By JOANNE FOX
ROME, Italy – The Cathedral of the Epiphany choir may, or may not, be an integral aspect of a central belief in the Nicene Creed, but they certainly were blessed to sing for two, historic, pontifical ceremonies.
That was the perception of Rachael Wragge of Sioux City, one of the 19 vocalists and a member of a 300-plus choir raising their voices in song for the Mass celebrated by Pope Francis for the close of the Jubilee Year of Mercy on Nov. 20, as well as the Consistory of Cardinals on Nov. 19.
Although the Holy Father was not around for selfies with the choir members, the shepherd of the Catholic Church was a stone’s throw away several times from the 21 pilgrims who traveled, Nov. 14-21, to Rome.
The unusual aspect of the travelers was how many were related to each other. The singers included myself and my son Alex Fox of Sioux City. Mary Jane Hochderffer of Jefferson, S.D., was accompanied by her daughter Theresa. Kristine Danner and son Michael of McCook Lake, S.D., were among the travelers.
Stacey Schnuckel of Odebolt and her brother Tyler Schnuckel and his wife Amanda Schnuckel of Holstein were on the trip. Finally, Chrissy Martinez of South Sioux City, Neb. and her mother Teri Rosendahl of Spring Grove, Minn., rounded-out the “related” singers. Add two pilgrims, Bonnie Morarend of Dubuque and her brother Jerry Balk of Guttenberg, Iowa – who are Rosendahl’s first cousins – and it was quite the family outing.
If it’s Wednesday in Rome, that means it is general audience day in St. Peter’s Square. Getting the pilgrims to the square early allowed those of us with the “ticket” to get through security and be positioned eight rows from the route of the popemobile.
When Pope Francis appeared, the joy exploded. He waved, kissed babies, anointed a woman in a hospital bed and let kids ride with him. His remarks on the Year of Mercy were in Italian, but were condensed into other languages, truly reflecting the universality of the church.
Joanne Nguyen of Sioux City felt both privileged and humbled to be present in the square.
“Rome is a place to eat, relax and pray, plus sing, which is, of course, praying,” she said. “I think this moment resonated with me the most.”
Later in the day, pilgrims processed through St. Peter’s Square and walked through the Holy Door, guided by Kara Bentz, assistant director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Sioux City. Later, the choir made its way to St. Ignatius of Loyola Church, singing two songs during Mass, directed by Matthew Geerings, director of sacred music at Cathedral of the Epiphany.
The trek included visiting Ancient Rome: the Seven Hills, the Roman Forum and the most famous of all amphitheaters, the Colosseum. Buying souvenirs was a large part of this trip. Even the two non-Catholics bought Catholic items. Erin Nelson purchased a medal of the Immaculate Conception and Rick Arnold acquired several rosaries.
The only rehearsal for the two pontifical events took place at Sant’ Andrea della Valle Church. Msgr. Maestro Massimo Palombella, director of the Sistine Chapel Choir, explained how this was the first time in the history of the basilica, a choir from the United States would be singing with the Sistine Chapel Choir.
If you have ever experienced crowds at Disneyland, the World Series or the Super Bowl, you have a sense of what it was like getting ready to sing at the Vatican. We queued-up by the entrance to the basilica and after almost an hour and a half, security allowed the singers through.
Once in, we took our seats right behind the altar. The Sistine Chapel Choir was to our left and they sang first. Then, it was the turn of the vocalists to perform Pilgrims’ Hymn, which resounded in the phenomenal acoustics of the church.
The consistory of cardinals – it was not a Mass – ended a bit after noon. Pope Francis could be seen on the other side of the altar, but did not come over to chat with us, as we had hoped.
The two-hour Mass to conclude the Holy Year the next day meant getting on the bus at 5:30 a.m. and going through security again. We were about 50 feet from the altar which would have put us in close proximity to the Holy Father, had Pope Francis celebrated Mass there. The Mass was moved outdoors, while the singers, the Sistine Chapel Choir and instrumentalists were indoors.
Geerlings, who this go-round was a singer rather than a director, appreciated this different role.
“We Americans tend to have a narrow focus of church music,” he said of the Gregorian Chant that was the basis for the music. “I think this opportunity broadened everyone’s perspective of church music, mine included.”
Following the Mass, cellphones and cameras came out to capture the experience. Jason Swedlund, director of music and coordinator of liturgy for Holy Trinity Parish, Webster County, appreciated the opportunity.
“It was a joy to see Cardinal Daniel DiNardo (former ordinary of the diocese) and to meet Msgr. Palombella,” he said. “The highlight for me had to be meeting and getting a picture of Archbishop George Ganswein, prefect of the papal household and personal secretary to Pope Benedict and Pope Francis.”
Picture-taking delayed the choir exiting the church which turned out to be a blessing. The popemobile weaved its way through the crowd of 70,000. After a while, it headed toward the basilica, positioning most of us within 10 feet of the pope – ideal for up-close pictures and video.
Wragge characterized the trip as “amazing.”
“Think of the thousands who have been in St. Peter’s Basilica over the years,” said the Sioux City Bishop Heelan Catholic High School Choirs co-director. “To realize we sang there puts us into a communion of singers, somewhat like the communion of saints.”