The Franciscans must love June! That's the month of their beloved Saint Anthony of Padua whose feast we celebrate Friday, and the month of the first apparition at Medjugorje. Aside from Assisi, one of the most famous Franciscan shrines has to be Medjugorje where the Franciscans operate St. James Church and neighboring parishes in Bosnia-Hercegovina. Many of these Franciscans are familiar names to those in the Marian movement - Father Jozo Zovko, Father Svetozar Kralijec, Father Slavko Barbaric, and many others. But this weekend June takes on even more significance in Franciscan annals as more Friars Minor will become better known and the focus of the world may well shift to another Franciscan site halfway around the world from Medjugorje. For us it's practically a stone's throw, seven miles away. We're talking about the King of California Missions San Luis Rey Mission along Highway 76 in Oceanside, California. The "new" Franciscan on the scene is Father Ben Innes, guardian of the Mission. The reason for the "fuss" will be a first. You see the Mission officially celebrates its 200th birthday since being founded in 1798 on Friday, feast of St. Anthony. For the centerpiece of their bicentennial celebration and through the efforts of a Jewish conductor from Brooklyn, they will bring the Vatican Choir to sing in the old mission church as well as the new 1,400 seat Serra Center on the grounds of the Mission.
What makes this so unique is it will be the first time ever that the renowned Capella Giulia of St. Peter's Basilica or Julian Choir, better known as the Vatican Choir, will perform in the United States. It derives its name from its founder, Pope Julius II, the 216th successor in the line of Peter who completed the construction of the Basilica of Saint Peter, convened the eighteenth Ecumenical Council and was a great connoisseur of the arts. One of his contributions, in fact one of his final legacies before he died on February 21, 1513 was to found the Cappella Giulia ensemble with the specific purpose of providing a vehicle exclusively for Italian men to exhibit their soprano, alto, bass and other range voices in melodius harmony for the honor and glory of God. Today they do not have to be Italian, though the majority still are such as many generational, with their ancestors having sung in the choir hundreds of years ago. Pope Julian, born in Savona, Italy, found it necessary, because of his love for the arts and his Italian roots, to foster Italian music in the face of other cultural music that was permeating the Vatican. When he began the choir, America was still a non-entity, rather a land of legend that was just reaching the ears of the Renaissance people in Italy. The Franciscans were going strong but one who would leave his mark on the California coast of this new land - Blessed Junipero Serra was still exactly 200 years from being born.
Now, 485 years after Julian's proclamation of the new choir they are finally coming to the United States. In fact, it is the first time ever the choir has left European soil! Though Blessed Serra did not actually found the San Luis Rey Mission in 1798, for he died on August 28, 1784, he had spoken often of it and planted the seeds of establishing a mission in Oceanside through his able assistant
Father Fermin Francisco de Lasuen,who, on June 13, 1798 established San Luis Rey as the eighteenth mission in California. It soon became known as the "King of the Missions."
Serra established the first California Mission in 1769 at Mission Alcala in San Diego and passed over the site of the future San Luis Rey Mission, but the unrest among the Indians there prevented him from establishing the mission there at the time. He "bookmarked" it and traveled on to San Carlos, the second of 21 missions to be established. Over the next fifteen years he would trek up and down California establishing and revisiting missions he had established with his faithful friar Fr. Lasuen with him.
Today the mission still resembles the majestic structure Lasuen envisioned and it will be echoing with the Choir's rhythms via a Joseph Haydn Mass on June 13 celebrated by Bishop Robert Brom of San Diego. Conductor Levine, no stranger to the Holy See, claims the Vatican Choir "is the musical heart and soul of St. Peter's." He sites that the choir performs there every Sunday once during Holy Mass. Levine's paths have crossed the Holy Father's numerous times, the first in 1987 when he was appointed artistic director and principal conductor for the Polish city of John Paul II's birth - the Krakow Philharmonic. The Holy Father has kept in touch with Levine over the years, most recently sending congratulatory wishes on the occasion of his son's barmitzvah.
The concept for the Vatican Choir, which Levine had always wanted to bring to the states, evolved from a plane trip he took. There next to him was an ad exec from Orange County who talked about doing something to really promote the Mission's bicentennial. Levine knew just the ticket and the rest, as they say, will be history...bringing history to this historic mission - nearly five hundred years of history. Yes, it truly will be an historic event when this historic choir, in a historic first, belts forth in song the melodious refrains - all for His honor and glory! We'll be there Saturday along with thousands of others. When was the last time you arrived at the church two hours before Mass was to begin? That's what we'll need to do if we're to get a parking space and seating room either in the small confined old mission church or in the more spacious Serra Center which will be equipped with closed circuit screens and monitors for the Mass and performance, much like the Marian Conferences do with the priests bringing Holy Communion over from the church to distribute to the faithful gathered among the overflow for this very special Mass. Saint Anthony is not only the patron saint of the poor, but also of finding lost things. On the former we definitely qualify, especially if you read Cyndi's article today in Symphony of Suffering. As for the latter, our hope and prayer is that all in attendance will recover that tradition of reverence and liturgical excellence that has filled St. Peter's for nearly five centuries, edifying millions and encouraging them to enhance their faith and join the chorus of angels in a musical tribute to God. After all, what would move you to greater edification? The modern strained strains of the over-used and abused "One Bread, One Body" and/or "Gather us in" or the melodious tones of the celestial concerto echoing forth from the dulcet tones of the world-famous Vatican Choir? We know what the Popes like, and we're in agreement. And if you can tune into Vatican Radio on the web, you'll also have the benefit of hearing these phenomenal choristers perform. Once you hear them, you'll agree: It's a unanimous thumbs up for the Vatican Choir!