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Local Catholic Marie Miller to sing for Pope Francis

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Marie Miller's songs have aired on Christian and secular pop radio stations, and she's played in nearly all 50 states. The stunning 26-year-old with dark hair and a clear voice has performed at South by Southwest, a film and music festival in Austin, Texas, and in front of 20,000 people while opening for the famed country singer-songwriter Sara Evans in Alabama.

But her biggest gig, the one she calls "a miracle," will be Sept. 26 in front of an estimated 750,000 people. What makes it special is not the size, but the man who will be sharing the stage with her.

Miller, a parishioner of St. Peter Mission in Washington, Va., is one of several artists asked to perform for Pope Francis at the Festival of Families, a multicultural, multifaith celebration following the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. Along with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli and Juanes, a Grammy-winning Colombian singer, Miller will play during the televised event on the city's Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Joining Miller will be fellow Catholics Kenny Kohlhaas on guitar and Stephen Rees on fiddle.

About a year ago, when the U.S. Catholic world first was abuzz over the announcement that the pope would visit the United States, Miller sent an email to World Meeting of Families organizers offering her musical talents.

"I didn't think about performing for the pope at all; I just thought maybe there would be a need for music (during his trip)," said Miller. "I wanted to do anything just so I could go and see him, anything to get an in."

The email Miller received in reply basically said, "Thank you for your interest, and we'll put you on a list," she recalled. "In a musician's life, that means, sorry, but no."

Time passed and she received invitations to perform for a number of events in conjunction with the pope's trip.

Then a little more than a month ago, she got a call from Festival of Families Executive Producer Scott Mirkin. He'd heard Miller on pop radio and asked if she'd be willing to perform at the large evening festival. It took a while for Miller to realize that she'd be playing on the same stage as the pope.

"It really is a miracle that I'm getting to do this," Miller said, adding that it also was a staggeringly clear answer to a prayer.

"When I'd gotten the news, I'd just gotten back from a not-great gig," she said. "I've given up a lot to pursue music - relationships, college. I love it, but at points, it's tough."

Two days after praying to God, "Show me what You want me to do," she got the call from Mirkin.

"To be able to sing and play for the pope, to be part of such a great event - something hopeful and peaceful in a world that is filled with hopelessness - I'm so humbled and honored," said Miller. "I'm playing for the best person you can play for."

Miller said Pope Francis' popularity has given her an entry point to dialogue about Catholicism and faith with non-Catholics.

"Even in the secular pop music world, people have been asking questions," said Miller, who is eager to share her love of the church and its shepherd.

"Pope Francis inspires me to be courageous and to go against the status quo, but also to recognize the dignity of each person no matter where they are on their faith journey," she said.

Miller, the third of 10 children, lives in the Shenandoah Valley and grew up playing traditional folk music. She wanted to select songs for the pope that honored the United States' musical heritage as well as her own, so she'll play pieces with folk, bluegrass and gospel influences.

The trio will perform two of her original songs, "You're Not Alone," about being a good friend through difficult times, and "6'2"," about praying for a husband.

Both catchy tunes have a pop-folksy flavor, and it's not hard to imagine Pope Francis tapping his modestly shoed foot to them.

Although it will be a concert like none other, Miller plans to begin her set the same way she always does. "First, I'll pray that I don't mess up," she said, laughing. "Then my prayer is always that people will draw closer to God through music. Even though this is a special event, my goal is the same. I want to inspire people. I want them to draw close to God's beauty."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015