Last Friday, a woman sang in the Sistine Chapel. Not just any woman of course, but a star operatic mezzo-soprano, Cecilia Bartoli.
This falls a long way short of the message of Michelangelo’s powerful Sybils on the ceiling, or my suggestion that Pope Francis appoint some women cardinals. Canon Law (which has required them to be priests only since 1917) would have to be changed to allow this; but heâ€™s an absolute monarch and can legislate what he likes. Call them coadjutors or cardinal deacons or something. Still, Ms. Bartoli is progress, and as Michelangelo knew, cultural symbols matter.
The favour went both ways. By report, the Sistine Chapel choir sank to an embarrassment in the 20th century, and were labeled the â€œSistine screamersâ€. Ten years ago, a leading professional like Ms Bartoli would not have wanted to sing with such a poor group. The revival is not due to Francis but to his predecessor Benedict (Josef Ratzinger), a reactionary but with German standards. In 2010 he appointed a good choirmaster, Monsignor Massimo Palombella, a Salesian priest; and, more important, widened the pool of eligibility by a factor of 10,000 from Italian priests (n â‰ˆ 45,000) to male Catholics from any country, boys and adults, married or not (n â‰ˆ 600,000,000). The invitation to Ms Bartoli is surely Francisâ€™ work.
The choir, with Bartoli, have released a CD of Christmas music, some of it recently unearthed from the Vatican archives. This looks worth a try as a seasonal gift.
The profits go to the Popeâ€™s personal charity. This looks to be a small scale operation, largely among the street people of Rome. You get the cutting-edge accountability of regulations adopted in 1409 by Alexander V. Alexander was a Pisan antipope, whose main contribution to the end of the Western Schism was dying conveniently soon, thus reducing the problem of multiple popes by a third. Relying on his paperwork is, in American terms, roughly equivalent to having the statutes of your college signed off by Jefferson Davis.
Still, if you are going to contribute to anybodyâ€™s slush fund, Pope Francis and his almoner Konrad Krajewski are a reasonable bet.
Cecilia Bartoli singing Mozartâ€™s Laudate Dominum in Dresden in 2001.