Thursday, March 15, 2007

Revelation at Capistrano

Preps are in their final stages for Monday night's liturgy at California's Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano marking the unveiling of the historic shrine's new retablo, or altar screen.

The $2 million backpiece, created in Spain and brought to the Left Coast by boat, is the first project of its kind to be completed in a US church in decades. Topping out at 41 feet high by 30 across, the all-cedar work is completely carved in accord in the ancient style of craftsmanship, and adorned with 23 karat goldleaf.

The central figures are an antique depiction of the Godhead and, below, an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe replicated exactly from a 17th century version of the famed Mexican image. On its sides are the figures of Bl Junipero Serra, the founder of the California missions (depicted holding a miniature of the basilica); the "Lily of the Mohawks" Bl Kateri Tekakwitha, patroness of Native Americans, in tribute to the remaining indigenous population in the area; St Joseph, the patron of the universal church, and St Francis of Assisi, to whose spiritual sons the evangelization of California was eventually entrusted.

Weighing in at 14 tons, the retablo is the product of 14 months of construction by a studio outside Madrid. It's taken a month to assemble in the sanctuary of the 1987 basilica church, and with its arrival comes the institution of a matching altar and ambo, and new lighting and sound systems for the replica of Serra's original "great stone church." As Monday's solemnity of St Joseph marks the traditional "return of the swallows" to the mission, the famous flock are also commemorated in the project; 50 handmade swallows decorate the screen.

Above the Guadalupe image, a small hook has been hidden for the suspension of a handmade crown. While Monday's event, complete with civic officials, marks the community's "reclaiming" of the sanctuary following the backpiece's assemblage, the final piece of its completion will wait until 21 July, when the new altar is formally consecrated and, literally, the crowning event will be performed by Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

A California native, Levada will serve as the specially-appointed papal legate to the celebrations.

Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano