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Basilica rector retires after years of service

| Monday, March 4, 2019

Basilica of the Sacred Heart rector Fr. Peter Rocca said he wanted to be a priest from a very young age — ever since he started playing the organ at his local parish Mass in elementary school.

“I became really close with the priests because of Mass. I got to know the liturgy very well, I became very familiar with Gregorian chant and I just became sort of immersed in the liturgy,” he said. “And it was something I really loved and [was] fascinated by, and by the fourth grade, I was pretty much thinking, ‘I would like to be a priest.’”

Rocca’s ambition would begin to come to fruition as early as his high school years, when he attended the now-closed high school seminary formerly located on Holy Cross Hill. After his year as a novice, he attended the University of Notre Dame, also earning a master’s degree in theology from the University. Rocca then left South Bend to be closer to his dying mother, serving as pastor at St. Ignatius Martyr in Austin, Texas. After the death of both his mother and father, Rocca left Texas to pursue graduate studies at the Catholic University of America, where he received master’s degrees in both liturgical studies and liturgical music. Rocca then was asked to return to Notre Dame.

“In 1980, I was assigned to live at Moreau Seminary, where I had two duties,” Rocca said. “One to work in formation — working with seminarians — and the other to be director of liturgy and music for the house. I have been doing that since 1980, to this day.”

Previous to his current position, Rocca worked as the assistant vice president for student affairs in the Office of Student Affairs. All of his experiences would culminate in his appointment as rector of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in 1997.

“In 1997, my classmate … Fr. Daniel Jenky, was rector of the then Sacred Heart Church,” Rocca said. “He was made a bishop in 1997, and he invited me to become rector of the church. He talked it over with the then-director of campus ministry, Fr. Richard Warner, and both of them invited me to become rector, and I thought about that request for about a millionth of a second … and I thought 12 years in student affairs, that’s a good time — one year for each apostle. So, I was very happy to be invited and I decided I would accept their offer. I just thought it would be a good fit.”

Rocca said that though being rector of the Basilica is a job with a lot of responsibility, his favorite part is the simple act of celebrating the Mass.

“For me, celebrating the liturgy is really the most wonderful thing that I experience at the Basilica,” he said. “As Catholics, we believe that the Mass is the source and the summit of our life as Christians. It’s at the Mass that we come together to truly celebrate our redemption in Christ and we are strengthened by the word of God, nourished by the Eucharist and from there we go forth to live the Christian life. So, it’s really the event of the week, every Sunday.”

Despite the fact that the Basilica is ornate with detail, Rocca said he tries to focus on making sure that the basic parts of the Mass are executed well.

“My little mantra is, ‘Nothing fancy, just the Roman Rite’ … if we do the Roman Rite well — if lectors proclaim the word well, if servers serve well, if the musicians perform well, sing well, if the presider leads the community prayerfully and well, then, that allows all the people there to really enter into that spirit of prayerfulness because everything they see is prayerful,” he said.

Fr. Brian Ching, assistant rector of the Basilica, said Rocca’s dedication to making the celebration of the liturgy a prayerful experience is one of his most admirable qualities.

“I think the best part of working with Fr. Rocca is probably his enthusiasm and knowledge of the liturgy, and his zeal for wanting to do the liturgy well,” Ching said. “It’s evident that he cares really deeply about wanting to make sure people have the best experience and most prayerful experience that they can at Mass or anytime they’re at the Basilica and that energy is really infectious.”  

John Zack, University sacristan, said Rocca’s commitment to serving Notre Dame through worship extends far beyond the walls of the Basilica.

“I admire Fr. Rocca’s dedication to his vocation,” Zack said in an email. “He is first, above everything else, a priest and teacher. He says Masses all over campus, hears confessions, performs weddings and baptisms. He subs for other priests as well.”

Rocca said that one of his most memorable experiences as Basilica rector was the planning and celebration of the life of University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh.

“Probably the most wonderful funeral I’ve ever celebrated was the funeral of Fr. Theodore Hesburgh,” he said. “I have never seen a funeral like that ever in my life, but I attended 10 meetings about the funeral, along with a whole host of other people. So it was a whole team that worked together to provide that funeral for a priest who was legendary.”

Zack echoed Rocca’s sentiment, saying that one of his best memories with the rector was Hesburgh’s funeral Mass.

“My best memories with Fr. Rocca are all of the many, many services we’ve worked together but the one that especially comes to mind is the funeral of Fr. Hesburgh,” he said.

Ching will be stepping into Rocca’s role as Basilica rector beginning July 1.

Ching said that he is excited for the opportunity to care for one of Notre Dame’s most treasured places.

“I’m looking forward to just being of service to the Notre Dame community,” he said. “I recognize that the Basilica is a very special place for a lot of people — both our students, our faculty and staff, our alumni and our guests. And they all come to the Basilica for a variety of different reasons, and it’s kind of a big responsibility that very special place on our campus and in our history is well taken care of — is open, is welcoming, is hospitable and continues to be a place of spiritual nourishment for all who visit it.”

As for Rocca, he said even though he will be retiring as rector, he will continue to devote time to his many other jobs and commitments at Notre Dame, including teaching classes in the Master of Divinity curriculum, serving as chaplain for the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program and more.

“See, I’m really not retiring, I’m really stepping down from being rector,” he said. “But I have a whole host of other things that I do … I won’t be sitting around twiddling my thumbs.”  

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About Claire Rafford

Claire is a senior from Tempe, Arizona majoring in English and minoring in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy and Business-Economics. She peaked when her team won the Battle of the Books state championship in 2011.

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