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4/21/2009 2:43:00 PM Email this articlePrint this article 
Sharon Dunbar Frank, a member of the Gospel Choir, sings during an April 19 reunion of the Papal Mass choirs, held at St. Mark's Church in Hyattsville.
One year later, members of Papal Mass choirs sing together again
One year earlier, they had sung for Pope Benedict XVI for the papal Mass at Nationals Park, a stadium transformed into a church for that unforgettable day. The combined 570 voices from the Papal Mass Choir, Gospel Choir, Intercultural Choir and Children's Choir sang for the pope at his first public Mass in the United States, joined by nearly 50,000 people at the ballpark.

On Sunday, about 200 adult members of the Papal Mass choirs held a special reunion at St. Mark's Church in Hyattsville, singing together again for the first time since they sang for Pope Benedict.

Thomas Stehle, who directed the papal choirs last spring, smiled and lifted his baton at the start of the anniversary performance. "Make it a prayer, make it a prayer," he said gently. As soon as Stehle began directing the singers, their voices rang out in perfect harmony, again, even though they hadn't sung together as a group since the Papal Mass.

At the reunion, Valeria Foster - a noted composer and conductor of Gospel music in the Washington area who formerly directed the St. Augustine Gospel Choir - led the singers in a stirring version of the traditional spiritual, "We Are One in the Spirit," which she had arranged for the Papal Mass. One year earlier, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves led the singing of that spiritual at Nationals Park, as the pope processed toward the altar.

Then choir members sang two more musical selections from the Papal Mass, including the soaring hymn "O Spirit All-Embracing," and the joyous spiritual, "Plenty Good Room."

Archbishop Donald Wuerl walked to the front of St. Mark's Church, to thank the singers for the special gift they had given to the Holy Father, and to the Catholics of the United States.

"We had hoped (that) what he would see would be the face of the Church in our country, and what he would hear would be the voice of the Church in our country. I think you were successful," the archbishop said, smiling.

The archbishop recounted how, after the Mass, Pope Benedict had told him, "That liturgy was a true prayer!"

"What made it such a true prayer were all your voices coming together," united in song, the archbishop said. He said that the singers, and the congregation, reflected the beautiful diversity of the nation's Catholics, who come from many backgrounds but share one faith.

Archbishop Wuerl noted how, after he had welcomed the Holy Father to Nationals Park and the congregation responded with thunderous applause, Pope Benedict XVI stood, smiled broadly and stretched his arms outward, as if to embrace them all.

At the Papal Mass choirs' reunion, some of the pope's words from the Nationals Park Mass were read, including his words reflecting the visit's theme, "Christ Our Hope," inspired by his encyclical on Christian hope: "Those who have hope must live different lives!... By your prayers, by the witness of your faith, by the fruitfulness of your charity, may you point the way towards that vast horizon of hope which God is even now opening up to His Church, and indeed to all humanity: the vision of a world reconciled and renewed in Christ Jesus, our Savior."

The anniversary performance also provided an opportunity to express thanks. Archbishop Wuerl noted how on Easter Sunday at St. Matthew's Cathedral, he had presented a papal honor, the Benemerenti Medal, to Stehle, to express the Holy Father's gratitude for the music at the Nationals Park Mass.

Later, after the choir members sang one of their signature songs, "Go Up to the Altar of God," Stehle - who is now the director of music ministries at the cathedral - said, "Last Sunday, when I was given the papal medal, I thought of all of you who deserve the medal. You made the sound, and you made the prayer, and I'm fully award that it was for you that the medal was given."

Stehle also offered the choir members special thanks for the support they had shown him during the illness and death of his mother last year. In recent years, Sheila Stehle had suffered from Alzheimer's disease, and she died six days after the Mass. But his mother, who especially loved her faith and loved music, was able to watch the Papal Mass at Nationals Park on television with her husband, and see their son conduct the music for the Mass.

"Thanks to each of you," Stehle said to the choir members, remembering all they had done to prepare for and then sing at the Papal Mass. "We all needed each other to work hard, to focus, to make it work, to make it a prayer."

At the reunion, Archbishop Wuerl presented a gift of a papal medallion commemorating Pope Benedict's visit to the United States, to Mary Ann Evan of Our Lady Queen of Poland and St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish in Silver Spring, who had done a lot of behind-the-scenes work in helping to manage auditions and rehearsals and coordinating communications and logistics for the Papal Mass Choir.

Father Mark Knestout, the director of the archdiocesan Office of Worship who was the principal coordinator of the Papal Mass liturgy, also thanked the singers, saying, "It (the Mass) was a celebration of our nation, in faith."

The anniversary music program, highlighting works sung at the Mass, also included the Latin chant "Tu Es Petrus" ("You are Peter"), which choir members sang as Pope Benedict arrived. At St. Mark's Sunday, Gospel Choir members sang, "I Call upon You, God," and members of the Intercultural Choir sang the traditional Zulu hymn from South Africa, "Let'Isikia" ("You Hold the Key"), with accompanying percussion instruments including a bombo drum from South America and rattling from shekere, gourds from west Africa.

Tracy McDonnell, who directed the Intercultural Choir at the Papal Mass and is the music director of St. Camillus Parish, said the diversity of musical styles reflects what the Irish novelist James Joyce once said to describe the Catholic Church: "Here comes everyone."

Lynne Gray, who directed the Gospel Choir at the Papal Mass and is the music director of St. Anthony's Parish in Washington, said she wept at one point during the Mass, as she looked out at the crowd. "We were all there for the same reason," she said. Nearly 30 years earlier as a Catholic University student, Gray had also had the privilege of singing at Pope John Paul II's Mass on the National Mall.

"When we gather together, and we share our gifts, the gifts God gave us... when we come together, we bring a unified song and a unified prayer," she said.

Orly Marinaccio, a member of the Papal Mass Choir who sings in the contemporary choir at St. Mary's Parish in Landover Hills, was one of many people afterward who said that singing for Pope Benedict at Nationals Park was an unforgettable experience. But Marinaccio, who for years played the clarinet in the Redskins band, smiled and noted that he also got to sing in the choir for Pope John Paul II's 1979 Mass at the National Mall. "I called the first one 'once in a lifetime,' and I got to do it twice. I'm very fortunate."

Karen Moore, a member of the Gospel Choir at the Papal Mass and a member of St. Anthony's Parish, called singing for the pope an honor, and a "dream come true." Moore had tears in her eyes as Denyce Graves was singing, "We Are One in the Spirit."

"To have people from all different nationalities, ages, coming from different cultures, it was just a phenomenal experience of God's people," she said.

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