An estimated 25.5 million people travel to the city of St. Francis each year and for the last 20, an unmeasured number of them have made their way to the national shrine bearing his name.

The National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi in North Beach was designated a pilgrimage site in 1999 by retired San Francisco archbishop Cardinal William J. Levada and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The site includes the shrine church – formerly the historic St. Francis of Assisi parish church built in 1849 to serve Gold Rush-era Catholics – and the adjacent Porziuncola Nuova chapel, a near-replica of St. Francis’ chapel in Assisi built by the Knights of St. Francis, a local religious group, in 2008.

Catholic San Francisco spent an afternoon at the Porziuncola July 16 with longtime volunteer docent Angela Testani to ask visitors what brought them to the chapel and why. A Canadian tourist, a local office worker, a bishop from Paris, a theology professor, a parish handyman, a Buddhist from Arizona and a city tour group each came in for reasons of their own.

Inside the chapel Testani showed Sanita, a Catholic, an encased rock reportedly brought to the National Shrine from the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy after a 1997 earthquake turned parts of it to rubble. She pointed at a box at the foot of the altar with slips of paper for personal prayer intentions that would be on the altar for Mass the next day in the shrine church.

All pilgrims learn about the “Assisi Pardon” and some journey to the shrine specifically to obtain it. The plenary indulgence was once granted exclusively to pilgrims to the chapel in Assisi, Italy. The plenary indulgence, “the remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins that have already been forgiven,” according to shrine literature, is now a grace afforded pilgrims to the National Shrine and its Porziuncola chapel with certain conditions.

Testani said that it’s not at all unusual for people to tell her they felt “called” to come inside. And she added that unplanned visits can turn out to be “a more profound experience than the planned ones.”

Either way, she said, each encounter is a “new opportunity for evangelization.” But one question she doesn’t ask is if a visitor is Catholic.

“I ask if they are familiar with any part of who St. Francis was,” she said. Their answers help her present the spirituality of St. Francis in an approachable way.

“I say St. Francis is the best imitator of Jesus Christ who was all love,” Testani said. “That can bring up stuff in their lives and then we let the Holy Spirit take over.”

A retired nurse, Testani is a Third Order Canossian Daughter of Charity whose charism calls her “to live the love of Christ crucified in the secular dimension.”

The Capuchin friars are the stewards of the national shrine, and the current rector, Father John De La Riva, OFM Cap., is working to improve “branding” in order to fortify its identify as a pilgrimage site. He said this may include better exterior signage and a “pilgrims portal” seashell over the church shrine door.

“Hopefully more people will start to associate it as pilgrimage site” and not as just another San Francisco attraction, Father De La Riva said.

Full story at Catholic San Francisco.