When I heard that Archbishop Cordileone would be leading a Eucharistic Procession through the streets of San Francisco, I knew I had to be there. This move was a cri du Coeur, to draw attention to the plight of San Francisco’s Catholics, who until just this week have been limited by City Hall to outdoor Masses with only 12 people. This…in a city with just under half a million Catholics.
Though this strict limit was recently lifted to 50 people in attendance, and promises have been given by Mayor London Breed that indoor services may soon be allowed for 25 people, the disparity of treatment between the Church and local businesses—both essential and non-essential—remains glaring. To allow a mere 25 people inside a Cathedral with a capacity of 2500, while allowing shopping centers to operate at 25% capacity is, in Archbishop Cordileone’s own words, “an insult.”
As this subject is one very near and dear to my heart, I dropped everything and made my way to San Francisco to join my heart and voice to the prayers that would be offered there. In a profound nod to the Trinity, the procession was to begin at three different parishes located in three different quarters of the city: St. Anthony of Padua in the Mission District, St. Patrick Church in the SoMa district, and St. Dominic’s Church near Japantown. All three groups would convene in UN Plaza at 10AM and process together to the Cathedral for Mass.
Fortunately, I called ahead for more information, and discovered that the third location had been changed to Star of the Sea Parish in the Richmond District. Having heard of this church and its pastor, Fr. Joseph Illo, I chose to begin the day there.
The group that gathered to set off from this parish was smaller than I had expected: between 50-100 people joined the route. However, one can hardly judge this turnout, considering that the walk ahead of us to reach UN Plaza was 3.2 miles up and down hill. So these were truly brave hearts.
With such a long haul, it made sense that we did not treat this leg of the journey as a Eucharistic Procession. Wearing cassock and surplice (and a baseball hat), the gregariously friendly Fr. Illo led us in prayer as we took to the sidewalks with crosses, flags and placards reading “We are Essential: Free the MASS!” No doubt if Father had tried to carry a heavy monstrance that whole way, he would have needed the assistance of Aaron and Hur to hold his arms up.
Shortly after leaving the parish, a local police officer spoke to Father and he explained our mission. The officer volunteered his phone number in case we needed assistance, but then a few minutes later, he and his partner began following us, pulling into the intersections as we crossed to help ensure that our group stayed safe. On and off over the next hour, they checked back in with us to see that we were still doing well. We thanked them for their care of us.
When we finally arrived at UN Plaza with sore feet but smiling faces, all 15 decades of the Rosary recited, a sizable group awaited with colorful banners representing various parishes throughout the city. The contingent from the Mission District was led by Fr. Moises Agudo, who began bravely defying the city’s unreasonable restrictions back in June. After seeing over 10,000 people gathered—without masks—for violent protests in nearby Mission Dolores Park, he chose to proceed with celebrating indoor Masses in accordance with the Archdiocese’s reopening plan. He was later forced by the city to close the gates of the outdoor patio adjoining St. Peter’s Church once 12 people had entered—despite its ability to hold 200 or more with social distancing. Dozens remained in the street outside the gates to hear the Mass, and when officials complained, he justly asserted that he was simply following their rules…and that what happened in the street due to his being forced to lock the gates was the city’s problem.
Naturally, members of all three parishes pastored by Fr. Agudo faithfully joined in the march: these included St. Anthony, St. Peter and St. Charles Borromeo. At 2.3 miles, this group’s trek was only slightly shorter than ours. I think it is fair to say that among all the attendees of the procession, those of Hispanic background clearly dominated; however, I would guess that nearly every ethnicity was likely represented amongst the eager and devoted faces. It was hard to estimate numbers, but various counts provided by Archdiocesan authorities and the police put the attendance at somewhere between 1500 and 3000 souls.
As this melting pot of San Francisco’s Catholics, many wearing religious habits or cassocks and surplices, faced City Hall holding Our Lord in the monstrance, we were not alone. Several other unrelated groups had gathered as well, including one group who seemed to be practicing Zumba to loud music. They did not react at all kindly when someone in our group requested that they temporarily turn down the volume, and a distraction was caused by the tumult, making it difficult to hear as Archbishop Cordileone arrived and briefly addressed us. However, cooler heads eventually prevailed and the procession began without any further trouble, this time taking to the street with a proper police escort as befitted such a large and dignified group.
