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On pilgrimage: ‘God has better plans than we do’

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Nearly 4,000 Catholics came together in San Francisco Sunday afternoon to walk with the Eucharist across the Golden Gate Bridge, taking the first steps on one of four walking pilgrimages across the country this year, part of the USCCB-sponsored Eucharistic revival project.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone carries the Eucharist outside San Francisco’s Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption, ahead of a May 19 Eucharistic procession. Credit: Br. Chris Garcia OFM Conv. Catholic Voice Diocese of Oakland.

The pilgrims were young and old, they spoke at least a handful of languages, they were priests, sisters, lay people, and bishops. There were babies in strollers, people in wheelchairs, old women with canes, and newlyweds, striding hand-in-hand. Some lived just minutes from the bridge, others came great distances to walk and pray with their fellow Catholics.

They were led by San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, who walked across the bridge carrying a monstrance, as seminarians carried candles, and people prayed the rosary behind him. At one point, the procession stretched the entire length of the bridge, more than 1.7 miles. It took more than an hour to cross.

The day began with Mass in San Francisco’s Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption, attended by more than 2,500 people. Among them were the eight young pilgrims, two of them seminarians, who will travel by foot and van, from San Francisco to the National Eucharistic Congress, to be held this July in Indianapolis. Also there were the CFR Franciscan priests who will participate in the pilgrimage in pairs, taking week-long shifts with the walkers.

Pilgrims in traditional Korean clothing attend Mass at the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption in San Francisco, May 19. Credit: JD Flynn

There were Catholics at the Mass from dioceses across California, there were Missionaries of Charity, Little Sisters of the Poor, and Carmelites, who came up from Los Angeles. It was a two-hour Mass - the Mass for Pentecost, and to kick off the pilgrimage. The cathedral debuted a Mass setting, the “Mass for Eucharistic Renaissance,” written for the occasion by composer Frank La Rocca.

In his homily, delivered in English and earnest Spanish, Cordileone said the pilgrimage was an invitation to the “way of love,” in a life of Christian discipleship.

Calling Pentecost a “torrent of God’s grace,” Cordileone urged Catholics to follow Christ “not simply across the Golden Gate Bridge,” but along a path of life — “the way that reaps the sweet fruits of the Spirit, the way that has the power to change history, to change hearts, to bring the life of heaven to earth, and to bring us the sweet fruit of heaven when we pass from this life to the next.”

From the Mass, pilgrims walked, with the archbishop carrying the Lord in a monstrance, past homes worth millions, and past small groups sitting cross-legged on the sun-soaked sidewalks, passing needles, and sharing pipes.

The pilgrims stopped traffic. One woman pulled over a Tesla and started filming, swearing under her breath. Children stopped to gawk. A few cars honked approvingly, with drivers making the sign of the cross as they sped by.

The route for the pilgrimage changed just hours before it began. 

While a permit had been secured for the Golden Gate Bridge, bridge authorities told procession organizers on Saturday that the pedestrian crossing of the bridge would need to be completed much earlier in the day than was expected. This saw organizers cut most of the city walk from the route, sending pilgrims walking from the cathedral to another church, and then hopping in buses to the bridge.

The change gave the day, planned meticulously and carefully by a committee of organizers, something of an ad hoc feel. One organizer laughingly called it “beautiful chaos.”

Cordileone and the “perpetual pilgrims” — the young people walking to Indianapolis — arrived at the bridge much sooner than some of the buses, and began walking. When they got to the bridge, authorities told them that the canopy carried over the monstrance couldn’t make the crossing — a large bolt of silk held aloft by poles, it would have been essentially a sail in the high winds of the bridge, and made for a dangerous walk.

The canopy was left behind. Organizers in the archdiocese would try to get it back to the pilgrims for most of the day, even well after the walk itself had concluded. It would take a lot of phone calls to put pilgrims and canopy in the same place.

It was, perhaps, emblematic of the “beautiful chaos” of any good Christian pilgrimage — where the best laid plans give way to the circumstances on the ground — and a trust that whatever happens is the path of Providence — the movement of the Holy Spirit. 

