Tony Cummings reports on the successful progressive rock album 'Wake Up!' by POPE FRANCIS
Jorge Mario Bergoglio, better known as Pope Francis, is undeniably a history maker. He is the first Jesuit Pope, the first from the Americas and the first non-European Pope since Syrian Gregory III who died in 741. Now the current pontiff is presiding over the Catholic church version of the Alpha Course which is seeing tens of thousands of churchgoers engaging with the Holy Spirit. But possibly the Pope's most unexpected initiative occurred last year when his progressive rock album 'Wake Up!' was released and entered the mainstream album charts in Italy and Spain.
The story of how a 79-year-old churchman could end up with an album full of powerhouse rock guitar solos and spiralling Genesis-like synthesisers will no doubt make it into rock encyclopedias in the years ahead. Hopefully when the music historians get to put 'Wake Up!' under the microscope they will record the positive response the album received - the left-wing Italian daily newspaper Il Fatto Quotidano calling it "an album made by God" while in Britain in their 2015: The Best Of The Year cover story Classic Rock magazine featured the pontiff alongside the Rolling Stones, Bowie and Jimmy Page. So how did the album come into existence?
The origins of the album go back to the World Youth Day events organised by the Catholic Church since 1986. These huge gatherings have galvanised thousands of young Catholics to be more serious about the Christian faith. The 2013 World Youth Day was held in Rio de Janiero, Brazil and Pope Francis spoke powerfully to tens of thousands of catholic churchgoers. Recordings of the pontiff's short messages were taken by ordained presbyter Don Neroni who has been working with Vatican Radio since 1964 and an idea to utilise the Pope's powerful preaching in a musical setting began to germinate.
80-year-old Neroni seems an unlikely figure to get involved with the rock music recording. He told Classic Rock magazine that his musical influences are "from another century. What moves me are the Neapolitan and Roman songs that my mum and dad used to sing when working in the fields for grape harvesting." However Neroni did have considerable experience working with the papacy. He said, "I recorded with both Pope Giovanni Paolo II and Benedetto XVI. Pope Francesco is different from the other Popes. They all used an aulic (courtly) language, while Pope Francesco speaks in a very accessible manner. 'Wake Up!' is three quarters based on speeches given on World Youth Day but we wanted to speak to everyone in the community. [Rock] is a very modern style and represents the Pope's communication style well."
Describing the album in Classic Rock magazine, Jo Kendall wrote, "Each track is a short speech partnered with a piece of Gregorian music, reworked as a new composition, often rather lush-sounding and beautifully orchestrated. Involved in this process is Tony Pagliuca, former guitarist with Italian proggers Le Orme with whom he played from the late '60s to the early '90s. Pagliuca met Don Neroni 20 years ago after he saw a TV debate around the priest's rock version of holy chant 'Salve Regina'."
Don Neroni remembers his first contact with the rock guitarist well. "A big argument started in the studio and I was laughing. The next day, Tony called me and said 'Don Neroni, you really played them!' Ever since then we've been friends and done many collaborations." Following the release of his Christmas mass CD 'La Notte Della Stella' in 1999 the Vatican asked Pagliuca to write their Jubilee Hymn but he was unable to summon inspiration. With the 'Wake Up!' project Pagliuca's creative juices really flowed. "This Pope is about changing lives for the better," he said at the time of the album's release. "He represents a big hope in contributing to a new era."
Classic Rock concluded their interview with Neroni, with tongue firmly in cheek, by asking whether there was any chance of a Pope Francis prog rock tour. It got a laugh from the 80-year-old presbyter who responded, "He won't tour, this Pope can't sing!"The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.