From the mountain ranges of Catalonia to the plains of Notre Dame

From the mountain ranges of Catalonia to the plains of Notre Dame… I had the chance to chat with Father Peter Rocca, a Holy Cross priest and Rector of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, about his life and work so far. In addition to serving in these two roles, Rocca also serves as the chaplain of the Notre Dame Liturgical Choir. Not missing the opportunity to embrace the choir’s international tour in over twenty years, Rocca found himself once more in Spain this spring break. As he and I were waiting to board the flight back to the states, we grabbed cafés con leche and snagged snug leather seats. Sipping as calmly as he could amidst thirty-plus rambunctious collegiate choristers, Rocca disclosed his earthly pilgrimage to me.

First, I found out that Rocca had been introduced to the Congregation of Holy Cross from a young age. Originally hailing from Chicago, Rocca witnessed his two older brothers attend Notre Dame High School in Niles, Illinois. Seeing his brothers’ formation among the C.S.C. brothers and priests and listening to the music played during liturgies kindled in Rocca a desire to attend the seminary when the time came, which fanned a potential fire in him for the priesthood.

Rocca recalled, “In fourth grade I started discerning [the priesthood].” Rocca attributed this discernment primarily to his music lessons two years earlier. “In second grade I started taking piano lessons,” he said. Outside of his home context, he took informal organ lessons. Rocca explained, “The good nuns had me play the organ,” encouraging him to pursue liturgical music further. Rocca later took their advice to heart while in graduate school. Here, he practiced organ on the side under the direction of a Holy Cross Sister. Here, he realized, “I loved music and the liturgy and was introduced to many priests who were very happy in their priesthood.”

While it was still up and running, Rocca enrolled in and attended the Holy Cross High School Seminary at Notre Dame. “I was there for four years,” he said. “I spent one year as a novice in Jordan, Minnesota. We didn’t see the grass from September 1 until May 1.”

We both predicted that the same phenomenon will come to fruition in South Bend this year. With a slow sip, long pause, and gaze off down the moving walkway, he continued.

“After the novitiate, I returned to Notre Dame and lived at Moreau Seminary for my four years as an undergraduate student, while I majored in history and minored in philosophy.” Knowing that such liberal arts education entailed a fair dose of critical reading and writing, I was curious to know whether he chose to write a senior thesis. He did, and on a topic that awed me once more. Rocca relaid, “I wrote my thesis through the history department on the ecclesiology of Pius II, a 15th century pope.” Not quite through with Notre Dame after he turned this thesis in, Rocca stayed for three more years in formation, earning a master’s degree in Theology and professing perpetual vows in the Congregation of Holy Cross in 1973.

Following his profession, Rocca’s first assignment as a deacon was within the community of St. Ignatius Martyr Parish in Austin, Texas, 200 miles away from his parents’ new home in Dallas, Texas. During his diaconate year, Rocca’s mother was dying from emphysema. Although his mother could not attend, his priestly ordination was held at St. Ignatius on June 1, 1975. His family flew to see her a day later.

As the middle child of five children, Rocca explained his family dynamics, Notre Dame connections, and the difficulty his family had when his mother and father both passed away within two years of his ordination.

“My dad was a C.P.A. at Ernst & Ernst, and helped audit Notre Dame. I didn’t know this until after I entered the Holy Cross Seminary, since he never talked about work around our family. My mother always said, until the day she died, ‘I never knew what he [your father] did [for work].’ It was a surprise to me, then, when I was at seminary at Notre Dame that he called me one day and said, ‘I’m at Notre Dame interviewing for E&E, do you have any lunch plans?’”

Another “surprised by dad” story Rocca told regarded an old cassock. According to legend (as told by Rocca), seminarians “beg” elder members of the congregation for their old cassocks, enabling older priests to get new ones first. “My first cassock,” Rocca recalled, “was the Executive Vice President’s cassock. My dad ‘begged’ on my behalf.”

Other ND tidbits? Rocca’s sister was part of the first class of women in 1973, and she married the valedictorian of 1972. He has had four nieces and nephews attend Notre Dame as well.

After serving the church in Texas, Rocca studied at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where he received master’s degrees in liturgical music and liturgical studies in 1980. Rocca’s next assignment was as on the Formation Staff at the Moreau Seminary. He became the Director of Liturgy there, and saw the postulants and vowed seminarians through from the 1980s onward.

In 1984, Rocca transitioned to the role Vice President of Student Affairs, where he oversaw the operations of the counseling center, health center, student activities office, band, Irish guard, and offices in between for twelve years. He said, “It’s ironic that, although I worked with student affairs, most of my work was dealing with directors – not students. The most difficult thing was being on the judicial hearings for student infractions. We banned the rugby team in perpetuity, although that has since been rescinded…Same with the Irish Guard, which was totally separate from the Band at that time.”

When one of Rocca’s classmates became bishop in 1997, he asked Rocca to become the Rector of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. Rocca welcomed this change of pace, and continues to serve as Rector today, while serving as the general editor of Paulist Press’ Ordo, a consultant for the U.S.C.C.B.’s Committee on Divine Worship, and the Liturgical Choir’s chaplain on the side.

Hearing all this, I wondered how Fr. Rocca could go on with just one cup of coffee – and so close to Holy Week!

Tierney is a senior studying the Program of Liberal Studies and theology, with a minor in business economics. She misses the Spanish land, especially the lush-laden Adriatic beaches and ever-ancient atmosphere. To fund her next pilgrimage, please venmo @Tierney_Vrdolyak or contact her at before her Notre Dame email expires next month.