The following comes from a January San Diego Union Tribune article by Pam Kragen:

ENCINITAS — While most celebrants were probably tucked in bed asleep after ringing in the new year on Jan. 1, four North County schoolgirls were standing in the pre-dawn cold outside St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

The girls, and their music teacher at St. John the Evangelist School in Encinitas, didn’t mind rising in the middle of the night to line up with thousands of other students in Vatican City. Just a few hours later, they had the chance to sing for the man they came to see, Pope Francis.

Choir director Ann Heller of Carlsbad and her four students — Maren Lowrie, Karlie Amicay, Lily Grochowiak and Gigi Jasso — were the only San Diego County singers invited that day as part of the 40th International Congress of Pueri Cantores. First presented in 1947, Pueri Cantores brings together Catholic school choirs from all over the world for festivals of liturgical choral singing.

The highlight for 9-year-old Lily Grochowiak was when she and other St. John students saw an opportunity to touch the Pope’s hand as he walked down the aisle during a concert rehearsal. Not only did the Pope shake three of the local girls’ hands, he also gave them each a blessing in his native Spanish.

“Getting the blessing was my favorite part. He was a nice man,” said Lily, a fourth-grader. “It was one of the best days of my life.”

“I think it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” she said. “It’s not every day you can sing with the Pope and Vatican choir on New Year’s Day in Rome. This is something that these girls will always remember.”

To prepare for their trip, Heller said the students had to commit to the itinerary two years ago and they’ve spent dozens and dozens of hours learning the Latin chants and songs for the Catholic Mass and other religious and holiday music that they performed at a series of events Dec. 27 through Jan. 1.