SÃO PAULO – After being named the first non-Italian director of the Sistine Chapel Choir, Brazilian-born Monsignor Marcos Pavan said he was “surprised.”

“When the former regent left, I was asked to act as the interim director, but I never thought I would be confirmed in that position. After 23 years working as the children’s choir regent, that was a big surprise for me,” Pavan told Crux, who was appointed full director in November, after filling the interim role since July.

The world’s oldest choir, the Sistine Chapel Choir has its roots in the first centuries of the Church’s history, but was formerly established in its current form when the Sistine Chapel was built under Pope Sixtus IV in the 15th century, said Pavan.

“In that time, there wasn’t a maestro position. A senior singer acted as a kind of leader. The choir’s director is a 19th century novelty,” he explained. Since then, all the directors have been Italian.

The Sistine Chapel Choir’s performances usually take place during celebrations officiated by the pope, especially in Saint Peter’s Basilica. Pavan said the choristers work with all kinds of musical needs, from simple pastoral chants to sophisticated classical compositions.

“I’m in charge of the musical element of the pontifical religious services, working along with the master of ceremonies and sharing with him the same universal vision in each celebration,” Pavan explained.

He said that the choir usually sings in Latin and Italian, but there are exceptions. During the Pan-Amazon Synod, organized in October of 2019, there were chants in Portuguese and Spanish.

“We sang in the opening and in the conclusion of the synod. Frequently, when the pope celebrates in Portuguese and Spanish and school choirs perform, I accompany them,” Pavan said.

Acting as the Sistine Chapel Choirs’s master of pueri cantores (boys’ choir) since 1998, he worked under Pope Saint John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.

“I haven’t noticed particular differences between them concerning the liturgical music aspect. In general, there’s no influence of the pontiff’s personal taste,” he explained.

The three of them, said Pavan, always followed the Second Vatican Council in that matter of music, which recommends the active participation of the congregation and the intelligibility of the lyrics, Pavan continued.

In his daily activities with the boys’ choir and most recently with the main choir, he has been able to put in practice part of what he learned during his formative years in Brazil.

“Since childhood I sang in Church and helped to form choirs. I directed choirs in some parishes in the city of São Paulo and worked with liturgical music with the Benedictine brothers,” he said.

From those experiences, he learned much about pastoral and popular liturgical music and acquired an expertise in working with musically uneducated people.

“In the children’s choir, we work with kids with ages varying from 8 to 13, so we have to teach them music. That was not strange to me,” he said.

His musical taste is also somehow connected to his position. Born to an Italian family in Brazil, Pavan always listened to Italian music at home, but also developed a deep interest in Brazilian popular music, being a fan of Bossa Nova and Samba composers Tom Jobim and Chico Buarque.

“I brought to the Vatican with me a bit of Brazil’s rich musical culture. It’s part of being a Brazilian priest and my heart is always in Brazil,” he said.

Pavan has been in Rome since the 1990s, when he began his priestly education after graduating with a law degree from the University of São Paulo. The bishop of the Campo Limpo diocese, in the city of São Paulo, was waiting for him to return in 1996 and assist the Church in a very populous region.

“But I was asked to stay and work with the boys’ choir, because people knew that I was a musician. It was going to be something temporary, but I was always required to stay for more time,” he said.

After a few years, he realized that his pastoral work in Campo Limpo would be something that he would only be able to do during his vacations.

“That was an unexpected path. I always thought that it was impossible for me, as a Brazilian priest, to work with music in the Vatican. I never thought it was something practical and it wasn’t in my plans,” Pavan explained.

In a country with as many pastoral needs as Brazil, the idea of a priest dedicating his life to music in Rome seemed to be unreal.

“I soon understood that it was an activity that should be carried out with ecclesial spirit. Besides, I do have pastoral functions with the children and their families,” he said.

Becoming the director of the Sistine Chapel Choir was a sign people shouldn’t plan too much for their future.

“I discovered it’s pointless. We have to be open to what the Providence brings,” he Pavan said.