HARTLAND — Among the 20 million pilgrims witnessing Pope Francis closing the Holy Door of St. Peter’s Basilica were the 55 members of the Milwaukee Mercy Choir.
A Michigan-based travel agency specializing in performance and pilgrimage tours to Rome reached out to St. Charles Parish, Hartland, inquiring of their interest in singing during the closing of the Holy Door ceremony marking the end of the Jubilee of Mercy.
Mercy Choir director Maria Notch auditioned singers from St. Charles and 13 other churches to sing at the Mass, as well as at other events during the week. Choir members ranged in age from 17 through retirees, spanning from Fond du Lac to Madison to Milwaukee. The choir rehearsed weekly beginning the first Monday in August.
The choir and many of their family members left Milwaukee Nov. 14 and returned Nov. 22. According to Patrick Walsh, choir member from St. Charles, the pilgrimage was transforming on many levels.
“The opportunity to pray and reflect with the other pilgrims helped me to realize how lucky we all are to have God’s love,” he said. “That’s something I had not thought about before this trip. I hope I will be able to share that love with others going forward.”
Walsh explained that at the pre-departure Mass, Fr. Ken Omernick, St. Charles pastor, said pilgrimages should change oneself. Walsh already has a greater understanding of that message.
“The opportunity to come face-to-face with Pope Francis, to sing in these churches and St. Peter’s, to see the relics and experience the beauty and grace of Rome, to see the history of this city and our faith and to pray with our choir and pilgrims, along with thousands from around the world, has provided me such a positive energy,” he said, adding, “I can clearly feel this (transformation) happening for me.”
The choir joined with the Sistine Chapel Choir for the papal Mass on Sunday, Nov. 20. The choir also sang each day at different churches in and around Rome, including the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, the Basilica of Mary Major and San Carlo, where the heart of St. Charles Borromeo is buried.
They also visited Assisi, St. John Lateran, the Colosseum, St. Callixtus Catacombs, the Vatican Museum and toured Ancient Rome.
In addition to directing the Mercy Choir, Notch is the assistant choir director at St. Charles. The accompanist, Aaron Mathews, also serves as the choir director at the parish.
Calling the experience, “extremely humbling,” Notch felt overcome by emotion throughout the pilgrimage.
“Since our first Mass that we sang together to singing in the glorious basilica, I am overcome and humbled with the questions and emotions around the idea of ‘Who am I?’ to have this opportunity to lead these faithful friends,” she said. “I keep saying to people, ‘Pinch me,’ because I’ve done this before and yet this is still so special and surreal.”
Notch added that the trip reminded her that faith isn’t only a personal experience, but a far-reaching one.
“It’s communal, both vertically, between us and our heavenly Father, and horizontal, between us and our brothers and sisters in Christ,” she explained. “It reminded me that we’re never alone on this journey of faith, that there is great love, support and a very rich history in the universal church and in the body of believers; and most of all, that you’re home when in Rome.”
Mathews said the pilgrimage brought everyone closer together and strengthened his faith.
“It was an incredible opportunity for faith and community building in one of the holiest places in the world. It has strengthened my love for my faith, music and liturgy,” he said. “It’s true that music is a universal language and it was an honor to share this experience with musicians both domestic and abroad. I am especially proud that we were able to support our young people in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
At just 12 years old, Bonnie Reece, a member of St. Charles Parish, was one of the youngest pilgrims. The experience made an impact upon her.
“The food, the basilicas, the art from centuries ago and the music have all impressed me,” she said, adding, “And I am amazed by how much the people on this trip cared about one another.”
This pilgrimage was especially meaningful for Fr. Omernick. A year ago, Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki chose him as a “missionary of mercy.” In that role, he wrote and was featured in a 12-part video series on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. He also gave several retreats and talks in the archdiocese on mercy.
After the first day, Fr. Omernick spoke to members of the pilgrimage.
“This is heaven and it is only day one,” he said. A few days later, he added, “This has been a true pilgrimage for who we were to who we are becoming.”