Pilgrimages are personal journeys — invitations into a period of prayer and Christian discipleship. And every pilgrim has a story. A way that God touched him, perhaps.

Even a reporter like me, who hopes to be an impartial observer, can be pulled into his own walk with the Lord. 

There were almost 4,000 pilgrims making their way across the Golden Gate Bridge on Pentecost Sunday. Here are some of their stories — including mine. 

Pilgrims process in San Francisco during the May 19 Eucharistic procession. Credit: Br. Chris Garcia OFM Conv. Catholic Voice Diocese of Oakland.

My own “Eucharistic pilgrimage” began early Sunday morning, with a 6:30 flight from my home in Colorado to San Francisco’s airport, where I planned to take a cab from airport to cathedral, arrive a half hour before the Mass, start doing interviews, and have the makings of a good story by late afternoon. 

The air travel part of that plan went fine. I got on the plane, fell asleep, and awoke in sunny California. I walked to a cab stand; I decided to be curmudgeonly about using an app just to get a ride. I told the first cabbie I saw to get me to the church on time, so to speak.

That’s when my plans went out the window.

There was a footrace in San Francisco on Sunday — the annual “Bay to Breakers” 12k, which proceeds from the San Francisco Bay to Ocean Beach, on the Pacific coast. 

The race is something of a San Francisco festival, at which runners don costumes, some rather colorful, and a contingent of nudists participates as well, while racers are invited by revelers to indulge in keg stands along the way. 

It is, in short, the kind of race which leans hard into San Francisco’s reputation as one of America’s most “out there” cities.  

And for me, it was a terrific inconvenience, because the race meant my cab couldn’t get anywhere close to the cathedral. In fact, my taxi driver stopped about two miles — and one big hill — from the church. He told me it would take another 90 minutes to get there by car.

I opted to walk. 

And I learned something once I got out of the cab.

San Francisco is no joke.  

The city by the bay has in recent years gained a reputation as a kind of tech bro playground, a disneyfied theme park where Silicon Valley wunderkinder drop too much on dinner, hit up Giants games to Instagram them, drop “bro splits” at expensive gyms, and engage in the kind of debauchery that can only be funded by the usurious and exploitive business models of their employers — with San Francisco’s Jacks, Kerouac and London, floating somewhere in the background, and young people adopting the kind of limousine liberalism to which the city’s hippie and “alternative lifestyle” history lends itself. 

It’s often been noted lately that San Francisco has faced a serious housing crunch, and become affordable only to extremely high earners, most of whom work for the Bay Area’s all-consuming tech industry.

When I got out of my cab in the touristed Union Square area, rife with Sunglass Huts and bustling Sunday brunch cafes, I assumed the stereotypes about the city’s evolution were true. 

But San Francisco is more than that.

While the city reported last week that homelessness has reached its lowest level in 10 years, my walk down O’Farrell Street in the city’s Tenderloin District suggested to me that San Francisco is still home to a great deal of human suffering, misery, and depravity.

Tents and sleeping people line some portions of San Francisco’s O’Farrell Street. Credit JD Flynn/Pillar Media.

Portions of the street were lined with tents, many of them surrounded by fetid garbage, where people sleep alongside gutters and sewer drains. The street’s low-income apartments and SRO-style hotels seemed home to people who move in-and-out of homelessness. 

I took few photos.

But on the street, I saw addicts on corners and along buildings, caught in the “dope fiend lean.” In alleys, I saw groups of addicts getting high together with heroin. I watched a prostitute lead a man into a darkened alleyway. I said a prayer for both of them.

As I climbed the hill to the cathedral, one man stopped me, to shout a useful piece of advice into my face.

“Do not fuck with Mike Tyson, man!”

I nodded. 

“Do not be fucking with Tyson.” 

Actually, I understood why he’d given me that advice. And it was good counsel. I have every intention of following it.

I thought about the Eucharistic processions as I walked up O’Farrell Street, watching San Francisco’s unusually shaped cathedral come closer into view. 

In fact I was glad that I began my own pilgrimage well outside the cathedral doors, with a reminder of the suffering of the human condition — a reminder that, like the people I saw on O’Farrell Street, all of us are carrying wounds, and crosses, and sorrow. 

All of us need profoundly the healing, and transformation, and renewal of Christ in the Eucharist. All of us need his salvation. 

But I found myself wondering whether the Eucharistic processions taking place this summer would have much effect on the people living down the hill from the cathedral. 

What is it for, I wondered? Who is it for?

Of course, it’s reasonable, I thought, to say that the Eucharistic pilgrimages are for God alone — that we’re made for worship, meant to love God before all else. And if the pilgrimages are meant as a way of expressing our adoration for God, or better preparing to worship him well, that’s actually enough. That makes it worth it.

But as I finally climbed the hill to the cathedral — and ducked behind some bushes to change my sweaty shirt for Mass — I still wondered about the secondary effects of the Eucharistic pilgrimage. 

I teach my children that people like the ones who live on the streets around the cathedral are God’s people — that in their suffering, their mental illness, their addiction, and their isolation, they are close to the Lord’s own heart, and that he loves them with a special tenderness. 

But I know God loves them enough to want them to be free. 

And I wondered: Could the Eucharistic procession somehow convey to them the freedom that I’ve found in the Eucharist? 

In fact, I wondered, would the procession be meaningful in the life of anyone who didn’t already practice the faith?

Could groups of young people and priests walking across the country, carrying Christ in the Eucharist, make a difference in the lives of people who don’t already know that Jesus Christ is King?

That’s what I wanted to find out.

The day before the Eucharistic procession in San Francisco, I asked Archbishop Cordileone what he thought it might mean for the people of his diocese — both Catholics and non-Catholics.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone carries the Eucharist during a May 19 Eucharistic procession. Credit: Br. Chris Garcia OFM Conv. Catholic Voice Diocese of Oakland. 

The archbishop said that in his estimation, the Eucharistic processions might first touch Catholics who’ve fallen away from the Church, or lost their sense that God might work in their lives through the sacraments. 

“I’m hoping it will rekindle that sort of faith. For people who are far away from the Church, maybe it will take longer to reach them, but for people who don’t always go to Mass, but have some sense of connection with the Church, I’m hoping it will vivify their faith, in all aspects of their lives,” he said.

“The vision is to reawaken Catholic faith in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, that they’ll recapture a sense of the sacred, the awe, and the need to be properly disposed to receive the sacrament,” Cordileone added.

But the archbishop also said that he wouldn’t underestimate the transformative potential of the beauty in a procession like Sunday’s, for anyone who would see it. 

And the archbishop added that he hoped the procession’s participants — mostly practicing Catholics — might be inspired to works of mercy by the experience of walking with the Eucharist.

“[The procession] can’t be a one-time thing. This has to be a catalyst for us to understand the united and healing power of beauty, and then to live out that beauty as it manifests itself in goodness and care for the poor,” he told me.

“When we’re more deeply imbued with the love of Jesus Christ and the Gospel, then we can serve the poor in the way we’re supposed to.”

Fr. Luke Leighton, CFR. Credit: JD Flynn/Pillar Media

Later, at the end of the Eucharistic procession across the Golden Gate Bridge, I talked with Fr. Luke Leighton, CFR.

Leighton, normally in ministry in Albuquerque, New Mexico, had come to San Francisco to do the first week of the walking pilgrimage to Indianapolis, along with another member of his religious community.

I asked him how he thought the pilgrimage might impact people, including those far from the Church.

“The Blessed Sacrament will go from town to town, and in each town there will be local events,” he told me. 

“And those are focusing beautifully on different marginalized communities,” the priest explained, among people who practice the faith without much pastoral care, and among people who might not practice the faith at all.

