By BRITNEY ZINT     1/25/2024

Three children’s choirs from the Orange County Catholic community traveled to Vatican City over the Christmas break to sing for Pope Francis.

St. Cecilia Catholic School in Tustin and Holy Family Catholic School in Orange joined children from around the world in Rome to participate in the 44th International Congress of Pueri Cantores, the official student choral program of the Catholic Church. The Diocesan Children’s Choir also traveled to Rome for a similar itinerary to participate in the 7th annual Youth Choir Festival: Christmas Season in the Vatican.

“Singing was super magical with everyone in the church and the priests — and everything,” said 10-year-old Nicolette Gaidano, a fifth grader at Holy Family. “It was really crazy [seeing Pope Francis]. I couldn’t really believe that I was actually doing it and then we got to see him. It was unreal.”

The school choirs participated in a week-long event in the Eternal City for liturgical singing, a private audience with Pope Francis and the culmination — participating in the Holy Mass for the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God on Jan. 1 in St. Peter’s Basilica.

“What you do is very important because your voices help communities to pray, to open their hearts to the Lord, and this is fundamental for the life of the Church,” Pope Francis told the children, according to an official papal address.

Singing for the Pope was one of the reasons St. Cecilia eighth-grader Chelsea Rocio decided to stick with her school’s choir for five years, and she finally got her wish on her 14th birthday on Jan. 1.

“It actually felt surreal. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh! There is no way I’m actually here just a few feet away from the Pope.’ It was really cool,” Rocio said.

In addition to celebrating the Holy Mass, Pope Francis held a private audience with the children’s choirs after their final rehearsal on Dec. 30.

“The excitement in the room when the Pope came in could have broken windows,” said Holy Family’s principal, Marie Ubl.

During the audience, the Pope addressed the students in Italian before some of the children were given an opportunity to touch his hand, get a high-five or even a kiss on the hand.

Rocio said being in the room with Pope Francis “changed the mood,” and she was one of the lucky few who made contact.

“My phone was in one hand and my hand was out, extending to make contact with the Pope,” Rocio said. “And when the Pope grasped my hand, it was only the fingertips. I was like, ‘Oh my goodness! I just touched the Pope. No way!’”

Both school choirs, made up of a mix of fourth grade through eighth grade students, sang not just in St. Peter’s Basilica, but at churches around Rome. They learned songs in English, Latin and Spanish, but a special favorite sung at every event was “Et in Terra Pax,” said St. Cecilia’s vice principal, Jessica Deutschel.

“They were amazing,” said Deutschel. “I was crying. They really put their heart and soul into it.”

Many families joined their children on the trip, which included a tour of the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel, said Ubl. Others took the opportunity to see the Colosseum, Roman Forum and the town of Assisi.

The trip was also a chance to try the local flavors.

For Holy Family’s choir, after all the singing and sightseeing, the students really wanted to try one special food before leaving.

“We went to McDonald’s to see if French fries taste different in Italy,” Ubl laughed.