JOLIET – For Catholic choristers, few experiences surpass singing for the pope – except having him stop and bestow a personal blessing.
That’s what happened to 9-year-old Sadie Stengele of Joliet at the 40th International Congress of Pueri Cantores, a Catholic choral organization. Until Sadie was adopted by cancer survivor Katherine Stengele of Joliet, she spent her first 21 months of life in a Siberian orphanage, making Pope Francis’ blessing that much more poignant.
“He stopped when he saw her little face, waved everyone away, and reached down and touched her with two hands on her cheeks,” Katherine Stengele said, adding that Sadie was wearing a rosary on her wrist that day. “I think she was very surprised it happened. She kept asking, ‘If I wash my face, will his blessing be gone?’ And I said, ‘No, it’s always going to be there.’ ”
The heart of the congress
From Dec. 26 through Jan. 3, 30 members of the Diocese of Joliet’s youth choirs – Cathedral Children’s Choir and Youth Schola – traveled to Rome as part of the pilgrimage-associated 40th International Congress of Pueri Cantores, said Claire Halbur of Joliet, associate director for the children’s choirs.
Pueri Cantores, Halbur said, means “young singer” in Latin. Every five years or so, the organization hosts an international congress in Rome.
About 40 parents, siblings and other family members accompanied the choristers on this pilgrimage, Halbur said. The cost was $3,700, which included airfare and hotel accommodations. For about 18 months, choristers hosted fundraisers to help offset the price by half.
The subsidies applied to choristers only, Halbur said. The additional family members who also attended paid full price. For John Bilot, 18, of Newark, that included six of his seven siblings and parents, none of whom ever had flown in a commercial airplane.
Before the family decided to make the pilgrimage together, Bilot said, they sat around the table to discuss options and pray about it, because it required a phenomenal financial commitment. Only one course seemed right.
“We trusted in God that the trip was actually possible for us,” Bilot said.
As part of the congress, which included 4,000 singers from 18 countries, the choristers participated in a papal audience with the full congress Dec. 31 for an event called “Christmas Celebration: Carols from Around the World,” where Sadie received Pope Francis’ blessing. The pope also spoke a few words, Halbur said.
“He stressed to the children, ‘Sing and walk; sing and continue traveling on your life’s journey; sing and walk.’ He must have said it 10 times,” Halbur said.
Also as part of the congress, the choristers sang a papal Mass – mostly in Latin – the following day in honor of the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God, which is celebrated Jan. 1 on the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, as well as World Day of Peace.
In addition, the youth raised their voices at a midweek service for world peace, Halbur said.
They received all the music for these events in September, which necessitated a second weekly two-hour practice to learn the music, Halbur said. The music for the papal Mass was in Latin and Italian, but the youth also learned two Christmas carols – one in Italian and one in German.
Historical seat of their faith
Other features of the pilgrimage, Halbur said, included tours of the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Sistine Chapel and processing as a group through the holy doors of St. Peter’s Basilica, singing and carrying prayer requests from loved ones back home.
That was the most memorable part of the pilgrimage for Elena Paliakas, 12, of Joliet, a member of the choir along with her brother, Simon Paliakas, 11, and their sister, Jesse Paliakas, 10. Accompanying them were their parents, Steve and Wende Paliakas – both previously visited Rome twice – and their younger siblings, Luke, 7, and Anna, 5.
Simon was impressed by the ruins, and Jesse was amazed at the Sistine Chapel’s art (“Those guys really knew what they were doing,” Jesse said). Steve and Wende Paliakas both said this opportunity to share Rome and its sights with their children was miraculous.
“I think it will increase their world view,” Wende Paliakas said, “and realize the world is a bigger place.”
Halbur had traveled to Rome five years ago with her family, but that family vacation did not include a tour of the catacombs or the Sistine Chapel. The chapel’s rich visual depictions of salvation history surrounding the viewer from all sides impacted Halbur artistically and spiritually.
“When you walk in, you have a sense of tapping into your own place of salvation, which is ongoing,” Halbur said. “I think it can take you out of place and time – which is the power of good art – but good art combined with the supernatural takes it to an even higher level.”
To see Pope Francis blessing Sadie Stengele, 9, of Joliet, watch “Audience to Pueri Cantores 2015.12.31” at youtu.be/LDPki36TlVU between the 2:40 and 2:52 mark.