What kind of music does Pope Francis actually like? (Orlando Barria/European Pressphoto Agency)
Classical music critic/The Classical Beat

Classical music tends to come into its own on festive public occasions: as a vehicle of celebration or commemoration. This is never more true than when the Catholic Church, a cradle of much of Western music, has something to celebrate. So the pope’s impending visit sent music institutions, from Holy ­Comforter-St. Cyprian Parish to the Kennedy Center, into overdrive.

Yet church music, these days, isn’t really “classical.” The pope will hear a lot of music while he’s in the United States this week, from the Catholic University Chamber Choir and the Philadelphia Orchestra to Aretha Franklin and Sister Sledge. The very breadth of the performers shows the shift in thinking 50 years after the Second Vatican Council opened the doors to more popular forms of music in the Catholic Church. The message that presenters want to give is less one of orthodoxy than inclusion. Music remains a potent symbolic force, but these days, and particularly for this pope, it is symbolizing multiculturalism and inclusiveness rather than the purity of established tradition.

This can make programming a representative cross-section of religious music only more difficult. Not that music for the pope is confined to specifically religious music. In Philadelphia, where the “Festival of Families” scheduled during the pope’s visit sounds like a 21st-century take on a ’60s love-in, Sister Sledge’s “We are Family” is reportedly among the pieces that have made the cut.

But the music at Wednesday’s Mass in Washington, as conceived by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, is intended to reflect and affect Washington’s religious landscape. The five groups scheduled to perform include a gospel choir, the Catholic University Chamber Choir and a “Papal Mass Choir” of 90 participants selected from more than 300 people who auditioned in the D.C. area.

“The diversity of the mosaic of who we are as Catholics is represented at this event, and it’s quite intentional,” said Thomas Stehle, director of music ministries of the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle and the person in charge of music planning for the event, told the Catholic News Agency earlier this month. The Mass, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, will be in Spanish, but other languages will be represented, including Vietnamese, Tagalog and Xhosa.

See details on each of the events in the Pope’s visit

For Catholics, this is hardly a new discussion. “Like the Great Books, there is the great music of the church: Gregorian chant, Palestrina, my own Latin [American] music,” says Grayson Wagstaff, dean of the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music at Catholic University. “Alongside that, there are many different virtuoso traditions associated with the Catholic Church: Gospel, mariachi, many African traditions. Part of the issue in the United States is balancing what we would consider these more educated traditions, including gospel and mariachi, [with] more singable congregation pieces.”

As for the kind of folk music that came into the church after the 1960s, Wagstaff says that he recently heard a student refer to it as “ancient music.”

The exact playlists of what the pope is going to hear are a closely guarded secret, with details emerging only from individual musicians and music publishers. But the emphasis, in Washington, is very much on living composers: Leo Nestor, a Catholic University professor; Peter Latona, the music director of the basilica; and Julian Wachner, the music director of the Washington Chorus as well as New York’s Trinity Wall Street, are among the dozen or more composers who have written new pieces for the occasion. Catholic University’s choir represents high-church tradition, and even it is doing only one piece from the standard classical canon — the Dona nobis pacem section from the Mass in B minor by the Lutheran composer J. S. Bach. (Their centerpiece is “¡Albricias mortales! que viene la aurora” by Manuel de Sumaya, the leading Mexican composer of the 18th century — a fitting nod to the pope’s Latin American heritage as well as to Catholic University’s acclaimed Latin American Music Institute.)

This emphasis reveals a signal difference in outlook between the music world and the church world: Rather than seeing new music as unpalatable to audiences, the church evidently believes it reflects a contemporary sensibility, the importance of maintaining a living tradition. It is rather wonderful that the instinct, when welcoming a major religious figure, is to commission a lot of new works rather than roll out banner performances of old ones.

That is left to the Kennedy Center, where the National Symphony Orchestra, conducted and partnered by two members of the team of Washington National Opera’s “Carmen,” Evan Rogister and Clémentine Margaine, in a refreshing display of true cross-institutional collaboration, will present standards like Mozart’s “Exultate, jubilate” and Franck’s “Panis angelicus” — music that a pope, one could imagine, might be sick of hearing. (The pope will not attend the Kennedy Center event.)

Which brings up another salient point that does not appear to have been addressed. What kind of music does Pope Francis himself like during worship?

“I do not know,” Wagstaff says. “He is so outspoken on the power of music, or, as we would say spiritual food, I don’t know that anyone has asked him what his easy listening is.”

In his private life, though, NPR ferreted out another answer: Pope Francis likes opera.

The Kennedy Center’s “Concert to Celebrate Pope Francis” will take place Wednesday at 8 p.m. Admission is free; tickets are available in advance at the entrance to the Hall of Nations.