St Ignatius, San Francisco

St Ignatius, San Francisco, California, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Ignatius, San Francisco
Location: California, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 23 April 2023, 10:00am

The building

The present St Ignatius Church (it had four predecessors) was dedicated in 1914. The shape of the church – a Roman basilica – is determined by two 200 foot high towers at the front (south side), encompassing Corinthian columns, and a dome to the north of the towers. There is also an Italian-style campanile on the northeast corner of the church, housing a three-ton bell. A statue of St Ignatius stands above the front entrance portico. The architectural style of the church has been called ‘Jesuit Baroque’, and is a mixture of Italian Renaissance and Spanish Baroque. After a major earthquake in 1989 the church was seismically reinforced. At the moment, sections of the church are being repaired or renovated, made visible by scaffolding. Four of the alcoves inside the church have been converted into an art gallery, at which Bay Area artists have been featured.

The church

St Ignatius refers to itself as a ‘Welcoming and Inclusive Jesuit, Catholic Community’. On the website is a mission statement: ‘In response to God’s love and Jesus’ invitation to discipleship, social justice and systemic change are part of our mission. Informed by Cathoic Social Teaching, St Ignatius provides opportunities to participate actively in the promotion of awareness and implementation of social and environmental justice.’ The areas of mission include a group participating in the Global Catholic Climate Movement; a Shelter Meal Program, preparing meals for homeless and needy people; a partnership with parishes in El Salvador; an Advent Giving Tree, providing Christmas presents for disadvantaged persons; a Racial Justice group; a St Anthony Center, offering support for destitute people living in a high-crime district; and support for a Grace Center, a residential facility for women recovering from alcohol addiction.

The neighborhood

The church is located on the campus of the University of San Francisco and serves as the school chapel. In 1994 it was reinstated as a parish church of the Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco. The church is staffed by Jesuit priests. It sits on the top of a hill near Golden Gate Park, making it visible from far away (and also making it difficult to get a decent photo of the church). It is located in a residential area of San Francisco, four blocks from the Haight-Ashbury District, made famous during the Summer of Love of the hippy movement in the late 1960s.

The cast

An unidentified priest, who stepped in as a replacement for the scheduled priest.

What was the name of the service?


How full was the building?

Approximately half full, an estimated 150-200 people.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Two friends who had invited us to attend greeted us at the door and supplied us with service sheets. Otherwise, there seemed to be a person assigned to greet visitors.

Was your pew comfortable?

If I have leg room, it is comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet conversation, quiet piano music. A lot of men wore suits and ties, which is something I appreciate because it says to me, as the member of an older generation, that worship is not a leisure activity; we are here to celebrate the resurrection and honor God. The aisles, and a cross at the front, were decorated with Easter flowers.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Breaking Bread, a book containing readings and daily mass propers for every Sunday in 2023, supplemented by a service sheet containing all hymns and liturgical singing, with melody notes.

What musical instruments were played?

Grand piano and violin. The singing was led by soloists and a choir of about 15 people. The church does have a Kimball pipe organ, installed in 1926, but it was not used in this service.

Did anything distract you?

There are a lot of architectural and artistic features to look at. My eye kept wandering, trying to take it all in. Another pleasant distraction was being sprinkled with baptismal water by the presider moving down the center aisle to remind us of our baptism. Coincidentally, the only other time I was sprinkled with baptismal water was also in San Francisco, several decades ago at a Presbyterian Church. Also, it seems that in every Roman Catholic service there are liturgical words which worshipers are expected to know my memory.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

The worship was formal, but with a brisk pace. The presider had a lively and warm-hearted style, with occasional spots of humor. I was struck by the words spoken after the consecration of the elements: ‘May the body and blood of Christ bring all people to eternal life.’ I have experienced liturgies which want to limit the effectiveness of Christ’s body and blood to the ‘faithful’.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

9 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

10 — He spoke freely, without reference to notes, and without rambling.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

In the introductory words to the eucharist, the priests says: ‘Lift up your hearts’. A small girl in attendance (the niece of the presider) once responded, ‘I lift my tummy up to the Lord’ and pulled up her blouse to reveal her belly. This response is entirely appropriate, because it reflects the physicality with which God has revealed himself in Jesus. When we pray, we imagine God to be in a distant, spiritual realm. But God has manifested himself in the crucified Christ, in the wounds of his resurrected body and in the meals he shares with us. Therefore, we worship God also with our ‘tummy’. The Emmaus disciples encountered God as a stranger on a road and as a house guest at a meal. At first, they had overlooked his true identity because they were not expecting to encounter Christ in a non-spiritual realm. The Emmaus encounter tells us that God is to be encountered in the world, in strangers, especially in marginalized strangers. Jesus left no image of himself, because we are supposed to see the image of Christ in every person. Let us open our hearts to see him and let us be the presence of God in the world.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The melodies used in this service were lively and melodious, sung by the soloists and choir with heart and soul. The people leading this service were obviously enjoying their roles in worship.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

I was still suffering from jet lag fatigue after overcoming nine time zones, so I was not fully attentive in body and soul, which is a shame, considering the quality of this service.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

Immediately after the service we engaged in conversation with our good friends, whom we had not seen for several years. By the time our conversation was finished, I suddenly remembered that I had neglected my duties as a Mystery Worshiper, forgetting to stand at the back. By the time I got to the back of the church the sanctuary was almost empty.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

On Sunday evening it suddenly occurred to me that I also forgot to try out the after-service coffee, which had been announced in the service. This type of mental lapse after a long trip is an illustration that ‘travel’ is derived from the word ‘travail’.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

10 — This service was an effective combination of human warm-heartedness and liturgical objectivity. Although I am not Roman Catholic, I felt completely at home and participated in holy communion.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Yes. This service brought to expression the joy, the calling and the promise of Christian faith.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The final hymn was ‘Jesus is risen’. According to the service sheet it is derived from the German hymn Lasst uns unfreuen. The word unfreuen does not exist in German. Lasst uns unfreuen translates approximately as ‘Let us non-rejoice’. Fortunately, the English version of the hymn did convey Easter joy.

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