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New York basilica’s ‘Vespers with Seven Copes’ reveals Catholic beauty of Mozart

When combined with an exquisite Catholic liturgy – such as Solemn Vespers with Seven Copes and Benediction – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s transcendent works can both astonish and inspire participants spiritually and musically.

For Patricia Perales, a recent experience of Vespers with Seven Copes at her parish, the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in New York City, felt “like we were being taken back in time,” she said.

“These kinds of cultural, spiritual, community events, where you bring everything together – the culture, the music, the spirituality and then bring the community together – I think that’s something fantastic,” she said.

The special liturgy was held on the Sept. 14 feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which commemorates the fourth-century dedication of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, “when the true cross was brought out for the people to venerate In Jerusalem,” explained James Griffin, director of the Durandus Institute for Sacred Liturgy & Music.

Griffin acted as the first master of ceremonies for the liturgy, which was followed by veneration of a relic of the true cross.

The “seven copes” refers to the liturgical cloaks work by the celebrant and the six clerics who assist him during vespers, the Church’s evening prayer service. The event began with the first movement of one of three “concerti” by Mozart, later flowing into “Vesperae solennes” from the composer, who was Catholic and produced many works for the liturgy.

“We wanted to make it especially festive using the music of two of Mozart’s orchestral arrangements for solemn vespers,” Griffin said. “Mozart wrote his music for the older, pre-Vatican II form of the Divine Office.”

Jared Lamenzo, the basilica’s music director, explained in the liturgy’s program notes, “These works of art music were, and still are, part of a living tradition, where such art was also a functional part of ritual.”

“It was a real privilege to help put together this solemn vespers, in its full splendor,” he said. “The choir and orchestra were thrilled at the experience. It is hard to top Mozart. He understands the text on a profound level, and we endeavored to highlight that aspect of the music.”

The feast of the Holy Cross and the special vespers coincided with the first night of the Feast of San Gennaro, celebrated in New York City’s Little Italy since 1926. St. Gennaro – patron saint of Naples, which many of the immigrants living on legendary Mulberry Street once called home – was an Italian bishop martyred in 305.

What began as a one-day occasion on the saint’s feast day in Little Italy has since morphed into an 11-day block party and destination event, attracting a million visitors who flock to the festival for food, music, a parade, processions and Mass.

Facing Mulberry Street, St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral automatically becomes part of the San Gennaro festival. The Solemn Vespers with Seven Copes included Italian composers Baldassare Galuppi, Luigi Cherubini and Vincenzo Bellini in a nod to the festival underway.

“Our rector, Father (Enrique) Salvo, actually went straight from blessing the festival booths, walking down Mulberry Street in cassock and surplice, to vespers,” Griffin said.

The Exaltation of the Holy Cross is an important feast for two of the organizations that sponsored and collaborated with the event – the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre and the Order of Malta, many of whose members and officials attended.

“This was a feast that brought some of our Catholic orders of knighthood together,” said Griffin, a Knight of Malta.

Dr. Michael Espiritu – a neonatologist, basilica parishioner, Knight of Malta and Knight Commander of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre – served as the second master of ceremonies.

“One of the things that is expected of a Church, when it is granted the title of ‘basilica’” – a designation St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral received in 2010 – “is that it sets an example for beautiful liturgy, not only in the Mass, but also in the Liturgy of the Hours, the latter of which is hard to find these days,” said Espiritu.

The former cathedral of the Archdiocese of New York, the Basilica of St. Patrick’s was built between 1809-1815 and served as the archdiocese’s mother Church until St. Patrick’s Cathedral opened in midtown Manhattan in 1879.

“That is part of the reason we chose to celebrate solemn vespers,” Espiritu said. “Back when this Church was the cathedral of New York and the center of a thriving immigrant community here in Little Italy, if you walked into the Church on the afternoon of a Sunday or important feast day, you’d see vespers – or evening prayer – being sung. So, we wanted to recreate that and to expose people to this ancient and beautiful prayer of the Church.”

Perales, an actor, had urged a non-Catholic friend to join her for the unique spiritual and musical opportunity. “I said, ‘Just go!’” she recalled.

She was impressed by the evening’s sense of unity, which included a post-performance reception in the basilica’s courtyard. She observed that the liturgy drew many people from outside the parish.

“I think it was new for a lot of people, and I think that’s beautiful,” she said. “It’s something that should continue.”