By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
This summer, during a pilgrimage to Italy, choir members from Solon, Iowa City and Dubuque were scheduled to lead music worship at Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. They expected to be in one of the many smaller chapels in the basilica, but the day before the Mass, the group learned they’d be accompanying Mass at the main altar.
“We were all nervous for 24 hours, but it was a very neat experience,” said Chuck Brock, youth minister and music director for St. Mary Parish-Solon. He organized the pilgrimage and served as its music director. “Even though Pope Francis wasn’t present, we got to sing in the place where the pope typically celebrates Mass.”
For the closing song, the group sang “Immaculate Mary,” a four-part hymn that Brock and his wife, Alicia, wrote and arranged. Basilica officials “let us sing it, which was really neat.”
Father Tim Sheedy, who retired as St. Mary-Solon’s pastor in July, served as the pilgrimage’s spiritual director and had the opportunity to concelebrate Mass at the basilica. “I was very proud of each one of them,” he said of the choir members. “Their gifts of prayer and music clearly enhanced the experience for all of us.”
The opportunity to provide worship music at the main altar was one of many pleasant surprises during the pilgrimage, Brock said.
Planning for the trip began two years ago when he received a brochure from a travel company that specializes in planning concert tours for vocal and instrumental groups. Brock thought a choir tour in Europe might be nice, but he didn’t think it would go beyond the idea stage. He also knew the parish didn’t have enough choir members to qualify for a trip with the travel company. “I kind of expected (the parish) to laugh and say, ‘That’s nice, but it’s not going to happen.’ But I brought it up at a music ministry meeting and everyone was excited about the possibility.”
Chuck and Alicia Brock have connections in the Dubuque area and invited choir members there to come along. A few musically inclined Catholics in nearby Iowa City expressed interest, as did family and friends from other states. Approximately 55 Catholics signed up for the pilgrimage, including diocesan deacons David Krob and Mitch Holte.
Generally, the travel company, Music Celebrations International, plans secular trips. “We wanted the opportunity to provide music ministry for Masses and not just concerts,” Brock said. The travel company worked with Brock to create a pilgrimage experience which would take them to churches and concert venues in Rome, Assisi and Florence. They also visited Venice and Montecatini.
During the pilgrimage, the group participated in a papal audience in St. Peter’s Square. “For me, the highlight of the trip was seeing Pope Francis,” Fr. Sheedy said. He has been to Rome four times in the past 50 years, but it was his first time seeing Pope Francis. The group was in close proximity.
The group also had the opportunity to tour the Tomb of Saint Peter and necropolis under the basilica. Approximately 250 people per day are permitted on the tour; about 30,000 people visit Rome daily. “Because we set it up two years in advance, we got on the wait list early,” Brock explained.
Fr. Sheedy, whose ticket was a retirement gift from the parish, shared his knowledge of Italy with the pilgrims during their weeklong stay. Because he has been in Italy multiple times, he was able to “fill in the gaps” on sight-seeing tours in addition to leading the group spiritually. “I appreciate all those who made it possible for me to go with the choir. I was really very proud to be a priest with them and be able to be a spiritual guide,” he said. “It was a great experience.”