Growing up in a modest home in southern California, Leo Nestor never imagined that his love of music would one day lead to him becoming a papal knight.

But that’s exactly what happened, as the outgoing music professor at The Catholic University of America received the knighthood upon his retirement, in recognition of his lifetime of work for the Church.

Nestor was inducted as a Knight of the Pontifical Equestrian Order of St. Gregory the Great on May 14, honoring his lifetime of service to the Church through conducting and teaching music.

The order was bestowed upon him by Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington at the diploma ceremony for The Catholic University of America’s School of Music.

Asked about the award, Nestor was quick to draw attention away from himself.

“If it stands for anything, it stands for what the Church needs of her people. She needs artists,” he told CNA.

The Order of St. Gregory the Great is granted to individuals for extraordinary service to the Catholic Church. It is one of several order of Pontifical Knighthood, which the Church bestows to continue chivalric traditions and recognize merit and service.

Other orders may be bestowed for military service and protection of the Holy See, reserved specifically for a Catholic’s service to the Church, given only to Catholic heads of state, or granted to members of the clergy.

The Order of St. Gregory, in contrast, can be bestowed upon Catholics as well as non-Catholics. Previous recipients include Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics; Chen Chien-jen, vice president of Taiwan; Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus; and Polish composer Henryk Gorécki.

Nestor was quick to add that, as an Equestrian Order, members “have the right to ride a horse into St. Peter’s (Square)!”

With the conclusion of the 2016 academic year, Nestor is retiring as a full-time music professor at the university, and will transfer to Professor Emeritus status, although he will still help some students with thesis work and projects.

Looking back at his academic career, Nestor said that the path to teaching and eventually knighthood was set in motion by both choices and the “happenstance” of his surroundings as a child.

“It’s really been a very easy life, because the choices fell logically, aesthetically, theologically, liturgically into place.”

Nestor’s musical life started as a Catholic elementary student in California. He sang in the school choir, and learned music from both a college professor and several nuns at the school. While his family was not wealthy, his parents agreed to go into debt to buy a piano, on the condition that he would promise to practice it.

As a college freshman, Nestor began studying at the seminary for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, where he learned to play organ and met other seminarians who had musical training. He also learned Latin and other theological and academic subjects. Near the end of his training, however, the seminary closed, leaving him to change courses and pursue a music degree at the University of California, Berkley.

While at Berkley, Nestor started composing and conducting a choir and orchestra for a Spanish-language Mass at a local parish. The community insisted on paying competitive wages for his musical direction, holding special collections and fundraisers for his salary.

Nestor was next brought to Washington, D.C. to conduct at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. There, he spent 17 years as music director, right next to the campus of The Catholic University of America.

After years of working next to the university, Nestor became a full-time professor there. “You love your kids, and over the years that’s been one of the great joys,” he said of teaching.

Over the years, Nestor has also served as an advisor to the U.S. Secretariat for Divine Worship. He has composed music for four papal visits to the United States: St. John Paul II’s visits to Los Angeles (1987) and Saint Louis (1999), as well as the Washington, D.C. visits of Pope Benedict XVI (2008) and Pope Francis (2015).

But the concerts and titles are not what Nestor finds most meaningful. Rather, he said that he is grateful for what the compositions let him offer to God and to teach his students.

He said that he owes the honor of the papal knighthood to his students, because of what he’s been able to learn but also how he’s been able to serve and teach students to transform the music they work with.

At the university, he primarily taught conducting. He described his job as helping students to take the vision of “whomever” — from Palestrina in the 16th century to Stravinsky in the 20th century — and to bring those ideas from the music “into the hearts and minds of these people who are coming to hear you.”

“That is a process that is new and electric at every hearing.”

He also commented on conducting and playing music as spiritually significant events, sacrificially emptying out one’s self to portray the thoughts of the composer, and offering music to one’s audience — or, in the case of the Liturgy, to God.

Reflecting on an accomplished academic and musical career, Nestor said that he hopes his life of work reflects what the laity can offer the Church today.

“In the seminary we learn about the arguments for the existence of God,” he said. “For the artist, one of the easiest is the argument for the existence of God from beauty.”