The good news was that this leg of our journey was only ¾ of a mile; the bad news was that it was mostly uphill. Nothing daunted, all followed our Eucharistic Lord happily, reciting the rosary variously in English and Spanish. Though the absence of any Eucharistic hymns was notable, we did sing “O Sacrament Most Holy, O Sacrament Divine! All praise and all thanksgiving be every moment Thine!” in between our decades of the Rosary.
We did encounter several hecklers throughout our journey, despite the fact that most were careful to wear masks (as required even outdoors in San Francisco). Part of the group even carried ropes to show how carefully they were observing social distancing, but the presence of large family groups and those eager to push ahead made it extremely difficult to remain a regulation 6 feet apart at all times. The media were of course quick to point this out. (I don’t recall the media worrying about this at all when the object of protests met with their politically correct approval…)
As the procession reached the Cathedral at around 10:45, people began streaming into the plaza to find a spot for Mass. All had been carefully prepared, with various altars labeled according to language and X’s marked on the pavement to indicate the proper distancing for 50 people at each. With 18 Masses being offered simultaneously, this meant accommodation for 900 people; the rest remained on the street outside the roped-off area.
I found a spot but then realized it was for a Spanish Mass, and as I moved forward, each open spot filled before I could reach it, until I found myself all the way in the front, at the altar where the Archbishop himself was to say Mass. I looked around and saw no other openings, so though I felt guilty taking such a place of honor, it was either this or the sidewalk. God forgive me; I probably should have chosen to go to the foot of the table.
Each Mass paused after the Gospel so that Archbishop Cordileone could give the homily, which was broadcast by loudspeaker throughout the plaza, first in Spanish, then in English. His forceful words left no uncertainty about the unequal treatment the Catholic Church has received at the hands of local authorities. While Catholic Charities, the St. Vincent de Paul Society and various parishes throughout the area have continued their work for the poor, the homeless and the downtrodden without interruption throughout the pandemic, similar secular services closed their doors in fear. Policymakers have been more than happy to accept the Catholic contribution toward the physical needs of its citizens, yet they have refused to even give an answer to repeated requests that a reopening plan for Churches be approved, so that spiritual needs may also be met.
Though the Archbishop’s remarks were made within the context of a homily, those assembled could not help bursting into enthusiastic applause throughout. After so many months of repressive treatment, these voices cried out to be heard. Thus it was a thankful crowd that received Communion when it was time; none were denied, even if they had been forced to hear Mass on the sidewalk, nor if they chose to receive on the tongue.
After the services ended, many of the faithful made their way to the front, and the Archbishop made the media wait for his remarks while he greeted them and received their many thanks and promises of prayer.
I spoke to a pair of policemen there in the plaza afterwards; they were very friendly and extremely supportive of the event and its message. Being on the front lines of the unrest that has gripped our nation in the wake of the shutdowns, they seemed to view a return to our churches to be a return to sanity. Without the stabilizing influence of religion, many have become untethered. It is past time.
Though this event may seem related only to the troubles of one group of people in one state, whereas many of us have been allowed to attend Mass with relative freedom for months, it is crucial that Catholics everywhere take notice of this struggle and lend whatever voice and aid we can to this fight. We are the Mystical Body of Christ, and when one member suffers, all suffer.
One easy way all of us can show our support is to sign the petition here: https://www.benedictinstitute.org/liftunfairrestrictions/
Already as of September 18th, this petition had 7,661 signatures; now that Sunday’s procession has been in the media around the world, I am sure it has many, many more.
Another way we all need to begin showing our concern for our Church and for our Nation is by following the example that has now been set, first in Madison, Wisconsin; now in San Francisco, and soon to be seen in Springfield, Illinois and other cities around the country. That is, our bishops need to be spearheading prayerful public Eucharistic processions like this to display the Sacramental life of our Faith and to beseech our Lord to show us His Mercy. The organizers of the Madison procession have created a website that provides all the information and planning needed for any parish or diocese to organize such an event. You can also visit that website to see if any events are currently being planned in your area.
Please consider attending one of these Eucharistic processions in person. Our prayers are desperately needed, and in times of trouble, our Church has traditionally prayed not merely with our lips and on our knees, but with our feet. We need to “step up” our prayer lives now, for the sake of our families, our parishes, our Catholic faith, and our entire nation.