A Pilgrimage Across the Bay

A Catholic school boy's reflections on Easter and the new pope


I make a pilgrimage each year during Holy Week, not to Rome, but to San Francisco. This year will be special. The Catholics have a new pope — just in time for Easter. The fact that the new pontiff hails from the New World surprised me. His choice of his name astonished me. He will be the first pope to bear the name of my favorite saint.

I was raised a Catholic in Greenbelt, Md., 13 miles north of our Nation's Capital. Long-suffering Holy Cross nuns put up with me for eight years of grade school. For four years of high school I stood under the tutelage of Trinitarian priests and brothers. But the Franciscans made the deepest impression on my psyche. I looked forward with a sense of enchantment to frequent family trips to the Franciscan monastery on Quincy Street in Washington D.C. The place has catacombs and gardens to explore and get lost in. Replicas of places in far-away Rome and Jerusalem fascinated me.

The Franciscan priests there impressed me so much that I entered the Capuchin Franciscan seminary after eighth grade. I did not return for my second year, but I carried a message within me that we all need to look out after each other. "All means all," I remember Father Damien saying at the seminary, "from the greatest to the small." Father Damien's rhyme has stuck with me and resonates when I see someone in need.

"Remember Francis," was one of Father Damien's mantras.

I lived in Europe for nine years. I visited every country but Sweden. I only made one pilgrimage, though, and that was to Assisi, Francis' hometown in Italy.

Francis was everywhere in this small hill town. You could sense his presence. I could hear Father Damien's words echoing within, "Remember Francis." In 1987 my work brought me to the American city that bears Francis' name. I visited his church on Vallejo Street. I was disappointed when the archdiocese shuttered the building in 1992 — too few parishioners, too great an earthquake hazard, they said. The church remained locked for six years. It reopened in 1998, much to my delight, as a shrine to St. Francis.

Ten years later, Angela Alioto spearheaded a movement to bring something very special to San Francisco. Since 2008 the church on Vallejo Street has contained La Porziuncola Nuova, (the new Porziuncola) within its walls — a three-quarter scaled replica of a sixth-century Benedictine church that Saint Francis restored when he was a young man. Porziuncola translates as "a small portion of land" and refers to the land the church sat on — land that the Benedictines gave to Francis. Like the Porziuncola in Assisi this replica is enclosed with the walls of a larger church.

Today that shrine is one of the two stops I make on my Holy Week minipilgrimage. I also walk up to Nob Hill to visit the labyrinths — one inside and one outside of Grace Cathedral. I also take in the history of St. Francis' city depicted in the cathedral's murals.

The cathedral has had a labyrinth made of carpet since 1994 and a terrazzo one outdoors since 1995. In 2007 — a year before La Porziuncola Nuova opened at St. Francis church — the cathedral replaced the carpet labyrinth with one made of limestone and marble. Lauren Artress introduced these labyrinths to San Francisco, modeled after the one in Chartres Cathedral in France.

This year's mini-pilgrimage will be special. The new pope has chosen a special name; perhaps it will mean the start of a new, more tolerant era for all Catholics across the globe.

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