byMost Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito, Bishop of Palm Beach
Pope Francis caused a little stir in Rome when he was seen exiting a music store, StereoSound, near the Pantheon, on the evening of January 11. Of course, flowing from his down-to-earth and humble character, Pope Francis is known to have caused other stirs in Rome. Early in his papacy, he went to an optician for a pair of eyeglasses and also to a shoe store for a new pair of shoes. He learned from these experiences that life was different for him as the Pope, as his visits caused quite a bit of curiosity and traffic snarls. He told an Argentine news outlet that he missed going out and walking into a pizzeria as he used to do. He said, “I could order it, but it’s not quite the same. It’s nice to go there.” He expressed how he liked to walk and found it “enchanting” to move along the city streets or ride on the subway as he did in Argentina. However, he quickly began to understand those days were over for him.
Shortly after his surprise visit to the music store and the publicity it received, the Pope again demonstrated his personality. He sent a handwritten note in response to a letter from the journalist who wrote the story, apologizing for intruding on the Pope but expressing how the story would make people smile at a time when “we only hear about tragedies.” Pope Francis expressed it was unfortunate that, “after taking all the precautions, a journalist was right there waiting for someone at a taxi stand.” He agreed that “We must not lose our sense of humor. … Thank you for fulfilling your vocation, even if it means giving the Pope a hard time.”
Pope Francis‘ visit to the music store was motivated by his friendship with the family who owns it. As Archbishop and even Cardinal of Buenos Aires, he used to be a regular visitor to the store on his visits to Rome before his election as Pope. These visits caused much less interest to onlookers. He made the recent visit to bless the store and the family, in view of recent renovations made to the small store. The family had gone to the Vatican to congratulate Pope Francis on his installation as Pope in 2013 and he promised to visit the store again. He kept his word. The family gave the Pope a CD of classical music as he exited the store.
The unexpected visit of Pope Francis to the music store, again reveals his love for people and his identifying with them and their everyday lives and daily occupations. However, it also reveals another aspect of his character which, because of his being so down-to-earth, may not be so apparent. He is a deeply intellectual man with a great love for music and art. This is significant as music and art plunge into the depths of all human existence, and many times express what words cannot. Pope Francis’ writings express a vast familiarity with literature and philosophy, demonstrating his grasp of the human situation from all perspectives and an ability to communicate in a face-to-face encounter with people of all peripheries of life in their language and not necessarily in that of an intellectual. He has often made mention of musicians and composers significant to him, as well as of the spirit motivating their works. In the Fourth International Conference on Music, organized by the Vatican in February 2021, Pope Francis strongly encouraged the creativity of musicians, especially during the pandemic disruption. Quoting Cervantes in his novel, Don Quixote, he stated, “Where there is music, there can be no evil.”
In a famous interview with Father Antonio Spadaro, S. J., during August 2013, published as A Big Heart Open to God, Pope Francis spoke, among so many other topics, of his love for music and of the many musicians and musical pieces he appreciates. He spoke of his love for Mozart, especially his Mass in C Minor, which the Pope considers “matchless” as “it lifts you to God.” He spoke of his love for Beethoven and for Bach, most especially for his Passions. The Pope also expressed his love for opera and the works of Puccini and Wagner. Reflecting his insight into how music can touch the heart of human life, he referred to the first riddle in Puccini’s opera, Turnadot, as emphasizing the virtue of hope. Pope Francis deeply appreciates and enjoys the world of music, which helps him to deepen his communion with God and His creation.
Cardinal Gianfranco Rivasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, is curating Pope Francis’ music library, which consists of almost 2,000 CDs and 20 vinyl records. While some of the recordings are part of the Pope’s own personal collection, many are gifts which he has received over the years. The majority of the collection is of classical music but does include pieces of a wide variety of genres, including Tango music. The Pope told Cardinal Rivasi that his love for music came from listening to an opera program on the radio with his mother when he was young. The Cardinal said that “You can see that he listens to the music carefully,” as what he sends is accompanied by handwritten notes with “extraordinary, expert” comments.
We have been blessed by Successors of Saint Peter with tremendous intellectual ability, appreciation of art and culture, and deep humility. Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, the predecessor of Pope Francis, is but one extraordinary example of this. Pope Benedict is also a lover of music and is, himself, an accomplished pianist. Of Mozart, his favorite composer, he said, “His music still touches me very deeply because it is so luminous and yet at the same time so deep. His music is by no means just entertainment, it contains the whole tragedy of human existence.”
In a fictitious movie, The Two Popes, there is a scene of Cardinal Bergoglio and Pope Benedict discussing music as a means of communicating with God, while Benedict plays the piano. I have little doubt that music is a subject that they speak about in their meetings at the monastery of Pope Benedict. The voice of God, expressed in music, joins these great leaders of the Church in His spirit. This also reminds us of the importance of music.
In one of his audiences of 2021 on prayer, Pope Francis spoke on the centrality of prayer in life. He stated, “Prayer is the musical staff for the melody of life.” How fitting for the Pope, who loves music, to understand prayer in terms of music as a center of the melody of life. Pope Francis is a man of deep spirituality, and his prayer is truly the music of his life. This was evident in the stir he caused by his visit to the music store in Rome.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
January 28, 2022