Students will travel to Rome for event with pope Nov. 20
By Jill Kruse
Witness Editorial Assistant
DUBUQUE — Aaron Behnke, the vocal music director at Wahlert Catholic High School in Dubuque, said he believes this year’s choir trip will be “an incredible, once in a lifetime opportunity” for his students.
Nearly 60 members of Wahlert’s choir will travel to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome this fall to participate in the closing Mass for the Jubilee Year of Mercy, with Pope Francis presiding.
Wahlert’s choir is one of several U.S. choirs that have been invited to sing at the Nov. 20 Mass on the Feast of Christ the King, which will formally conclude the Year of Mercy, which Pope Francis opened on Dec. 8 of last year, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
This unique opportunity for Wahlert came about after the director of the Sistine Chapel Choir contacted Corporate Travel Service, a travel agency out of Dearborn Heights, Michigan, that specializes in educational and performance tours and religious pilgrimages, to see if they had any past clients that they might recommend to help with the music at the closing Mass for the Year of Mercy. The director of the Sistine Chapel Choir was looking for about 200-300 people.
In addition to several college and church choirs, Corporate Travel Service suggested the choir from Wahlert Catholic High School. The travel agency was familiar with Wahlert’s music program and had worked with the school on previous choir trips, including the one made to New York City, where the choir performed at Lincoln Center in March 2015.
Wahlert received news of its invitation in March of this year. School staff said they believe theirs is the only high school choir in the country to be invited.
When Behnke shared with his students that they had been asked to sing at a Mass at the Vatican, he said their reaction was a mix of “immediate and genuine excitement, and also disbelief that this could actually be happening.”
While Wahlert’s choir has taken trips in the past, Behnke said it has not made an international trip anytime in recent memory. And the fact that this trip will be taken in order to be part of a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis, whose leadership many of his students are very enthusiastic about, makes this experience “all the more special for them,” he said.
Choir members will be raising money, both individually and as a group, in order to help make this fall’s trip financially possible. Many choir members are already spending their summer raising funds. The choir has also received a few generous gifts from donors to go toward travel expenses.
Behnke said that while they’ve already begun to plan the logistics for the trip and the funding for it, they haven’t yet been able to start practicing their singing. He doesn’t expect to receive the music for the papal Mass until August or September, so practice will begin at that time.
The students making the trip, along with their approximately 30 chaperones, will leave for Europe on Nov. 14 and return on Nov. 21, the day after the papal Mass. They will begin their trip in Assisi, Italy, before they head to Rome, visiting sites of religious significance in both cities.
“I think this is going to be a very powerful and enriching experience for our students – personally and culturally, and also spiritually,” Behnke said.
Father Alan Dietzenbach, Wahlert’s chaplain, who will also be joining the choir on its trip, said he is excited to see how students will be affected by the experience.
“As they see the tombs of martyrs and visit places like St. Peter’s Basilica, it will be for most of them their first encounter with the ancient church. And it will be a great reminder that we’re part of the universal church, that we’re part of something that is bigger and greater,” he said.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how they are changed by that experience. I know it will be a trip they’ll never forget, and I know they’ll bring it back with them to Wahlert and impact the rest of the school in a positive way.”
The Witness will have more coverage of the Wahlert Catholic High School choir’s participation in the closing Mass for the Year of Mercy later this year.
Wahlert Catholic High School’s choir during a performance. (Contributed photo)