The 800th anniversary of the birth of St. Francis of Assisi was the occasion of a remarkably beautiful celebration last night at the Cathedral of St. Matthew. Joining forces were the Catholic University's Orchestra and Male Chorus, organist Wojciech Wojtasiewicz, baritone David Beckwitt and soprano Mildred Allen in particularly gorgeous voice. Rare music was performed with even rarer joy, and this birthday party will be remembered for many years to come.

Few of the church's saints are as well loved as St. Francis. At the cathedral of Assisi he shed his possessions but retained his vision of beauty and of love. In his Psalm for Christmas Eve he wrote that "In that day the Lord sent his mercy, and in that night his song . . . so sing Him a new canticle, sing throughout the earth." And song there was.

The Sonata No. 7 by Gianbattista Martini was followed by a work from a better known Franciscan, the Abbe' Franz Liszt. His setting of St. Francis' "Canticle of the Sun" gave a romantic vision in praise of Brother Sun and Sister Moon and countless other blessings. This was followed by Charles Loeffler's setting of the same canticle, a most lovely and unusual score. While Liszt did not set the verses on death, Loeffler reveled in their beauty, and his "Canticle" resounds with Gregorian resignation and ineffable pleasure. The program closed with three scenes from the Massine ballet "Nobilissima Visione," which composer Paul Hindemith later renamed "St. Francis."

Inside St. Matthew's, the canticle is inscribed in marble underneath colorful mosaics representing the Umbrian Valley. The sung verses were at home here, and the music rose not as a sacrifice on an altar but as an act of sharing among brothers and sisters in peace. St. Francis would have blessed them all.