Davidson College Choral Director Christopher Gilliam recently found himself with an unexpectedly historic opportunity. Gilliam and 25 choral singers performed during one of the final papal audiences with Pope Benedict XVI, two days after the leader announced he would resign.
Gilliam, 37, was touring Italy as a guest conductor with the Baton Rouge High School Festival Singers Feb. 6-14, a school he developed a relationship with at his previous job.
Gilliam is in his first year at Davidson and moved to the Lake Norman community after spending five years at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, La. Through his work as the associate director of choral activities and associate professor of voice, Gilliam said, he recruited from Baton Rouge High’s choral program and previously traveled with them to Budapest, Prague and Spain.
The group was already scheduled to sing during a papal audience on Feb. 13, but the pope’s Feb. 11 announcement was so historically significant, Gilliam said, they weren’t sure if he would still hold the public audience.
On the morning of Feb. 13, Gilliam said, they found themselves in the Pope Paul VI Audience Hall, just a few rows away from the head of the Roman Catholic Church.
Gilliam said he was awed by the audience of more than 6,000 “and their seeming love for the pope. As he walked in, they were shouting ‘Viva Papa,’ and were very inspired by his presence.”
It was hard to tell the pope’s physical state, Gilliam said, but he seemed sharp and delivered his address in numerous languages. “Everything (about him) spoke dignity. He had full control of himself and his speech was clear,” Gilliam said.
“He’s clearly older, and I can understand a decision to reduce some of the stress and pressure I’m sure the office affords.”
After the English-language portion of the pope’s address, Gilliam performed with the choir – directed by Robbie Giroir – as they sang Knut Nystedt’s “Cry Out and Shout,” a piece Gilliam called “quick and vibrant, that wouldn’t stop the momentum of the service.”
While Gilliam said he comes from a Protestant background, he was still impressed with the significance of performing for Pope Benedict XVI at such a momentous time. “I can certainly respect someone who’s dedicated their life to the good of the church …I have a great deal of respect for someone so well-learned,” Gilliam said of the pope.
“He is a faithful and dedicated man that’s done a great deal of good.”
The experience is one that will stay with Gilliam and the student performers the rest of their lives, he said.
“If we could add any to the joy of his last days in papal office, that’s a unique opportunity.”