SAN FRANCISCO (RNS) Perched on a low wooden chair outside this city’s replica of a humble stone hut, Arlene Zamora was almost levitating with joy.
“I am ecstatic, I am elated,” she said as she fingered a wooden Cross of Tau, a symbol of Francis of Assisi, the 13th-century saint Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio took as his namesake when he became Pope Francis on Wednesday (March 13).
“To me, it gives me a much closer connection with St. Francis,” she said as she waited to greet visitors here at the National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi, which includes a three-quarter replica of the small stone hut where the saint lived and died. “It is more poignant for me, it is more significant.”
That was the feeling echoed around the shrine, nestled in a busy downtown intersection of this city that also bears St. Francis’ name. The shrine, which consists of the replica — called the Nuovo Porziuncola — a sanctuary, rectory and meeting hall, has been fielding a handful of calls from media, the faithful and well-wishers from around the U.S. since Wednesday’s white puff of smoke announced the new pope.
“One man called from Virginia just to say congratulations,” said Rev. Gregory Coiro, the Franciscan father who is the rector of the shrine, a papally designated holy site where tens of thousands of Catholic pilgrims come each year seeking forgiveness of sins.
Coiro, who was just returning from the ophthalmologist when word of the new pope came, said he and other priests in the area were initially confused by the new pope’s name and called each other. Which Francis was it? Assisi? Xavier? De Sales?
But then a local television station called him for comment and confirmed it was, indeed, Francis of Assisi.
The choice of the name is significant, Coiro said, because it often signals what a new pope wants to do.
“Francis may be signaling he is going to identify closely with the poor. That has been his mission in Argentina,” the new pope’s home country, Coiro said, his hands tucked inside the sleeves of the brown robes of his order. “Francis was also a herald of the gospel, a preacher, so he may be signaling that he will be an evangelist.”
But Francis of Assisi also famously heard the voice of God command him to “rebuild my house.”
“So I think he (Pope Francis) may also be a reformer,” Coiro said.
“I think it is an honor that he chose the name of Francis,” he said. “I hate to sound cynical, but it may have also been a very shrewd move. Saint Francis is the patron saint of Italy and the Italians, were, of course, hoping for an Italian pope.”
Whatever he may be, he will be welcome at the shrine, which his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, designated as a holy shrine in 2008.
“Oh, wouldn’t that be wonderful?” Coiro said.
For now, Coiro is contenting himself with picking a spot in the sanctuary where he can honor the pope who has honored the shrine’s saint.
“We have not had a picture of a pope on display before,” he said from the center aisle of the ornate, empty sanctuary. “But now that we have a pope named Francis, I think we will.”
LEM/AMB END WINSTON