A slight Franciscan friar, whose powerful and prayerful voice prompted Pope Francis to have him open the Synod of Bishops for the Pan Amazon Region in Rome, will also sing on the opening night of this year’s 10th anniversary of The Lights of Christmas at St Mary’s Cathedral.
While the opportunity to sing for the Holy Father on the Feast of St Francis, 4 October, was a particularly special moment, Friar Alessandro Brustenghi is no stranger to the international stage.
Often called the Voice of Assisi, Friar Alessandro’s rich tenor voice has been heard in cathedrals and concert halls throughout Europe, the UK and the USA. He is also completing his fourth album before coming to Australia.
Quite an accomplishment for someone who was once told his voice was too “tiny” to take seriously.
“I am very much looking forward to coming to Sydney, to meet many people and share this gift of voice I have been given,” Friar Alessandro told The Catholic Weekly in Assisi recently.
This central Italian town is the birthplace and resting place of St Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan Order.
St Francis embraced a humble and poor lifestyle and is often referred to as the “gentle” Patron Saint of Italy. It is also the name the Holy Father took when elected Pope.
From a small fortified settlement Assisi now shares its tranquillity and distinctiveness comfortably with the millions of pilgrims and tourists who visit every year
And it is home to a thriving Franciscan community
Fr Alessandro, a youthful looking 41-year old with an easy and engaging manner, lives in the friary next to the Basilica of Santa Maria degliu Angeli or St Mary of the Angels which stands on the plains of Assisi.
Despite numerous requests to sing, Fr Alessandro’s schedule is carefully managed allowing as much time as possible in Assisi.
He can often be seen and heard playing the organ and singing at the early morning Mass in the Basilica or at Vespers.
“I can feel the spirit of St Francis here,” Friar Alessandro said standing quietly beside the small but much venerated Porziuncola chapel within the Basilica where St Francis founded the first group of the Order of Minor Friars in 1209.
Nearby is the Chapel of Transito, formerly just a little infirmary hut serving the followers of St Francis and where he died on 3 October, 1226.
“This place is very important for our Franciscan charism,” he said.
“There is a spirit of brotherhood and love.
“When Francis was close to death this is where he wanted to be.
“It is very special to us and I love to play and sing here.
“But wherever I play and sing, at the Mass or anywhere else, I am still connected to God.
“This connection is a communication of God’s love for all people. During the Mass it is a service, during a concert it is a gift for me and for the people who are listening.”
Alessandro began studying the organ and singing as a young boy growing up in a small village not far from Assisi. He was good, very good. But while his ability on the organ soared his voice remained “tiny”.
Around this time he saw a movie of St Francis.
“I wanted to be like that man,” he says.
Alessandro decided to enter the friary but he also needed his music diploma. His teacher said she could not help with his voice.
“In fact I was told I didn’t really have a voice.
“So I trained and studied and trained and then suddenly this operatic voice came out! I passed the exam and joined the Order.”
However, like St Francis, this friar’s journey to his final vows was often a lonely, soul-searching one. Was this to be his true vocation?
He took time out – three years living like a hermit, working in a small carpentry workshop making and restoring wooden instruments and furniture.
Working, weeping and singing, he was constantly asking himself if God wanted him to be a Franciscan friar.
Clearly he became stronger mentally and spiritually. His prayers were answered and Alessandro took his final vows in 2009.
A couple of years later someone connected to a recording company heard him sing. Auditions and a recording contract followed.
The young friar, who had not travelled far from Assisi let alone on a plane, found himself in the Abbey Road recording studios made famous by The Beatles, recording an album of sacred music.
In December Friar Alessandro will undertake his longest flight ever when he comes to Sydney to sing at the opening night of this year’s The Lights of Christmas.
He will be joined by Australian international concert pianist Vivian Choi who will return from New York for the event, and the Artes Christi Choir and Orchestra.
“I have heard about The Lights of Christmas and am very excited about singing for all of you,” he said.
Friar Alessandro will also celebrate with the Franciscan community in Sydney which was established by three Irish Friars in 1879.