When Aretha Franklin sang for Pope Francis

A reflection on an iconic performance.

August 17, 2018

In 2015, Pope Francis visited North America for the World Meeting of Families. After three days in Cuba, he made his way to the United States, visiting the White House and sacred sites in Washington, D.C. before speaking to a joint session of Congress convened by two observant Roman Catholics: Vice President Joseph Biden and Speaker of the House John Boehner. After his speech at the United Nations, he departed for Philadelphia for the conclusion of his tour, where after morning Mass and other official obligations, the Supreme Pontiff was serenaded by Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin at the Festival of Families, an event celebrating U.S. music and culture.

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Born in Memphis, Tennessee and raised in Detroit, Michigan, Ms. Franklin spent her career embodying black gospel and soul. In a matter of seconds, she could seamlessly transition from “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” to “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” as naturally as her command of the stage. Like blues and jazz musicians before her, Franklin received her style and ethos from the sacred music of her ancestors — music formed under the pressure of enslavement, state-sanctioned discrimination, and the racial terror of the post-Reconstruction United States. And there she was, an accomplished steward of multiple musical traditions singing “Amazing Grace” before the first Latin American pope.

For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church sanctioned the plunder of Native peoples, the subjugation of Africans, and the conquest of whole continents. It's not outside the realm of possibility that, at some point during that era, Franklin’s ancestors arrived on the shores of North America in a process of colonization put into motion by one of Francis’s predecessors. For nine minutes and ten seconds, Franklin sang “Amazing Grace,” an anthem of American Christianity, written by an 18th century human trafficker who later denounced the practice. In her signature fur, she transfigured the lyrics into a soulful blend of ecstasy and grit, born of full life. A few seconds later, Franklin enacted what people in the Black Church refer to as the “praise break” or “holy dance”, with the unassuming Argentine pope looking on. In that moment, two seemingly disparate worlds collided: colonizer and colonized; the staid church establishment of western Europe and the exuberant black folk religion of the American South.

When Franklin recorded her album Amazing Grace in 1972, the civil rights movement had been dealt blow after blow in an almost endless succession of high profile assassinations. When listening to the swelling chords of “Mary, Don’t You Weep” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” one is left with the sense that the 30-year-old recording artist had experienced pain that far exceeded her relative youth. This same depth could be felt in her Philadelphia performance — especially as her set drew to a close and she lifted her arms toward the sky, lost in a moment of doxology with the Creator she sang about in intimate ways.

Gospel music was Franklin’s first language. During the recording of Amazing Grace, the Rev. Franklin rose to the pulpit with a memory of his daughter singing gospel as a pre-teen. “It took me all the way back to the living room at home when she was six and seven years of age,” the minister recalled. As the years unfolded and the young woman from Detroit began to dominate national music charts, Franklin never escaped that gospel sound and was delighted to weave it through every genre she performed. When she performed “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” at Barack Obama’s first inauguration, she molded its tune Harmonia Anglicana into something that easily could have doubled as the sermonic selection at her father’s church. That was the reliably comforting thing about Franklin’s persona: She was unabashedly her whole self, wherever she was.

Not long after her performance in Philadelphia for Pope Francis, members of the public began criticizing Franklin for not acknowledging him on stage, which her publicist swiftly apologized for on her behalf. Officially, Franklin attributed the faux pas to the pope’s placement behind her on stage — but that’s difficult to believe, given that all the other performers paid some homage or another to the Supreme Pontiff either before or after their songs. Given her rootedness in black gospel, I am inclined to wonder whether Franklin was simply so caught up in her moment of praise — what my black Baptist relatives call the “Holy Ghost” — that she couldn’t have noticed the Pope if she wanted to. After having seen what she’s seen and experienced what she’s experienced, it would not shock me to find out that she saw the Pope, but was there to perform for an invisible audience of one.

The robustness and single-mindedness of her performance that evening would suggest that Ms. Franklin was more concerned about showing up as herself than keeping up appearances. Like her ancestors before her, Aretha Louise Franklin kept the song of her heart alive in a strange land, singing a tune the powerful could hear but not understand. For those few moments of ecstatic liturgical dance, I and other viewers were given the gift of seeing a black woman at home in herself, liberated from a preoccupation with what others may or may not think about her.

Thumbnail via Getty/ Justin Sullivan / Staff

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When Aretha Franklin sang for Pope Francis