That morning, St Peter’s Basilica was full of tourists. It seemed to be an ordinary day, but something in the air made it feel special. Behind a screen, some workers were assembling a huge manger while others could be seen carrying big wooden partitions. It quickly dominated a large part of the church, and people gathered to see what was going on.
Within a few minutes, everything went silent. A melody began to play from the speakers. Next to the Chair of Saint Peter, 22 men and an orchestra performed a beautiful rendition of “Adeste Fideles.” The rehearsals for the Christmas Eve and New Year’s functions had begun. Among the singers was Mark Spyropoulos, a British baritone with Greek roots, who, two years earlier, found himself in the oldest church choir in the world, the personal choir of the pope, or Cappella Musicale Pontificia. “Even now there are times when I feel that all this is a fairy tale,” he told me as we sat in a cafe at the Vatican entrance.
Having studied music and opera in England, he decided to try his luck at the major opera houses of Italy. After one audition, he had the opportunity to speak with the conductor of the Vatican choir. “The first interview went well and they asked me to join a rehearsal which had just started. As I was leaving, they casually told me to come back for Christmas. I returned to London, not knowing if they really meant it.”
Without a steady job in his field, he was working days at Harrods department store and in the evenings presenting bouquets on stage to opera singers. “I was constantly on tenterhooks, thinking what a great opportunity it was. I finally plucked up the courage to get in touch with them again.” He wrote to the conductor asking, “Does the offer still stand?” “Of course,” came the reply. Spyropoulos took the next flight to Rome.
He participated in two rehearsals and they informed him that he would be taking part in the Christmas Mass. “Three tailors measured me for the clothes I was to wear that night. I couldn’t believe that one moment I was selling perfumes at Harrods and the next standing next to the pope, singing in front of 25,000 people in a performance broadcast live across the world.”
Spyropoulos might only speak a few words of Greek, but he grew up with stories of his Greek family – such as his great-grandfather from Volos, who exported Papastratos tobacco products to the United Kingdom, where his customers included the royal family – and spending carefree summer holidays at his grandfather’s home in Kyrenia, Cyprus, before the Turkish invasion.
His grandmother and grandfather met and fell in love in London, where they had migrated with their families during the 1920s. They were married at St Sophia’s Cathedral, a Greek Orthodox church in Bayswater, where they baptized their son and later their grandson.
As a youngster, Spyropoulos never had a special relationship with the Church (he was also baptized in a Catholic church by his mother), but the last couple of years have changed him. “It might seem strange, but I’ve even felt closer to Greece here – from the service which always begins with ‘Kyrie eleison’ [Lord, have mercy], the Orthodox priest who attends each sanctification, or the countless sculptures crafted by Greek artists.”
He accompanied me to the church, full of enthusiasm. Now he knows every corner: the secret wooden elevator up to the terrace, the complex system of speakers and microphones recently put in place to reproduce the acoustics of the Sistine Chapel, and the “autographs” scratched into the wall with penknives by the choir members. When we arrived in front of Michelangelo’s Pieta, he stopped.
“This is the exact spot the maestro told me to stand on New Year’s Eve in 2014. He suddenly opened the curtain and there was Pope Francis. I lost my composure, I had no idea what the correct protocol was: Should I kiss his hands? His feet?” The pope, full of enthusiasm, welcomed him. “You came from London? And you will sing with us? That’s fantastic!”
He might not speak to the pope very often, but standing at his side at every public appearance, he feels like he’s got to know him. “He doesn’t want to stand on the balcony but in the square, among the people. He has incredible empathy. You see the small things, how he will kneel to talk to a child in a wheelchair, how he listens and gives time to ordinary people.”
When we crossed St Peter’s Square, he pointed to the roof of a dark building. “That’s the pope’s new apartment. It’s like a room in a three-star hotel. He left behind a luxury apartment.”
The smallest state
Behind the imposing gates where the Swiss Guards stand in their colorful uniforms lies the smallest nation-state in the world. Today, around 800 people live there. Apart from their houses and administrative offices, there are supermarkets, restaurants, a gas station, heliport, pharmacy, post office, radio and television station, and a shop “where American priests often go to buy Gucci glasses,” said Spyropoulos, laughing.
He has now seen three new years in with the pope, and this time Francis gave him a gift of a traditional panettone and a bottle of Prosecco. “On New Year’s Eve, we participate in the service, then sleep for two hours – something that’s hard to do because of the fireworks and excitement – and then we come back here in the morning for the morning service. It’s exhausting, but I would not change it,” he told me as we parted ways for him to return to rehearsal, and, by the time the clock struck midnight, more than 25,000 people had gathered in St Peter’s Square to watch the service, in which Spyropoulos sang to welcome the New Year.