In the vast space of St. Peter’s Basilica, Alejandro Quintero saw Pope Francis moving toward him and knew he had to get closer. The 11-year-old student scooted past others in the crowd and inched his way so close to the pope that he could almost touch him.

Just before a smiling Francis moved past Quintero in his wheelchair, he saw him, reached out, and shook his hand.

“It felt great because almost everyone in the world knows him and a bunch of people from the other side of the world come to see him,” Quintero said. “Because he’s like the closest one to God.”

But Quintero wasn’t in Rome simply to get a glimpse of Francis. He was there to perform for the pope, along with 14 other young singers who are part of the children’s choir at St. Andrew Church in Pasadena or Pueri Cantores San Gabriel Valley. The group and several members of their families participated in a whirlwind tour of Italy, with the choir performing for the pope twice in addition to concerts at places such as Santi Apostoli and the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi.

For Patrick Flahive, the music teacher and choir director at St. Andrew plus the artistic director and founder of Pueri Cantores San Gabriel Valley, this trip marked the 30th anniversary of the first time he brought a choir to sing for the pope.

“It’s just a tremendous experience to have such beautiful life-changing events,” Flahive said. “These people, kids and adults, can share an experience they can recall and still be inspired by.”

The choir had been rehearsing twice a week since September to prepare, but the logistics for a trip like this has been years in the making: music purchased by Flahive; hotel rooms booked and organized by Flahive’s wife; choir robes bought by St. Andrew pastor, Father Marcos Gonzalez; rehearsal space arranged by St. Andrew Catholic School Principal Jae Kim.

“All those things where they didn’t think twice,” Flahive said. “Absolutely supportive in every way.”

Pope Francis is wheeled into St. Peter’s Basilica to greet the performers who helped pray vespers on New Year’s Eve. (Submitted photo)

The choir’s first performance in Italy was a historic one on New Year’s Eve with the pope singing vespers evening prayer at St. Peter’s Basilica. Flahive doesn’t believe an American children’s choir has ever been invited to do that.

The students sat side by side with the Sistine Chapel Choir — labeled the oldest choir in the world — and sang responses in Latin and Italian.

For Arturo Hernandez III, 13, an eighth-grader at St. Andrew who’s never traveled internationally before, the moment was an emotional one.

“I was feeling pretty excited,” Hernandez said. “And then when it finally happened, like when the music started playing, it’s just like a whole different emotion went over me. Like ‘I am doing this right now.’

“Not many people get to sing for the pope, so I feel pretty special that I was able to even be there at the Vatican.”

On New Year’s Day, the choir performed again at St. Peter’s Basilica, this time at a noontime Mass for the feast of Mary, Mother of God, where they sang more traditional holiday songs like “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” and the Italian “Gesù Bambino.”

In addition to performing in Assisi and at the Santi Apostoli in Rome, the choir concluded its trip by singing at the Epiphany Mass on Jan. 6, again for Pope Francis.

“He’s such a brilliantly positive presence,” Flahive said of the pope. “The children obviously enliven him and are dear to him. That’s really meaningful to me.”

For the students, many of whom have never been outside of California, seeing the historic landscape of Italy was eye-opening.

“It’s great,” Hernandez said. “Stuff over in California isn’t really that old. Over here, there’s stuff everywhere that’s thousands of years old and you can touch it.”

“It’s been exciting,” Quintero said. “Seeing stuff that’s been on TV, like the Colosseum. It’s cool being in Italy.”

Overall, Flahive was impressed with the way the students handled the rigor of the trip and stepped up to meet the moment.

“Everything is completely unknown territory for them, and I love the fact that they’re not really fearful,” he said. “They’re just going into these things with such courage and such enthusiasm, and then such delight when they realize that these magnificent events and magnificent places are actually occurring and they’re a very integral part.”

The experience can only broaden the students’ faith — and ours — Flahive said.

“They’re getting a real experience of the universe, of their faith, and a real experience of friendship,” he said. “You know, brotherhood and sisterhood with the other kids who can’t even speak the same language. But they’re obviously sharing the same thing.

“The singing of the children brings all of us closer to God. Because it’s the beauty of it, of their voices, the beauty of their spirit and the beauty of the sacred texts that they sing are all just powerful and overwhelmingly delightful.”