It was time for the singers. And in devastated Italy, post-Pavarotti, that could only mean Andrea Bocelli. Hence the grace-filled moment that took place this Easter, at a sacred music concert in the empty Duomo.
Since the mid-1980s, when Bob Geldof gave us Band Aid to raise funds for the Ethiopian famine, any calamity of sufficient gravity calls forth a musical response. And not just calamities: the 1990 World Cup in Italy was set to the soundtrack of Luciano Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma, with its rousing climax of vincerò, vincerò, vincerò! Far more people remember Pavarotti, Carreras and Domingo at the Baths of Caracalla than who won the football tournament.
Less than a year later, the same phenomenon would mark Super Bowl 1991, where Whitney Houston’s rendition of the American national anthem was more spectacular than the game itself. Ten years later, her recording was re-released after 9/11 and went to number one.
In 2006, the Turin Winter Olympics reached its high point at the opening ceremonies, in which the maestro sang Nessun Dorma as the grand finale. It was his last performance. Pavarotti would die the following year.
And so in the current pandemic there would have to be a concert. In Italy that requires not a pop star, but a great tenor. That meant Bocelli, and it was a blessing for Bocelli is not only a cultural figure but a sincere believer.
“For an artist, the event is the reason for the sacrifices of a lifetime,” Bocelli said last month. “For a believer and a Catholic as I am, it was further confirmation of the benevolent smile with which the Heavenly Father looks to his children. It was an immeasurable honour and privilege to lend my voice to the prayers of millions of people.”
Bocelli did lead the people in prayer, doubly so according to Augustine’s maxim that he who sings prays twice. Bocelli sang where Augustine himself was baptised by Ambrose; prayers have been sung there for a very long time.
The programme was sacred music that every Catholic would recognise: Franck’s Panis Angelicus, Gounod’s Ave Maria and Mascagni’s Sancta Maria. Bocelli chose what people would be able to pray with him at home, as they have prayed with that same sacred music in church.
To include the entire Christian world in prayer there was also Amazing Grace, perhaps the best-known hymn in English. The image of the man who has lost his sight singing “I was blind but now I see” was as powerful a Christian performance as could be imagined. The eyes of faith see so much farther than the eyes of the body.
Then there was Rossini’s Domine Deus from the Gloria of his Petite Messe Solennelle. That one is not for singing along to, but is for sacred music what Nessun Dorma has become for the tenor’s encore. Exactly one hundred years ago, Enrico Caruso’s last recording was of Domine Deus. Bocelli himself sang it at the 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia and at the Marian shrine in Aparecida, Brazil.
It is an oddity of our wired world that Bocelli alone in Milan’s Duomo was being watched the world over, just as the solitary Urbi et Orbi of Pope Francis connected the entire globe. Alone, in a massive church built to accommodate thousands.
The solitary prayer of Bocelli was a powerful reminder that the Duomo was not built only for an enormous congregation, nor primarily for one. The empty Duomo – a crowning achievement for an entire civilisation – stands as a prayer in stone, praising the glory of God whether filled or empty. Perhaps more powerfully when empty. It remains the house of God even without the people of God.
Absent the cameras, had Bocelli sung the praise of the Lord God, the Blessed Mother and the Eucharist in an empty cathedral, it would have had no less power. The priest who offers Mass privately at a side altar, the cantor who rehearses in the emptiness late at night, the sacristan who trims the votive candles before the doors open, the craftsman who decorates a nook of the nave’s roof that no man will ever see, the lonely pilgrim who prays alone in the same spot where Augustine prayed a millennium and a half ago – God’s house is always full because God himself is there. Bocelli reminded us of that with his gift of prayer.
As I prayed with Bocelli via the internet, Anatole France’s devotional masterpiece, Our Lady’s Juggler, came powerfully to mind. Barnabas, the juggler-cum-monk, laments that he has no gifts to offer Our Lady, as the other monks did by custom in his monastery, reciting their elegantly composed poems or singing hymns before the statue of the Blessed Mother. So Brother Barnabas slips into the empty chapel with his satchel of knives and balls and clubs. There, with no audience but the angels and saints, he juggles for the Blessed Mother. And Mary smiles on this act of praise.
Bocelli sang for Our Lady in the church dedicated to her nativity, and helped us to sing for her too. And when he departed, keeping vigil in the house of the Lord was the Duomo’s most famous statue, Barnabas the Apostle.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and founding editor of convivium.ca