“We’ll be with the unhoused — homeless people — we’re making a visit to Folsom Prison, we’ll be spending time with migrant workers… The Blessed Sacrament is going to visit each of those communities as we go. And that’s going to be happening all along the country as the pilgrims walk.”

Leighton said he’s trusting that God will work through the pilgrims, and through the witness they give.

“The spirit of pilgrimage is trusting in the Lord. That not only will he provide for me along the way of the pilgrimage, but that he also has my destiny in mind…. We take one step at a time, trusting that the Lord will lead you.”

Leighton said he thought the witness of the pilgrimage might be most effective among Catholics who have stopped practicing the faith, or those who need encouragement.

“What will secular people who are unaware of what the Blessed Sacrament is — what will they take from it? … [They might think] it’s some quaint religious thing. But maybe this is the ‘new evangelization’ — that those who have fallen away will be brought back.”

The priest said that God’s Providence might sow seeds of conversion along the pilgrimage route.

“There’s going to be encounters with people along the way. People that will come out because they’re interested, and will receive something they didn’t expect. And we’ll be provided for by people who will be able to give of themselves, and whenever people give of themselves like that, there’s great gifts involved.

Leighton also emphasized the spiritual power of a Eucharistic pilgrimage, and the fruit that grace might manifest. 

“This [pilgrimage] strengthens all of our faith. Sure, most of the people here are ‘the choir’ — you might say we’re ‘preaching to the choir’ here. But there is power here… there is supernatural grace at work. The fact that the archbishop blessed the city, and blessed the bay, and every single person — all of that has power.”

A pilgrim stops to pray during a May 19 Eucharistic pilgrimage in San Francisco, California. Credit: JD Flynn/Pillar Media.

“There are going to be overflowing consequences of that blessing, an overflow of God’s heart, and of his grace,” the priest added. “The Eucharist is a continual way that Jesus gives of himself. And it’s insofar as he gives of himself that we come to know love.”  

Seminarians and religious sisters aboard a bus during the May 19 during the May 19 Eucharistic procession in the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Credit: JD Flynn/Pillar Media.

Lorenzo Caruso, a seminarian for the San Jose diocese, helped with three other seminarians to carry the canopy held aloft over the monstrance as the pilgrimage began from San Francisco’s cathedral.

Caruso hadn’t been on canopy duty before, and he told The Pillar it was harder than he expected.

“This is going to sound cheesy, but it definitely needs teamwork. We were all kind of pulling away from each other,” Caruso said. “There’s got to be some give and take.”

Laughing, the seminarian conceded that he had missed canopy practice with his fellow seminarians before the procession began — “I was late,” he said, “because I had to get up here from San Jose.”

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone processes below a canopy during a May 19 Eucharistic procession. Credit: JD Flynn/Pillar Media.

The other seminarians carrying the canopy smirked a bit, before I asked Caruso about a more serious topic.

What fruit might the Eucharistic procession bear, I asked. What good would it do as a witness of the Gospel?

Caruso suggested that maybe my approach needed some tweaking. I’d been measuring the procession, assessing it, through the lens of some outcomes I thought especially important. 

But the seminarian suggested looking more broadly, at how God was already at work.

“Realistically,” he said, “the power of prayer — God does his own thing with that.”

“God has better plans than we do. So if we have our plans for the procession, chances are, God has his own as well. And maybe we’re right, but he has his own plans that we don’t know about.”

“So that’s why just praying for his will is the best option.”

I hated to admit it, but that seminarian was probably right. 

But I hadn’t been alone in my approach. 

In the lead-up to the Church’s Eucharistic Revival, dialogue among bishops had often focused on an array of hoped-for outcomes for the revival project, which includes both the cross-country pilgrimages, and July’s Eucharistic Congress.

Some bishops expressed hope that the events would buoy up reportedly flagging faith in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Others said the revival should focus on the Church’s interpersonal communion, or aim to engender a greater commitment among devout Catholics to works of mercy or service to the poor. For some, the revival project seemed connected to bishops’ 2021 debates over “Eucharistic coherence,” and about questions related to pro-choice politicians and Holy Communion. Some connected it to synodality.

