A journey rooted in faith and celebrated in song

Bishop David B. Thompson, the Cathedral Choir and more than 180 pilgrims from across South Carolina recently made a spiritual journey to the heart of the faith


ROME, Italy – Finding inspiration in art, in prayer and in song, pilgrims Church of Charleston were occasionally exhausted, but ultimately uplifted on a recent eight-day journey to the heart of the faith.

Bishop David B. Thompson, the choir of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Charleston and its pastor, Msgr. Sam R. Miglarese, journeyed to Rome Oct. 16-23 accompanied by a large group of more than 180 pilgrims from across South Carolina. A few were also from as far away as Florida, Indiana and New York.

In a visit begun in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, pilgrims would venture from the busy streets of Rome to the small hilltop city of Orvieto. They would see both the beautiful works of art commissioned by the Catholic Church and the historic monuments left by leaders that persecuted Christians. They would twice see the Holy Father and many times hear the singing of a choir that sang at an historic papal Mass and reached its musical peak on this pilgrimage.

“We were pilgrims, not tourists. We had a background in faith… It was fitting that we began our pilgrimage at St. Peter’s. Through the next week we would operate in that atmosphere,” Bishop Thompson said.

They would also operate in an atmosphere of unity, despite being in two hotels and separated into four buses. The color-coded nametags may have seemed like tourist badges to the native Italians, but they provided an easy way to find a familiar and friendly face in the foreign land. “The closeness with each other I think that was one of the best things that came out of (this trip),” said choir member Carmelita Cattles, “Everybody was looking out for everyone else. That’s a good feeling.”

The first day was an introduction to some of the most famous works of art in the world in a tour through the Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s Basilica. The high point was the brightly colored restored ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Tour groups shuffling, in and out of St. Peter’s did not affect the celebration of the sacraments in the immense church. A few days later, a Mass would be celebrated at the Altar of the Chair at St. Peter’s by the priests of the pilgrimage: Bishop Thompson; Msgr. Miglarese; Father Basil P. Congro, pastor of St. Anthony Church in Florence and diocesan director of pilgrimages; and Father Thomas Hofmann, pastor of St. Philip Benizi in Moncks Corner. Father Hofmann delivered the homily, reflecting on the great spiritual experience of being in the “heart of Christendom.”

      The first Mass of the pilgrimage was celebrated at Msgr. Miglarese’s alma mater, the North American College, and was concelebrated with one of its students from the diocese, Father Scott Buchanan. Msgr. Timothy Dolan, rector, called the school which educates American students, “a touch of America in the eternal city,” and applauded the commitment of Bishop Thompson and the diocese to the college. Two of the school’s initial 12 students in 1859 were from the diocese, he said.

A tour of ancient Rome took pilgrims to some of the oldest structures in the world. Many were somewhat hidden by scaffolding and canvas. “Rome is putting on a beautiful face for the year 2000,” explained tour guide Helena Fantini.

Sunday, Oct. 19, was the inspirational high point of the pilgrimage, beginning with a papal Mass in St. Peter’s Square and concluding with a concert by the choir.

The Mass was a special one proclaiming St. Therese of Lisieux a doctor of the church. “We experienced history this week,” said Father Congro. “Only three women have been named doctors of the church: St. Catherine Of Siena, St. Teresa of Avila and now St. Therese.”

Pilgrim Priscella Roberts of Indiana said she had prayed St. Therese’s novena many times and was particularly moved by the opportunity to be at the historic Mass. “I feel blessed to have been here.”

The pilgrims were among 45,000 gathered in the square for the special event where the

Mass was celebrated in several different languages, a point that brought home the worldwide nature of the faith to pilgrim Frank Dugas, who said he was impressed with the number of nationalities represented. And despite the crowd, pilgrims were still able to appreciate the profound spirituality of the Mass. “We were so far back, yet we were encompassed by this holy place. I will never forget it,” said Barbara Dugas. The crowd and the distance did not stop pilgrims from spotting the Cathedral Choir, in white caps made especially for the pilgrimage, which sang during the Mass just a few feet from the Holy Father.

“I think that was one of the most extraordinary things,” said Maida Libkin, associate director of music ministries for the Cathedral. The chance to sing a Mass the pope celebrates is very rare opportunity for a touring group, she said.

Both Libkin and Bill Schlitt, director of music ministries, commended the tour organizers, Peter’s Way, for their assistance and the choir for the extra work in preparation for the trip. That work, combined with the inspiration of the Holy City, translated into a powerful performance at St. Ignatius Church. A special guest was Archbishop John P. Foley, head of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. A standing ovation was followed by a request to perform their finale song, the rousing Gospel-inflected “Sign Me Up,” a second time. “That was the best we had ever performed,” said choir member Dan Carrigan, “Musically, I think we were at our peak.” Fellow choir member Becky Hickok concurred adding that the spirituality of the trip bolstered their performance throughout. “The extra spirit and the adrenaline flow all combined.”

Pilgrims then enjoyed a daylong trip to the village of Orvieto which stands atop an island of volcanic rock. Mass was celebrated at the city’s Cathedral which boasts a chapel featuring the frescoes of artist Signorelli.

The choir would again sing before the pope at his weekly audience held in St. Peter’s Square. Approaching through the crowd of approximately 15,000 in his popemobile, he delivered his message in many different languages, greeting the visiting groups from across the globe. Continuing a series of audience talks about Mary, he called the faithful’s veneration and love of Mary distinct and different from God.

Rounding out the trip were tours of the Catacombs and three famous churches: St. Paul, St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran.

While pilgrims were kept on a hectic schedule, there was still time to enjoy some quieter moments, like Doug Hickok’s step into a smile Florentine church on a Roman side street. “There are little gems like that across the city,” he said. And Fred Sabback said he achieved his main purpose for corning: prayer for friends and family in need of assistance.

There were some difficult moments, though. Two pilgrims were injured in falls and two others fell victim to thieves who often target foreign visitors. “The whole pilgrimage reached out to those impacted,” Msgr. Miglarese said, offering both financial emotional support.

There were also the inevitable inconveniences of traveling in a foreign land, but by trip’s end, pilgrims spoke only of the high points. “I enjoyed it immensely. I would do it again in a heartbeat,” said Madge Taylor.

“The overall result will be, after this experience settles in, it will be like being an alumni,” Bishop Thompson said. “You remember only all the good things. The inconveniences fade into the background.”

A farewell dinner provided the perfect coda to the journey, bringing the large group together, both physically and spiritually, a final time. It featured a third version of the now-famous “Sign Me Up,” this one dedicated by the choir to the pilgrims who accompanied them. “We celebrated the memorable week … and we gave thanks for their gift of music and our time in Rome,” Msgr. Miglarese said.

And that time spent is one pilgrims are already cherishing, Schlitt said.

“I think what made it worth it for me was that so many people have come up to me and told me that they were profoundly moved by this trip … that this was the experience of a lifetime for them.”