She sang for the pope and got to greet him, too

By Michelle Martin
Sunday, January 24, 2016

Caitlin Hennessy, a senior at Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School, practices with the a capella choir after school on Jan. 13. Henessy met Pope Francis while traveling with the choir to Rome to perform at the Vatican as part of the Pueri Cantores Congress. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

For Caitlin Hennessy and Luke McGinnis, a week in Rome before the last semester of high school proved a memorable sendoff.

Hennessy, a senior at Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School, and McGinnis, a senior at Brother Rice High School, were among the 55 students from their schools who participated in the Pueri Cantores Congress for youth choirs in Rome Dec. 26-Jan. 2.

The congress included groups from all over the world with participants aged 10 to 18. Mother McAuley was invited to apply two years ago after conductor Paul French heard the a capella choir sing here in Chicago. While Mother McAuley and nearby Brother Rice have separate choirs, they often perform together, and 14 Brother Rice students traveled to Rome.

For Hennessy, the trip became even more thrilling when she was selected at the last minute to be among about 40 young people to greet Pope Francis during a New Year’s Eve concert in the Paul VI Audience Hall.

“The area where we were sitting was gated in, and my teacher was near the aisle,” Hennessy said. “A man came and said they needed one more student.”

She was shown to the front of the hall, where students had the opportunity to shake the pope’s hand and receive a rosary and a blessing.

“Everyone was yelling, ‘Papa Francisco! Papa Francisco!’” she said. “But I know him as Pope Francis, so I shook his hand and said, ‘Pope Francis, it is a great pleasure to meet you.’”

The pope smiled and asked Hennessy to pray for him.

“I feel very blessed,” she said. “It was such a great opportunity.”

“Nothing like this will ever happen again,” McGinnis said. “And for it to happen now, just as we are getting ready to leave high school … it was a very important time for it to happen. It’s a big pivot point in our lives.”

Pope Francis spoke to the roughly 5,000 young people who sang, McGinnis said.

“He talked about us being a young generation and being the light of the world,” McGinnis said.

“He has such a kind, soothing voice,” Hennessy said.

Both students said a highlight of their trip was a private nighttime tour of the Sistine Chapel, part of an evening visit to the Vatican Museums.

While the week included concerts and singing at the pope’s Mass on New Year’s Day, the group spent a lot of time seeing the sights. “I thought we’d be rehearsing a lot, but most of the rehearsing was at home,” Hennessy said.

“We got to spend a lot of time touring,” McGinnis said, adding that the group got to most of Rome’s best-known tourist spots: the Coliseum, Trevi Fountain, the Spanish steps.

Hennessy and McGinnis both have been singing since they were young and started as freshmen in their high school choirs. Hennessy cantors at St. Barnabas Parish and sings for weddings and funerals as well; McGinnis is in charge of the music at the 4 p.m. Sunday Mass at Queen of Martyrs.

The students said they were surprised at the behavior of the crowds around Pope Francis, at the concert and even at the Mass Jan. 1.

“Everybody was yelling out to him, and people were standing on chairs,” Hennessy said. “There were a lot of selfie sticks, not to take selfies but just to hold cameras and phones up high. And he stays so calm.”


  • pope francis
  • mother mcauley liberal arts high school
  • brother rice high school
  • pueri cantores
  • sistine chapel

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