It's not unusual to find well-known musicians performing for the pope, and concerts connected to papal appearances have featured artists ranging from Luciano Pavarotti to the Chieftains. Even so, finding the likes of Boyz II Men on a papal bill seems near miraculous.
For one thing, the quartet is one of the hottest acts in popular music today. In 1993, the group's single, "End of the Road," set a record by staying at the top of the charts for 13 consecutive weeks. (Elvis Presley was the previous record-holder.) Less than two years later, the group topped that with "I'll Make Love to You," which spent 14 weeks at No. 1 before being bumped out of the way by yet another Boyz II Men hit, "On Bended Knee."
For another thing, none of the four is Roman Catholic.
Normally, Boyz II Men pack stadiums and arenas. So why are they playing Pier Six for the pope?
Because they were asked.
Boyz II Men will headline a special one-hour concert at the Pier Six Concert Pavilion at 8 p.m. Saturday. Also scheduled are contemporary Christian singers Michael W. Smith and Kathy Troccoli. Tickets for the concert were distributed by the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and are not available to the public; however, the concert will be broadcast live by WJZ-TV (Channel 13).
As Bill Blaul, archdiocesan director of communications explains, the archdiocese wanted to plan a sort of "vigil" event the night before the pope arrived. The idea was to provide "an almost spiritual preparation" for the youth volunteers who would be working on the papal parade route.
"We thought, 'How can we do this and be both entertaining and compelling?' " he says. "Well, why not go after talent that would fit the message that we wanted to get across? We looked at a lot of artists and a lot of groups. Boyz II Men was actually our first choice."
It wasn't just that Boyz II Men are popular; what really got Mr. Blaul and his colleagues interested was the way members of the group stressed the importance of faith in their daily lives. Take the way Nate Morris explained the group's appeal to Scott Poulson-Bryant of Vibe magazine. "That power to captivate 20,000 people when we go onstage, or millions when a song is on the radio - no human has that kind of power. That's God talking through us."
In keeping with that humility, the group prays before each performance. Richard LaGravenese, in Interview, watched the group pray before a concert at Nassau Coliseum in Long Island. "Father, we ask you right now, please come into our hearts and our bodies and our minds, help us stay focused and to switch now to the mode of being entertainers and performers," said Shawn Stockman, leading the prayer. "Please bless the band, security, the crew, every single person that has anything to do with this organization. In Jesus' name, we offer it, Amen."
Each of the members of Boyz II Men grew up singing religious music. As Michael McCrary told The Sun in 1992, "In school, we sang classical music, and we sang a lot of gospel music. . . . We were doing gospel and classical so much that the music that was fun for us was doo-wop and harmony."
As happy as the papal visit planners were to have Boyz II Men, they didn't stop there. "We figured why not bring some other artists into this, that offer a different musical perspective?" says Mr. Blaul. "Michael W. Smith is a contemporary Christian [musician], and so is Kathy Troccoli. We figured we wanted to have that element of diversity, both in gender and race, and in building this group of people, we felt that we hit all our targets. So we're very happy with it."
Because the contemporary Christian music movement is often perceived as having its strongest ties with evangelical Protestant faiths, some may wonder how Mr. Smith and Ms. Troccoli fit in with a papal appearance. But Ms. Troccoli - who is Catholic - says she feels much can be gained by moving beyond such sectarian stereotyping.
"I'd like to be a person to help bridge the gap there," she says. "I think we have to start realizing that our focus needs to be Jesus Christ. If we continue to focus on our own theologies and doctrines at the exclusion of centering on Jesus, we are going to be separated. I think that's one of the reasons the world is not seeing Christ as much as they could."
Along with Boyz II Men, Mr. Smith and Ms. Troccoli also will perform at Oriole Park before the papal Mass on Sunday. "I'm going to sing 'Ode to Joy' with a choir, and then Michael W. Smith and I are going to be doing 'Amazing Grace' as a duet," says Ms. Troccoli. "Then I'm actually doing a song that's on the Top 10 of the gospel charts, called 'Go Light Your World.' It's very inspiring and motivational."
Perhaps the most inspiring thing about the performances, though, is the spirit in which they are being offered.
"The artists are donating their time and talent for this," says Mr. Blaul. "The whole thing is basically free, outside of what was necessary and reasonable for us to pay the Pier Six Concert Pavilion, and also for the labor necessary to run the show. But the talent, as well as getting them here, keeping them overnight and feeding them - all that has been contributed.
"Without that, it would not have been possible. We don't have the kind money to pay Boyz II Men or the other groups."