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3/12/2008 7:20:00 AM Email this articlePrint this article 
Jenny Solano of St. Raphael's Parish in Rockville participates in the first rehearsal for the 250-voice Papal Mass Choir.
Papal Mass Choir begins rehearsing for Pope Benedict's Mass at Nationals Park

By Moira E. McLaughlin

Music brought Rodaniel Cruz back to the Church.

Three years ago, the then-29 year old attended Mass at St. Elizabeth's Church in Rockville. He grew up Catholic in the Philippines, but had strayed from the Church in his early adult life. That changed with a song - Dimitri Bortniansky's "Cherubic hymn."

"Like a king of hosts shall we praise thee," the St. Elizabeth choir sang. "It's one of the most beautiful pieces I've ever heard," Cruz said. "Music is pretty much what brought me back to the Church."

Cruz is one of 250 people who will sing in the Papal Mass Choir on April 17 at Nationals Park, for the Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI in Washington. Cruz, a transportation planner, is a member of the St. Elizabeth Choir. He also recently joined the 18th Street Singers after a rigorous audition. It is the Papal Mass Choir, however, that is important to him right now. "This is more significant, just because of the role of music in the liturgy and the role it played to bring me back."

The choir had their first rehearsal on Monday night, March 10, at St. Mark's Church in Hyattsville. The large crucifix above that church's altar will be used at the Papal Mass.

Each choir member, from 83 different choral groups in the Archdiocese of Washington and also the Diocese of Arlington, received 134 pages of music last week to prepare for their first of seven rehearsals, each scheduled to last about two and one-half hours.

Tenor Steve Gallo, a research scientist who has sung in the St. Elizabeth Choir for two years, had already spent a couple hours with the music before the first rehearsal. Singing in the Papal Mass Choir reminds him of his Italian grandmother who kept posters and newspaper clippings of John Paul II in her basement in New York. "She would love this," he said.

The choir is an opportunity to sing for the pope, but it is also hard work. From the first seven note, humming warm-up, Tom Stehle, the director of music for the Papal Mass, demanded the best from his choristers and offered little time to rest. Support the breath, he told them. Practice these things ahead of time, he asked. Keep your jaws loose and flexible, he advised.

Right away, the choir was working on crescendos and pianissimos, and their music was bouncing off the vaulted church ceiling.

"If it wasn't exciting enough to be doing this for the papal visit, how exciting is it to be sitting in a crowd like this!" Stehle said after a run of mee- meh- mah- moo.

The first rehearsal, said David Mathers, the assistant director of the choir, is about seeing where people are in terms of knowing the notes. But already, he thought the choir was singing as one. Regarding the song, "We are One," he said, "that really represents this Mass (and) all of us coming together with the Holy Father. This is definitely more than music. This is our faith."

For Anthony Anichukwu, a bass, singing for the pope will be one of the greatest events in his life. "I can't imagine that day - euphoria!" he said. "It will be the highest peak I ever get." Anichukwu, who has been in the United States for three years, is studying to join the Josephite order of priests and brothers.

As the pope enters the stadium at 9:30 on April 17, the choir will sing "Tu es Petrus."

"He is the main head if our religion," said 18-year-old Lindsey Mileto from St. John Francis Regis Parish in Hollywood. The Leonardtown High School senior was missing an English class for college credit to be at the rehearsal. "It's just going to be really moving," she said of the Papal Mass.

For now, the excitement and euphoria of seeing the pope will have to wait. The choir still has a month to go and pages of music to learn before the pope's arrival.

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