The call came on June 29 last year. “Right after the officials from the Vatican came and scouted Sri Lanka,” she recalls. The Bishop of Chilaw, Valence Mendis rang her that evening with a request — to compose a song welcoming the Pope to Sri Lanka. Priyanthi Van Dort had too the huge responsibility of [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Raising a voice of harmony for Pope Francis


The call came on June 29 last year. “Right after the officials from the Vatican came and scouted Sri Lanka,” she recalls. The Bishop of Chilaw, Valence Mendis rang her that evening with a request — to compose a song welcoming the Pope to Sri Lanka.

Unforgettable moment: The welcoming choir greets the Pope at the airport Pix by Mangala Weerasekera

Priyanthi Van Dort

Priyanthi Van Dort

Priyanthi Van Dort had too the huge responsibility of training the welcoming choir which greeted Pope Francis at the airport on his recent visit to Sri Lanka and also training the National Choir for the Papal mass at Galle Face which was attended by over half a million people and watched live on TV by millions more.

Priyanthi initially thought they would have the song recorded. More than a little stunned when she learned the song was to be performed live, the question of who should sing it loomed in the horizon.

“There was a lot of spirituality involved, even in the planning stages,” she tells us. Praying for divine guidance Priyanthi’s source of inspiration was the Pontiff’s humility. In two short days the catchy tune and meaningful lyrics had already sprung up in her mind, leaving only the issue of who should bring her creation to life. “I knew choristers had already been destined for this purpose” and she believed it was her task to “find them.”

The National choir practising at Galle Face Green

Currently the Choral Director at St. Bridget’s Convent Colombo, she says there definitely were obvious choices. Nevertheless her search began in the not-so-obvious places. “It would have definitely been less effort” to use the already trained voices of more popular Colombo schools, but that wasn’t the driving conviction. The Pope according to her “isn’t one for pomp and pageantry, he shuns it” which is why singling out less prominent schools made sense. Her first step was to contact the principals who were only too happy to open up their schools for auditions. The criterion was simple, she was looking only for talent. It would hardly be fair expecting anything more from children who come from backgrounds that can’t afford voice training.

It took three months of work before the 30 hand-picked students were able to sing alongside Priyanthi’s gospel choir of 20. For some students the thrill never waned. V. Selvaraj, chosen from St. Thomas’ College Kotte was “so surprised. In our college we don’t have a choir as such.”

“The majority of students in our school are poor; our school never gets big opportunities,” said Sandhali Weldt from All Saints Balika, Borella, one of the choristers. This sentiment was shared by the students of Christ the King College in Pannipitiya who feel blessed to be given a chance “when there are so many big schools in this country, with students who are cleverer than us.”

Fr. Edmund Tillakeratne

Investing her time and effort in them proved to be equally memorable for Priyanthi who says that in her 30 years of choral direction she never witnessed such gratitude and sincere commitment.

Receiving an approving smile from Pope Francis at the Italian part of their welcome song was undoubtedly the highlight for the choir who clad in blue sang their hearts out. “Their faces told it all” according to Priyanthi who felt the children really appreciated the opportunity to “sing from their hearts.”

The welcoming choir and the National Choir formed for the Papal mass have more in common than meets the eye. Apart from presenting fresh faces never seen in the music scene before, Rev. Kamal Fernando who trained them says “It’s the first time in Sri Lanka that all 12 dioceses were represented by a choir.”

Fr. Kamal Fernando

He can’t help but speak of the 160 voices, drawn from the remotest corners of the country with a mild sense of amusement. During the mass Pope Francis spoke about reconciliation, little knowing that “the choir there in his presence was a living example of it.” With the exception of Colombo, Jaffna and Chilaw represented by 20 choristers each, 12 were chosen from all other regions to work as a collective. Hearing them one can hardly tell that most students were bi-lingual and had to write down the lyrics of the unfamiliar language in one they understood. In some instances he says they only knew one language, making most of what they were singing alien to the singers. What they managed during the mass were the fruits of just three practices together.

Picked on the basis of talent alone, this choir too is a reflection of the Pope’s ministry according to Rev. Fernando. The dioceses were instructed to look for ability among those who would otherwise not be recognised for various reasons. A lot was banked on faith opting to take a chance on a choir of amateurs who in some cases may not have sung in public before the auditions, but the reasoning for it is simple-“The Pope came for Sri Lanka, not just Colombo.”

Explaining how this island wide co-ordination happened he said much of the training was de-centralised. While choristers of Colombo, Kandy and Chilaw were taught harmonies, the rest tackled the melodies. “We sent out CDs to each diocese and that’s how they learned the parts.” Since there was no collective rehearsal until early January, many couldn’t even conceive what this choir was truly capable of beforehand.

Also involved with the training Rev. Edmund Tillakeratne says the choir had a lot going for them. There were struggles with the elements which were beyond their control, like the sweltering heat but the training continued fairly seamlessly and the choristers forged some long-lasting bonds.

Training raw voices to conduct worship in what was perhaps the most significant celebration of the Eucharist in the country, did raise concerns. “Not many thought they had what it took,” says Priyanthi. Technical perfection wasn’t what she hoped this choir would reach within the limited time span of practices. “We wanted to empower them so they can now go and share what they know with those in their locality.”

As for the question whether it was the best choir Sri Lanka had to offer she feels “in keeping with Pope Francis’s teaching and example, we couldn’t have offered any better.”

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