Minerva, as well as being the burial place of St Catherine of Siena and Fra’ Angelico, is the titular church of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, who preached for us. We were also welcomed by Canon David Richardson, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative to the Holy See and Director of the Anglican Centre.
The next morning, exhausted but excited, the delegation headed south on a Vatican coach to Montecassino, the monastery founded by St Benedict, and the burial place of Benedict and Scholastica. Over the last couple of years, Westminster Abbey and Montecassino have developed a close friendship. The brilliant young Abbot, Pietro Vittorelli osB (who is also Ordinary of the Diocese of Cassino) brought a group of his monks, and hundreds of young people from his diocese to light the Benedictine Torch in Westminster Abbey in February 2011. This time, it was the Abbey which went to Montecassino to sing Mass and Vespers alongside the monastic community at St Benedict’s tomb. As far as we know, no Abbot of Westminster ever made a pilgrimage to St Benedict. But over 400 years after the reformation, the clergy and choir of the Collegiate Church of St Peter Westminster, went on a pilgrimage of thanksgiving and hope. We experienced the healing of memories in Rome and at Montecassino, as the pain of the past was put into a different context of grace and hope.
On Friday 5 July, back in Westminster, we celebrated St Peter on his Octave Day, with a Solemn Mass and the College Dinner. We reflected on how we had experienced cultural ecumenism: we had gone deeper into each other’s redeemed identities in Christ, and through sharing the song of the angels as our two choirs sang Sanctus together, had actually tasted some of that rich unity for which the Lord himself prayed.
In an age where, a little bit like a swimming pool – to borrow an analogy of Archbishop Robert Runcie – most of the noise comes from the shallow end, this was an exchange of depth, understanding and recognition. It would have been impossible forty years ago. And as this Anglican choir sang the recusant William Byrd’s Ave Verum in St Peter’s Basilica at a Mass celebrated by the Pope, I reflected on how Byrd would never have believed this might ever eventually happen. I became quite sure that in God’s wisdom and good time, indeed everything is possible, precisely in ways we do not expect. ND