When Chris Berke arranged for the choirs of St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church to travel to Rome to have an audience with the pope last month, he told those making the pilgrimage that it would be an experience they would never forget.
For Michele DiLuzio, it was just that.
"The audience with the pope was fantastic," DiLuzio said shortly after the two-week trip concluded. "When they announced our parish, we popped up and played our piece, and he was very pleased. He raised his hands in the air, giving the little salute that he does, and thanked us. It was really, really great."
DiLuzio, 44, who directs the church's 12-member bell choir, accompanied six of its members to the papal audience, including her parents. A total of 54 people traveled to Rome with Berke, the church's director of music ministries, including members of his voice choir and several other parishioners.
The gloomy weather wasn't suitable for an audience in the open air of St. Peter's Square, so the thousands waiting to see Pope Benedict XVI on Jan. 16 were directed into the 15,000-seat Paul VI Audience Hall.
Before the pope came into the room, there was time for the choirs to practice. Practicing, DiLuzio said, helped them remain calm.
"We had gotten there early so we could get aisle seats, but when he came in, he didn't come down the middle aisle," DiLuzio said. "He was zigzagging to shake hands. The whole room was disappointed in that. But we were right up front, and so we had a perfect view of him."
When it was their turn, the choir members sang Christus Vincit under Berke's direction while DiLuzio's group played hand chimes in accompaniment. It was all over in about a minute.
"I was worried they would be so excited that they wouldn't be able to concentrate," DiLuzio said of her bell choir. "But both the choir and my group did a fantastic job. They just nailed that piece for the pope."
It was the trip of a lifetime for DiLuzio, a data entry operator at Deltona Elementary School and assistant conductor and principal trumpet player for the Hernando Symphony Orchestra. Not only did she fulfill her dream of performing for the pope, but she also was able to be with her parents while they visited the land of their ancestors.
"Rome itself was it for me," she said. "They could have left me there the entire two weeks and picked me up on the way home and I would have been happy. I absolutely loved it, and I hated to leave."
The trip included tours of several cities, with the group performing at a Mass each day. For the Floridians, the chilly, overcast weather was not very welcoming.
"In Rome, it rained every day," DiLuzio said. "There were a couple of hours one day when it didn't rain, but when it comes down, it comes down in buckets. The farther north we got, the colder it got. By the time we got to Venice, we were supposed to be there for 12 hours, and we lasted for three. It was so bitterly cold that we could barely move, and with the wind blowing and the tide rising, there was a danger of flooding. They say they flood 250 days out of the year, especially when there's a full moon, and there was a full moon that night. The people there all had their boards ready that they walk on with the stilt legs."
Most of the days were spent on a bus, traveling from one church to another.
"We would get out and play at this place and then get back on the bus and go to the hotel and get up the next morning and go to another place, so that was kind of a rush," DiLuzio said.
Despite the hardships, DiLuzio said performing at so many beautiful churches and basilicas was a moving and spiritual experience.
The group played at the Church of St. Cecilia near central Rome.
"She is the patron saint of musicians, so for me, playing there was right up there really close to playing for the pope. It was beautiful. All the churches were beautiful."
DiLuzio said she hopes to go back to Rome one day as a tourist.
"I was not nearly done with Rome yet," she said.