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Toronto choir school sings for Pope Francis; student calls experience 'surreal'

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Having only caught glimpses of Pope Francis on TV, Christian Carpino couldn't quite believe he was not only seeing the pontiff in person but singing for him, too.

"It was very surreal," the Grade 12 student said Wednesday from Rome during a car ride to the city's famed Colosseum.

"My eyes were glued on him the whole time....It was a bit of a challenge to keep my eye on the conductor."

The 17-year-old was among more than 180 students from Toronto's St. Michael's Choir School who performed for the newly installed leader of the Catholic Church.

The students joined the throngs at St. Peter's Square for a public audience with Francis, who was formally installed as pope on March 19. He succeeded Benedict XVI who retired on Feb. 28, becoming the first pope to resign in 600 years.

School director Stephen Handrigan described the performance as a highlight of their visit to Italy. The all-boys school is commemorating its 75th anniversary overseas with a performance tour.

Handrigan said their delegation had seats front and centre at the public audience and had an opportunity to sing during the middle of the address. They opted for a song of particular significance: "Jubilate Deo" by school founder Monsignor John Edward Ronan.

"The pope was looking directly at us. We were maybe 50 metres from him, and he gave us rigorous applause at the end of our performance, nodded to us," Handrigan recalled.

"And of course when he was driving away on our popemobile, he slowed right down and was waving to us. We could almost reach out and touch him."

Carpino admitted to some initial jitters prior to the performance, but said he'd been anticipating the moment for the entire Italian tour, describing it as one of the most unforgettable experiences of his life. Yet in the immediate aftermath, there was little discussion among his peers over what had transpired.

"You couldn't even describe what had just happened, it was just so exciting," he said. "We were all completely overwhelmed after that experience — and speechless, to be honest."

St. Michael's students also performed during mass at St. Peter's Basilica which was presided over by Cardinal Thomas Collins, Archbishop of Toronto. Grade 12 students also performed the Gregorian-style prayers during an evening service and had a chance to rehearse with Cappella Giulia, the basilica choir.

This isn't the first time St. Michael's Choir School students have sung for notable luminaries, with past performances for the likes of Queen Elizabeth, former prime minister Jean Chretien and the late Pope John Paul.

The school also has several alumni who went on to become top-name homegrown artists such as actor and singer Michael Burgess, crooner Matt Dusk, Barenaked Ladies keyboardist Kevin Hearn and tenor John McDermott.

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