SEVERNA PARK — Christina Massimei was at work behind the reception desk at Bartlinski Chiropractic & Wellness in Pasadena on July 23 when she opened an email inviting her to audition to serve as one of the cantors for Pope Francis’ visit to America.
She instantly had a panic attack — the good kind, she said — causing her boss to rush over and ask what was wrong. Feebly pointing at the screen, her boss read the email then told her to write back immediately to accept the audition.
Massimei, 26, of Bel Air, is slated to serve as one of the three cantors helping to celebrate with Pope Francis the Junipero Serra Canonization Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington on Wednesday.
Massimei has sung as long as she can remember, began formal training when she was 17, and graduated with a music major from the Catholic University of America in 2011.
For Massimei, music is an extension of her faith. Serving as a cantor was the logical transition as she grew from participating in church choirs to working as a soloist.
“Of course there’s that saying: When you sing, you pray twice. But, for me, every time I sing, it’s a prayer. It’s the rawest form of emotion for me. It’s how I am able to express what I’m feeling,” Massimei said. “As stupid as it sounds, I feel like God’s able to hear me better when it’s coming out of my soul.”
Thomas Stehle, music director at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, selected Massimei as one of the vocalists. Cantors have a very specific role during a Mass, he said, where, “their presence and their voice and their comfort and interpretation can energize the assembly.”
Using their emotions and gestures can advise the assembly on how they are supposed to engage, drawing out their singing and their voices, Stehle said.
As cantor, Massimei’s role is to lead the congregation in song during Mass and other events, such as weddings or funerals.
“A good musician should be welcoming and inviting. That kind of goes along with cantoring as well. It is having a good voice, but it’s also knowing how to lead people and make them feel welcome and make them feel like they’re really part of the liturgy,” Massimei said. “Even if they’re not really singing and they’re just kind of mouthing along, you really still want to make them feel like they’re in the spirit of the piece.”
Rob Hott, music director at St. Stephen Church in Bradshaw, hired Massimei as principal cantor after hearing her sing at a wedding at St. Stephen.
“People in the parish are absolutely enamored with her voice and with her,” Hott said. Sometimes, “people kind of hold back from singing because they want to hear her instead.”
The congregation occasionally applauds after Massimei sings, Hott said. “She does nothing to encourage the applause. She’s singing for the glory of God, not the accolades or the applause.”
Though Massimei has served as cantor for bishops and cardinals in the Washington area before, meeting politicians and diplomats along the way, the experience of meeting the pope is different and a bit nerve wracking.
“I’m completely overwhelmed. I keep waking up and saying, ‘It’s not me, it’s not real,’” she said. “I’ve gotten nervous for every imaginable scenario, from having a hiccup on screen in front of the cameras…to tripping, to forgetting somebody’s name.”
“Religion will always trump politics, religion will always trump any celebrity,” she said. “To meet the person who has been handed down all these truths, handed down this tradition, handed down this faith, it’s overwhelming to think about.”
“When you think about it, there probably aren’t very many places in history, or places on earth, where you can track the lineage directly to Christ,” Massimei said. “For better or for worse, there has been one man who has directly succeeded Christ, our Savior.”
In the Catholic faith, Jesus Christ made St. Peter the foundation of the church and the pope is his successor, according to the “Catechism of the Catholic Church.”
Hott, though, said he has complete confidence in her, and deep down he knew something like this was going to happen for Massimei.
“I just don’t think there’s anything they’re going to put in front of her that she’s going to have a problem with,” Hott said. “I think Pope Francis is going to want to take her back with him.”
Practicing the same doctrine as popes before him, Francis is different in that he places himself on the level of the people, speaking to congregations on a human level, encouraging service and the preservation of human dignity, according to Massimei.
“The key to, not just my ministry, but life in general is to keep yourself humble and just do what you’ve been given to the best of your ability. That just doesn’t fall under singing, that falls under my work at the chiropractic office, that falls under my relationships, that falls under my family,” she explained.
“It sounds cheesy and cliche, the golden rule, but really I feel like that’s what Pope Francis is calling us to do, is to see others as literal body of Christ,” she said. “We’re all connected, we’re all here, for better or for worse we are here, and what can we do to make this world a more peaceful and more loving place? I think anybody would aspire to live by that.”