TORONTO - The melodious voices of a Canadian student chorus will soon be lifted in song for the next leader of the Catholic Church.
Some 187 students from Toronto's St. Michael's Choir School will be among a travelling party of 320 headed to Italy in April. While there on April 10, they are expected to be among the first to be granted an audience with the successor to pope Benedict, who resigned on Thursday. They are also slated to perform for the new pontiff on that date.
Choir members will also showcase their vocal prowess at St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City on April 7, where Archbishop of Toronto Thomas Cardinal Collins is scheduled to preside over mass. The appearance will mark the first Vatican performance for St. Michael's Choir School in 16 years, and comes 42 years after the school's first performance in Rome.
The all-boys school nestled in the heart of downtown Toronto is celebrating its 75th anniversary. The school's visit to Italy is part of a performance tour of some of the world's foremost sacred music venues.
The tour is also slated to include performances for the Vatican's diplomatic core at Rome's Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music, with which the school has been affiliated since 1955.
School director Stephen Handrigan said tour planning has been in the works for 1 1/2 years, and the twist of events with Benedict announcing his resignation initially left them feeling "flooded with disappointment." That quickly changed when they realized they would have an audience with the new pontiff, he added.
"I speak to the boys every day about it and one of the words is they're gobsmacked," Handrigan said. "They almost don't know what to say because they know that it's very historical that this is happening. They feel very privileged and very lucky to be there at that time.
"Many of them have their family with them, their parents and some of them their brothers and sisters, so I think that just sort of adds to the sense of occasion and importance about it."
Grade 6 student Jesus Serrano Arevalo said he was excited at the prospect of visiting a new country, spending time with friends, and of course, meeting the new pontiff.
"It is sad the pope is leaving, but then again, we're meeting the new pope which is once in a lifetime," said the 12-year-old.
Grade 11 student James Profiti is feeling both anxious and excited to have an audience with the pope.
"Even if we just get to shake his hand, that'll be wonderful," he said.
Principal conductor Jerzy Cichocki said the choir started rehearsals just after Christmas. They are performing several pieces of music while abroad but one particular piece has a homegrown connection: Canadian composer Peter Togni's "Totus Tuus," which was the motto of the late pope John Paul, Cichocki noted.
As a school alumnus and current faculty member, Giacomo Tarascio has been on both sides of the tour experience as a choir member and chaperone. He describes performing at St. Peter's Basilica as "very enriching."
"Not too many people get the opportunity to do that. And even being a student at the time in Grade 11, it meant a lot to me having the opportunity to go there. And singing in such a sacred basilica where the pope is is just a very unique experience."
In the past, St. Michael's Choir School has performed for high-profile figures and dignitaries including the late pope John Paul, Queen Elizabeth and former Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien.
Many modern-day Canadian artists are part of the storied history of St. Michael's alumni, including actor and singer Michael Burgess, crooner Matt Dusk, Barenaked Ladies keyboardist Kevin Hearn and tenor John McDermott.
While the performances are the main focus of the tour, students will have their share of opportunities to soak in Italian culture. Handrigan said students will go sightseeing in Florence, will visit Assisi and will spend a half-day attending gladiator school.
Erik Gillis will be celebrating his 14th birthday while in Italy, and is hopeful his family living in Treviso will have the chance to see him perform.
The Grade 8 student knows history will be made with the new papal selection and that there's a chance the new pontiff could be Canadian.
"It's an amazing opportunity to perform for the new pope, especially if the cardinal from Montreal gets appointed. That would be cool to have a Canadian pope in office."
Indeed, as the cardinals convene to select the new pope, Handrigan is well aware of the possibility that Quebec Cardinal Marc Ouellet is among the contenders to lead the church.
"We kind of joke, 'Well, if it's Cardinal Ouellet, we'll just call him up,' because he's our friend and we know him and we have connections and we'll do a private concert for him," he said.
"It would be wonderful if we did have a Canadian pope, but whoever the pope is, we're going to be honoured to be there and to be present with him."