Music Professor Cherishes His Meeting with Pope
by Steve Charles
April 19, 2005
As Roman Catholic cardinals meet to choose the future pontiff, Wabash
music professor James Makubuya recalls the blessing Pope John Paul II
gave him and his work more than 20 years ago.
Makubuya was a student in his early 20s when he traveled to Rome in 1980
as director of the National Choir of Uganda. His 150-member ensemble of
singers and instrumentalists offered the first presentation of
indigenous African worship music at the Vatican during a Mass at St.
Peter’s Basilica celebrated by Pope John Paul II. The pontiff was so
moved by the sound of voices in eight-part harmony and African rhythms
and instruments that he halted the recessional.
“I could hear him saying to his aides, ‘I need to speak with this man,’
but I didn’t know why he’d need to talk with me,” Makubuya recalls. “I
was concerned when he motioned me over.”
Walking cautiously to where the Pope was standing, Makubuya knelt to
kiss the Papal ring.
John Paul stopped him.
“He said, ‘No, no—you don’t need to do that. I just want to thank you.’
And he gave me a hug. I didn’t know what to say.
“God bless you, and God bless your choir,” the Pope told Makubuya. Then
he smiled and walked away."
As surprised and gratified as their director by the Pope’s affection and
appreciation, Makubuya’s choir began to clap while journalists snapped
photographs of the moment.
It was a high point of Makubuya’s life that almost didn’t happen.
The choir’s visit had been sponsored by Ugandan Cardinal Emmanuel
Nsubuga, but the day before the were to appear before the Pope, the
Vatican’s liturgical director questioned the group’s technical ability.
The Basilica’s highly trained choir traditionally sang at Masses
celebrated there by the Pope. The Vatican director saw little reason to
depart from the tradition.
So Cardinal Nsubuga convinced Makubuya to present a preview to the
Vatican director. First they sang Western-style worship music to near
perfection. The official said he’d heard all he needed to hear. But
Makubuya insisted he stay to listen to a rehearsal of the African
worship music, as well.
“When they finished, this man asked to speak to the choir,” Makubuya
recalls. “He stood before them and, in his best English (with an Italian
accent), said, 'Tomorrow you shall sing in St. Peter’s Basilica.'"
When John Paul died April 2, Makubuya found the photographs others had
taken that day at St. Peter’s.
“I felt very sad when he died, and I used these pictures to help me
remember that meeting, to remember him.”
Makubuya recalls a story his sister told him about the Pope’s visit to
her village in Uganda in 1993.
“He was on his way to celebrate Mass at the site of the Ugandan Martyrs
when he saw a lame child,” Makubuya says. “He stopped, asked the mother
to bring him the child, then he blessed the boy and hugged him. In
Uganda, no one had seen anything like that—such a man stopping to bless
a lame child.
“But he was a man to whom everyone was the same,” Makubuya adds. “In
1980 when we performed at the Vatican, I was just a young man from that
same village in Uganda. Who was I to be so honored?”
John Paul’s words to Makubuya proved prophetic—his life and work have
been blessed. He is married with four children, and he has started
African musical ensembles at UCLA (where he earned his doctorate as an
ethnomusicologist), then MIT, and, most recently, at Wabash. Here his
Wamidan world music ensemble has performed the same offertory dance and
song his National Choir of Uganda once presented to the Pope.
Makubuya recalls the final words John Paul spoke to him that day more
than 25 years ago:
“He said, ‘You are going to come back to St. Peter’s Basilica and sing
again,’ and I started to interrupt him, to explain that would not be
possible. ‘No, he said, you will come back, though maybe I won’t be the
Pope. There may be another Pope, then. But you must come back.'"