But whatever the intended purposes — and there were many, really — pilgrims had their own reason for coming to walk alongside the Blessed Sacrament. 

Pilgrims process along the Golden Gate Bridge May 19. Credit: Br. Chris Garcia OFM Conv. Catholic Voice Diocese of Oakland.

As I talked with dozens of pilgrims Sunday, I heard how many different hopes Catholics had brought to their walk with Blessed Sacrament, and how many ways the people walking with Christ were looking for his grace in their own lives. 

Credit: JD Flynn/Pillar Media.

Some pilgrims said they were looking to be encouraged in their faith, or to feel they weren’t alone as Catholics. Some said they were walking to support parents, or parishioners, or to pray for family members. Some said they hoped they’d better hear God’s voice. Some said they hoped the world would better hear the Church’s voice, with some 4,000 marchers giving evidence of the vitality of faith.

Angela, who came from Napa with her family, told me she’d come because she loved the Eucharist.

A pilgrim walks along the Golden Gate Bridge May 19. Credit: JD Flynn/Pillar Media.

But Angela had also come because she hoped her prayers along the way might move her son “to return to the Church.”

She hadn’t seen signs of that conversion yet, but she was walking in faith, she told me.

 Liam and Maddie, newlyweds of three weeks, came to San Francisco from Carson City Nevada, a four-hour drive, hoping for an experience of Catholic community.

Liam and Maddie, of Carson City, Nevada, during a May 19 Eucharistic procession. Credit: JD Flynn/Pillar Media.

“It’s very easy to feel alone in this world in some of our beliefs,” Maddie told me. “We recently moved, and we haven’t really found a great faith community. So it’s really nice to see a community, and to come together with people who have similar beliefs.”

“The hope [of today] will stick with us,” Liam added. “That everything we pray for and look for and try to make in the world isn’t fruitless.”

“It’s very special to be with other Catholics,” Maddie said.

Madison Michel, a FOCUS missionary from Minnesota, is the team leader for the pilgrims walking from San Francisco to Indianapolis.

Madison Michel during the May 19 Eucharistic pilgrimage. Credit: JD Flynn/Pillar Media.

Michel told me that she had “very personal reasons” for choosing to spend almost two months as a pilgrim.

She was encouraged by the pilgrimage across the bridge, she said, “because it shows the vastness of our Catholic faith — we’re seeing so many different kinds of people here, and it’s a great witness to see so many different groups come together.”

But as her group plans to keep walking, Michel said things will change.

“You can kind of just imagine Jesus right with you, and so when it really is just our group and Jesus, all the sudden it just becomes much more personal.”

Michel said she’s walking in the hope of a deeper personal conversion.

“The reason that I applied and then said yes to this was in the hopes that I would become more like Jesus. And so I hope personally that I do become more like him.”

Religious sisters walk across the Golden Gate Bridge during a Eucharistic pilgrimage May 19. Credit: JD Flynn/Pillar Media.

It’s hard to predict which hopes will be realized by the Eucharistic pilgrimages across America. It’s not clear they’ll raise faith in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It’s not certain they’ll lead to greater participation in the Mass, or more works of mercy for the poor. 

Those things might happen. Or the effects of the pilgrimage might go unmeasured, or unseen. 

But as Cordileone raised a monstrance above San Francisco Bay, to bless the people of his city, my own faith in the Eucharist told me that something would come of it. That grace would come from the presence of the Lord, and the faith of the people who walked behind him. 

“God has better plans than we do.”

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone with the Eucharist, during a May 19 Eucharistic pilgrimage. Credit: Br. Chris Garcia OFM Conv. Catholic Voice Diocese of Oakland.

So why did pilgrims walk? 

Because Jesus was out there in front of them.

“The Lord is out in San Francisco,” one woman told me, a 40-year resident of the city. 

“He’s out in public. And I couldn’t let that happen without coming out to greet him, and to say hello to him.”

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