VATICAN CITY, Rome — It has been reported that the Sistine Chapel Choir, whose boys and men sing for the pope at all his Masses, was scheduled to perform with an eminent choir group on Friday.
The Westminster Abbey Choir, the world-renowned chorus that performed at last year’s wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, were to join the Sistine singers at a special papal Mass on Friday in St. Peter’s Basilica, a historic event seen as a perfect symbol of Christian harmony after centuries of discord.
It was reportedly the first time in its 500-plus year history that the pope’s personal choir was to sing as a single chorus with another choir, let alone one from the breakaway Anglican Church. And it isn’t any ordinary chorus, since the Westminster Abbey Choir represents some of the finest of the Anglican Church’s liturgical music traditions.
As a result, the symbolism of the choirs from the two churches uniting into one is enormous, particularly given Pope Benedict XVI’s stated aim of trying to unite all Christians. The Mass marks the feast of St. Peter and St. Paul and is the day in which newly appointed Catholic archbishops receive a woolen stole, known as the pallium, as a sign of their communion with the pope.
“It’s the big Mass for underlining our links to the Holy Father, and to ask at that occasion for a non-Catholic choir to take part is deeply significant,” said Monsignor Mark Langham, the Vatican official responsible for relations with Anglicans.
Anglicans split from Rome in 1534 after English King Henry VIII was refused a marriage annulment. A half-millennium later, the two churches remain divided on a host of issues, especially female bishops and openly gay priests.
The differences prompted the Vatican in 2009 to make it easier for Anglicans uneasy with the liberal bent of their church to convert, throwing another wrench in ecumenical dialogue.
Meanwhile, organizers of the historic performance have tried to downplay the differences or at least acknowledge that while deep theological problems remain, culturally the two churches can come together.
“In diversity you can find points of unity,” said Monsignor Massimo Palombella, the choirmaster of the Sistine Chapel Choir.
The two choirs are vastly different in style and come to liturgical music from very different backgrounds. And to many ears, Westminster is simply better.
“It is a splendid choir,” said the Rev. Jerome Weber, a Roman Catholic priest who reviews sacred music for Fanfare, a respected classical music magazine.
The Westminster choir was known for its precision, attention to detail and tonality, and is recorded twice a year by the British classical music label, Hyperion. On the other hand, the Sistine choir is simply of a lesser quality: warm as the Roman vocal tradition requires, but often loud with a “harsh, bombastic tone,” Weber said.
The pope himself was behind the decision to invite Westminster to Rome, so awed by the quality of the choirboys when they sang for him at Westminster Abbey during his September 2010 visit.
The Very Rev. John Hall, dean of Westminster Abbey said the pope specifically asked that the choirs be united as one, rather than alternate during the performance as is commonly done.
Mfrances is a staff writer for CatholicFavors.com where you can buy the finest in Ave Maria rosary necklaces, Laser engraved sterling stainless steel pendant necklaces, Dolfi wood carvings, and other religious gift ideas.