Sistine Chapel Choir's Met performance a real 'wow moment'

By Elise Harris

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A surprise performance by the Sistine Chapel Choir at the Met Gala this week left attendees in awe and helped convey the joy and beauty of the Church, said one of the organizers of the performance.

The choir’s performance had not been announced in advance, coming as a surprise to those present at the May 7 Met Gala, which takes place annually on the first Monday of May and serves as a fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

This year the Met exhibition, which opens May 10 and runs through October 2018, carries the theme “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” and features around 40 items on loan from the Vatican.

The items, many of which come from the Sistine Chapel Sacristy's Office for Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, range in time period from the mid-1700s up to the pontificate of Saint John Paul II.

Given the special nature of the Vatican items, they will be set up in a separate display from the other pieces, which include religious art from the Met collection itself and around 150 designer fashion pieces intended to pay homage to Catholicism and which draw inspiration from Catholic iconography, liturgy and other aspects of the faith tradition.

John Hale, one of the leading organizers of the choir's surprise performance at the gala, told EWTN News that the evening “was really a wow-moment.”

Hale sits on the board of directors for the Vatican's Patrons of the Arts, which consists of different chapters, most of which are in the United States, who fund restoration projects for the priceless treasures housed in the Vatican Museums.

At one point after the performance, Hale said Anna Wintour, Met board member and editor-in-chief of the fashion magazine Vogue, told him guests were unusually silent, commenting that “this is the quietest I've ever seen for this gala.”

Wintour, Hale said, told him attendees “were absolutely enthralled” by the performance. That sentiment, he added, “summed it up beautifully.”

“I spoke with a number of the attendees and mixed with them right after the performance and it was perfect silence, there was very good applause and reaction...so many folks were just really moved.”

Commonly referred to as “the pope's choir,” the Sistine Chapel Choir consists of 20 professional singers from around the world, as well as a treble section composed of 35 boys aged 9-13, called the Pueri Cantores.

With a 1,500-year history, the Sistine Chapel Choir is believed to be the oldest active choir in the world.

According to Hale, who is also president and co-owner of Corporate Travel Service, the invitation to sing at the Met Gala came during the choir's U.S. mini-tour in September 2017, during which the choir sold out performances in Washington D.C., New York and Detroit.

The choir's director, Maestro Massimo Palombella, had approached Hale several years ago about creating a tour in the U.S. The September mini-version was essentially a test run, Hale said, and given the choir's success during their fall tour, a longer nationwide tour is being organized for this summer.

Hale said he was initially hesitant when he was asked to help organize a performance at the gala, and had concerns over sensitivity to the Catholic faith. However, when the Vatican green-lighted the choir's visit, he jumped on board and kept the performance under wraps for nearly a year up until the moment the choir filed in and began singing.

And having worked with the Met to get all the details in order, “I can really say they were not only respectful, they really wanted to communicate the beauty and faith of the Church,” he said. “I really had that sense, and it was very sincere. I was very moved by how sincere they were.”

The exhibit itself was “beautifully done,” and serves as “a real opportunity to express the Church's teaching through beauty, through truth,” Hale said. “The same with the performance of the Sistine Chapel Choir.”

While there was some “outlandish fashion” that hit the red carpet at the gala, the vast majority of the 600 some attendees were “dressed beautifully and very appropriately,” he said.

“That might not be picked up traditionally because the media wants the outliers,” he said, explaining that while it is important to be sensitive to how the Church is portrayed, the Church also has to “go out.”

“We have to communicate beauty, and we have been invited, as a Church, to communicate what is our expression of beauty and our making manifest God's presence through beauty,” he said, adding that in his opinion, “it would have been a crime not to respond to that invitation.”

Ultimately, what gets communicated through the beauty of things like fashion and music is God's love, Hale said. “Everyone wants to be loved and we all need to be loved by God.”

Referring to a recent pastoral letter written by Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron titled “Unleash the Gospel,” which spoke of the need to find “shallow entry points” for evangelization, Hale said the Met exhibit and gala “was an entry point into encountering God through the true beauty and good.”

Choir members themselves felt both appreciated and respected by gala attendees, he said, noting that a number of the singers told him they could see people in the front row, and it was obvious they were captivated.

“Several choir members commented on the smiles, the joy, they could see genuine joy,” he said. “There was an exchange and a communication of joy that was palpable and apparent to the choir members and to the attendees.”

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