World of choirs arrives in nation’s capital with Pueri Cantores festival; helps celebrate Independence Day

By Zoey Di Mauro

WASHINGTON –- Last week, among those gathered in the nation’s capital to celebrate Independence Day were Catholic choirs from all around the world.

The Vatican’s official group of children singers, Pueri Cantores, met in Washington for their 38th International Congress. Choirs traveled from as far away as Poland and India to sing at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and other Catholics churches for the July 3-7 festival.

Flag procession down center aisle of national shrine opens choir festival. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

Flag procession down center aisle of national shrine opens choir festival. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

It began in the afternoon of July 3 with the opening ceremony and procession of the flags at the national shrine.

“It’s gonna be thrilling,” Lee Gwozdz, one of the conductors, told Catholic News Service before the festivities officially began. “It’s like the Olympics but without all the special effects.” Wearing brightly colored shirts announcing their nationalities, each choir grouped together in the pews and sang as representatives carried their homeland’s flag into the sanctuary.

In addition, the Pueri Cantores choirs sang for the Independence Day Parade on the Fourth and the next morning day at the Jefferson Memorial the next morning for their Prayer for Peace ceremony and at St. Patrick’s Church later that day.

“Our motto is ‘May the children may join together and sing the peace of God,’” said Pat Flahive, from Covina, Calif, who is president of the federation’s American branch. “We always include the prayer of peace — songs and a reflection on Christ’s call for peace.

The International Federation of Pueri Cantores was founded in France in 1944 to promote unity.

“As these nations would gather together they would be instruments of peace, the singers would get to know kids from other countries, they would not be as insular and perhaps world wars would not be as prominent,” said Father Tom Franzman, chairman of the board of American Federation Pueri Cantores. He was part of the first group of American singers to go to an international congress, held around New Year’s in Rome, 1960-61.

“In St. Peter’s some little Italians kids who were with us asked where we were from and their immediate response was ‘Chicago? Al Capone — bang bang bang!’” recalled Father Franzman, who is provost of the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary in Illinois.

Of this year’s singers, he said, “I think they’re all very excited. I remember myself I was very excited.”

Members of choirs from around world gather at national shrine. (CNS photo/Lucija Millonig)

Members of choirs from around world gather at national shrine. (CNS photo/Lucija Millonig)

Pueri Cantores is made up of about 40,000 youth and children in hundreds of choirs composed of boys and girls, ages 9 through 18, throughout the world; around 800 singers attended this congress in Washington.

The choirs all raised the money to travel to the nation’s capital.

“We provide whatever we can but we’re just happy they could scrape up enough money to come here and be with us,” said Father Franzman. In addition, each choir learned select pieces for the Congress. “It’s sacred hits for this age group,” said Gwozdz. “Its music accessible to all children’s choirs to take home to their own churches.”

Officially endorsed by Vatican in 1965, the international federation is part of the Pontifical Council for the Laity. The American federation was founded in 1953 and has grown to include more than 250 choirs from 72 U.S. dioceses. The organization hosts music festivals throughout the U.S. during the year.

Gwozdz, of Corpus Christi, Texas, has been involved in church music since he was in second grade; eight years ago he joined Pueri Cantores.

“Music has a power to bring people back to the church; it gives them a taste of what heaven would be like,” he said. “Many young parents have children that sing at church but more importantly they bring their parents back to the church.”

“The musical traditions of the universal church are a treasure of inestimable value,” said Flahive “especially sung music is an illumination the word of God; it’s a great and powerful way of bringing Christ deeply into our hearts and the hearts of our listeners.”

Check out a CNS video story on the Pueri Cantores festival in Washington.

Pope on Lampedusa: ‘I hope people understand’

Pope Francis makes sign of cross after tossing wreath into Mediterranean Sea off Italian island of Lampedusa

Pope Francis makes the sign of cross after tossing wreath into Mediterranean Sea in remembrance of those who have died trying to reach Italy. (CNS/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY — “I hope people understand the meaning of this gesture,” Pope Francis told his aides after arriving in Lampedusa yesterday.

In what the Vatican newspaper described as the first pastoral trip of his pontificate, Pope Francis knew his arrival would create the climate of a celebration, said Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman. But that wasn’t the point.

“For the pope, the most important thing was and remains — as he said in his homily — the important and significant gesture of ‘weeping for those who died seeking a better life,’” the spokesman told reporters after the pope had returned to Rome.

To emphasize he was there to mourn the dead and to encourage everyone around the world to examine their consciences about how they directly or indirectly contribute to the world’s immigration flux, to making immigrant journeys more difficult and to withholding a welcome that recognizes their human dignity, Pope Francis wore the purple vestments of repentance and used the prayers from the Mass for the Forgiveness of Sins, Father Lombardi said.

The Jesuit said the locals had laid out a feast for the pope’s lunch — “with everything under the sun,” but the pope “took three or four little things, a sandwich, and was ready to leave. His simplicity never changes.”

While the visit was to an Italian island where thousands of refugees and migrants have landed over the past 25 years — and which an estimated 20,000 have died trying to reach in that period — the pope’s words of  solidarity and encouragement were not limited to those who cross the Mediterranean or the Italians who help them once they arrive. Nor did he limit his strong words about immigration policies to the Italian government or the leaders of the European Union.

The Lampedusa trip allowed the pope — the son of immigrants to Argentina — “to express to the whole world in an immediate and effective way, in a visible way, his deep concern” for the plight of immigrants everywhere, Father Lombardi said.

Whether they cross an ocean, a sea, a desert or a river — and especially when they often feel forced to pay exorbitant fees to unscrupulous traffickers — immigrants deserve a dignified welcome and assistance in building a better life for themselves and their families, Father Lombardi said.

The Catholic Church does not question the right and responsibility of nations to regulate immigration, but it also insists that people have a right to seek safety, survival and improved living conditions outside their country of birth.

Pope walks past a boat as he arrives for Mass yesterday in Lampedusa. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Pope walks past a boat as he arrives for Mass yesterday in Lampedusa. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Father Lombardi said the pope saw his visit to Lampedusa as a way to call the world to “solidarity with all those who suffer” while migrating; “solidarity and encouragement for those who are committed to welcoming them and helping them start over on the path to a better life; and of strong encouragement for those, especially on a leadership level, who can find ways to create the conditions needed so that these people who have suffered so much really can have this better life.”

The pope’s visit came just 10 days after the U.S. Senate passed an immigration reform bill and Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez urged the House of Representatives to do the same. In a speech in Denver earlier in June he had said, “For me, our national debate about immigration is a great struggle for the American spirit and the American soul. Immigration is a human rights test of our generation.”

Citing statistics that showed more than 1 million people have been deported from the United States during the past four years, Archbishop Gomez added: “We’re talking about souls, not statistics. We’re talking about fathers who, without warning, won’t be coming home for dinner tonight — and who may not see their families again for a decade. We’re talking about women suddenly left as single mothers to raise their children in poverty.”

A statement today from Caritas Internationalis, the Vatican-based umbrella organization for national Catholic charities around the world, highlighted a joint effort by a variety of faith-based organizations to ensure greater protection of refugees and to remind people of faith of their religious obligation to welcome the stranger.