Acclaimed Catholic tenor Andrea Bocelli talks about faith, his mother’s decision to choose life

Andrea Bocelli performs during the World Meeting on Human Fraternity in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican June 10, 2023. Ahead of his Feb. 20, 2024, debut in Baltimore, the acclaimed Catholic tenor said faith is believing in the power of good. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

BALTIMORE (OSV News) — For one brief moment at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, the hopes of the world seemed concentrated on a single man standing alone outside the massive Duomo di Milano in Italy.

Andrea Bocelli, one of the most acclaimed tenors of his time, kept his arms at his sides and remained motionless as his powerful voice filled the cathedral’s empty square with the familiar strains of “Amazing Grace.”

Online, more than 2.8 million peak concurrent viewers around the globe watched the live Easter performance via YouTube in what would become the largest simultaneous audience for a classical music livestream in YouTube history.

Afterward, the video would receive more than 28 million views in the first 24 hours. Four years later, the Catholic singer’s performance has garnered more than 44 million views and counting.

Bocelli — who sang “Panis Angelicus,” “Ave Maria,” “Sancta Maria” and “Domine Deus” inside the cathedral prior to the event’s dramatic outdoor conclusion — had promoted the nearly half-hour performance as “Music for Hope” at a time when cities were shut down and many people were losing their lives to the illness every day.

“I didn’t actually feel it as a concert performance,” Bocelli said. “It was an occasion to pray together at such a painful time, and thus reaffirmed the redeeming strength of the Christian message. It was very touching to be able to feel during the forced distancing so much unity and brotherhood — a truly unforgettable experience.”

Bocelli made the comments in an email interview with the Catholic Review, Baltimore’s archdiocesan news outlet, with comments translated from Italian. The interview was ahead of his scheduled Baltimore debut Feb. 20 at CFG Bank Arena.

He said faith is at the heart of who he is as a person and a performer. He described his faith as a “priceless gift,” which he said helps drive the selection of his musical repertoire and his charitable outreach.

“Whoever has this same gift improves their own life and the world around them,” he explained. “I believe that having faith means believing in the power of good, and at every crossroad choosing the road that leads to it.”

Music itself is a potential expression of the sacred and of faith in the transcendent, Bocelli said.

“When we touch our spiritual chords, we create a bridge across which to access, at any time and in all simplicity, what is hidden behind the veil of everyday life,” he said. “Personally, when I interpret a holy song or one that is spiritually elevated, I experience it as a form of prayer.”

Bocelli was not always so devoted to his faith. Although he found inspiration as a child worshipping in a small Catholic church in the Tuscan village where he was born and raised, he became agnostic as a teen — a decision he attributed to the “arrogance of youth.”

“Later, however, at the first fundamental turning point in my adult life (that is, the moment I decided to believe or not to believe, because there clearly isn’t a third option), I chose the way that seemed the most logical — that my intellect, for however limited, saw as the path to follow without alternatives,” he said. “My work as a musician, like that of a philanthropist that I carry out through the Andrea Bocelli Foundation, reflects this choice, a choice that is old as it is fundamental, which I could sum up as the will to pay homage to beauty and saying ‘yes’ to all that is good.”

Bocelli was born with congenital glaucoma. When a soccer ball struck him in the head at age 12, he lost all vision completely.

Fourteen years ago, Bocelli appeared in a YouTube video outlining his thankfulness to his mother for choosing life. Seated at a piano, he recalled how his mother’s doctor suggested an abortion in anticipation of her son’s disability.

“But the young brave wife decided not to abort, and the child was born,” Bocelli said in the video. “That woman was my mother, and I was the child. Maybe I’m partisan, but I can say that it was the right choice.”

He added that he hoped sharing the story would encourage “many mothers who sometimes find themselves in difficult situations,” but who want to “save the life of their baby.”

Although he is a busy virtuoso opera singer who tours the world and has sold more than 90 million records, Bocelli told the Catholic Review he makes time for solitude and silence.

“Silence, I believe, hides true treasures, because it leads to reflection, while it is also an essential space in which to collect one’s thoughts in prayer,” he said. “Whenever I can, I try to escape the clamor and confusion of cities and go to the country and nature that are a haven for the spirit, ideal for finding the right dimension for reflection.”

Singing for three popes — St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis — were among the most emotional moments in Bocelli’s career, he said. The 65-year-old singer described St. John Paul as “magnetic,” Pope Benedict as “pure intellect,” and Pope Francis as “a man of few words but of great deeds.”

He was especially moved when St. John Paul placed his hand on his shoulder “like a father.”

The Polish pontiff was “a pope who changed history, a driver and catalyst of epoch-making changes, even geopolitically speaking,” said Bocelli, who also has performed for four U.S. presidents.

The performer, who has sung with his son, Matteo, and his daughter, Virginia, counts “Adestes Fidelis,” “Messa di Gloria” by Giacomo Puccini and “Ave Maria” by Schubert as among his favorite religious works, said good music contributes to spiritual growth. His charitable foundation especially promotes music and artistic education for children, in addition to promoting humanitarian outreach around the world to deal with poverty, illness and complex social issues.

“Doing good for others, I believe, is a natural desire,” Bocelli said. “Being a philanthropist, taking care of people (and thus making a difference in the lives of others) does not simply mean being generous and it is not only a moral duty. It’s an act of intelligence, a path that all of us — each as much as we can — should perceive as the only path to follow.”

George P. Matysek Jr. is managing editor of the Catholic Review, the news outlet of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.


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