The Interview: Father Greg Bonfiglio on the Future of Faith

By Janet Reilly

“For 106 years, people have been walking through those doors … Like the rings of trees, the walls are impregnated with people’s prayers,” says Father Greg Bonfiglio of St. Ignatius Church. (Spencer Brown)

For more than a century, St. Ignatius Church has stood on the hilltop looking over the University of San Francisco campus. With its sky-high towers and beautifully ornate dome, it is a powerful San Francisco landmark. Dominating the City’s western skyline, those soaring towers were historically used as navigational guides for ships approaching the San Francisco Bay.

Not only is the church an architectural treasure, but it is also home to one of the most vibrant Catholic parishes in the City. For the last eight years, Father Greg Bonfiglio, S.J., a Bay Area native, has shepherded his parishioners through good times and bad — including this global pandemic. The charismatic pastor offers spiritual guidance to his parishioners as well as strategic direction for his parish.

On a recent afternoon, I caught up with Father Greg. Our conversation flowed easily, touching on topics from keeping the faith in the time of COVID-19, to online Masses, to preparing for a major church facelift.

Meet Father Greg …

As the pastor of St. Ignatius Church, you’re responsible for the pastoral care of your parishioners. In the best of times, that’s a big job. What has that been like during the pandemic? In the early days, it was really stressful because no one knew what to do. We didn’t know what we were facing, and it was flat-out scary. I remember one day sitting at my desk and I felt like I was having something close to a panic attack. It’s like, “I’m not sure how to handle all of this.”

We had our last public Mass right before the shelter-in-place was declared. I actually sent an email out that Friday saying, “Don’t come on Sunday; we will be livestreaming it.” So, we started then, and we’ve been at it for 31 or 32 weeks now. Once we got into a rhythm, it’s been fairly easy.

How did you feel when the doors of the church, which are normally open, were closed? It was hard, especially in the first few weeks, meeting people at the doors on Sundays and saying, “We’ve canceled our Masses.” People are accustomed to having church doors open. It was a shock to the system. I went back to doing something I did in my early years here, which is to pray early in the morning in the church.

I felt the weight of being the pastor. I would move around the church every morning and sit in a different place, and I would imagine the people who sat there at the 5 o’clock on Saturday and the 8 o’clock on Sunday. Every day, I did that and prayed for them and their intentions. I would light a candle. They keep candles lit at each of the shrines because that’s a big deal for people. I felt the weight of them and their concerns, but also great affection; I really miss the people. I was often moved to tears in those early days.

Quite early on, St. Ignatius went to online services. What was that transition like, and what changes did you have to make? People adapted very quickly. Early on, I think people were hungry for the consolation of their faith. I think the first weekend, we had 650 [online attendees] and then we went to 900. Next we hit 1,100, and then 1,300. On Easter morning we reached 1,900. As the time has worn on, I think one of the things people are looking for is a sense of community because the loneliness and isolation is really kicking in.

The silver lining is you can reach so many more people virtually. As we begin to gather in person again, which of these changes will you retain? Well, we’ll certainly keep delivering Mass online. There are a number of parishioners who in recent years became homebound and haven’t been able to join us. They’ve been back with us for the last seven months and that’s been delightful. So, we can’t very well say, “Well, it was nice having you back for a few months here.”

Do you think the pandemic has brought people back to the church? I know it has. You know, the Jesuits have a brand, and it’s a certain spirituality. I like to think of it as spirituality that’s comfortable in the gray. Life is not lived in black and white. It’s tempting to want to live there, but in fact, our lives are not. God is where we are, which is in the gray. That’s a difficult place to be. I think that’s why people have found us and stayed with us because we preach a God who not only lives in, but is comfortable with, the gray.

St. Ignatius church is an iconic San Francisco building that has been standing in this location for 106 years. What historic role has St. Ignatius played in the City? For example, this isn’t your first pandemic. It’s not! The dedication of the church in 1914 happened as World War I was breaking out in Europe. Since then, it’s always been that beacon on the hill. It was strategically placed with a vantage point from everywhere in the City. It was used, up until very recently, as a marker for ships coming in through the Golden Gate. But I believe what makes buildings sacred is the people, what they bring to it.

That’s so true. For 106 years, people have been walking through those doors: through the fears around World War I and the flu pandemic, and then the stock market crash in 1929, the Depression and World War II, and then Vietnam and the social unrest all the way until today. People have been walking into that church and lighting candles, going to Mass, kneeling in the pews and offering their prayers to God, their fears and their hopes, their desires and their joys. People have been married there and buried from there and baptized there. I think those prayers don’t evaporate. I mean, they go to God’s ears, certainly, but I really believe that buildings hold that forever. Like the rings of trees, the walls are impregnated with people’s prayers. I’ve actually thought about that … I’m getting choked up …

It’s beautiful imagery. Have you ever thought about the rings of trees, how if a tree lives through a fire, you can tell that? If you were able to look at the walls, there’s a big lacuna these last seven months of no prayers. There had to be the same thing in 1918 — there was nothing for the walls to absorb. That’s why I thought it was so important for me to go there and to pray for people so that the walls would continue to have something to absorb.

Well, old buildings need to be kept up. I know that you are undergoing a capital campaign, which [Clint and I] are involved with. Tell me about your plans. Well, there’s a lot to preserve! What we’re going to do specifically is the cladding on the spires and the eaves. The skin on the building is 100 years old and it sits high atop a mountain enduring a maritime climate. All of the masonry is cracked … it needs a new roof. The exterior lighting needs to be replaced. We have to preserve the integrity of the structure and that includes the windows; there are 125 windows in the building and half of those are stained glass.

And on the inside? For the inside, it’s really about safety. When I was up above in the attic, above the ceiling and below the roof, it’s just like Notre Dame was described. It’s just one long space — there are no fire doors or fire breaks.

I know you plan to enhance programming as well … Right. How do we deliver church in this electronic post-COVID age to people who won’t be coming back to Mass or never really wanted to come to Mass?

The other element is the social ministries piece. We’ve been a parish since 1994 and ever since, our outreach ministries have been part and parcel of who we are. We have a number of programs that address food insecurity, as well as advocacy programs around human trafficking, immigration and asylum, and now, racial injustice.

The other thing is, it’s a means of tracking young adults. Young adults don’t come into the church like you and I did. Years ago, it was always about God and church first. Today, young people are learning about and are attracted to the social responsibility first. And it’s when they come in, when they’re engaged in a community that’s doing that, then they begin to discover God and the church.

So, the social ministries piece is going to enable us to deepen and broaden and reach further than what we’re already doing. But it’s also with an eye to attracting young people and meeting them where they are. They’re altruistic in the best sense of that word.

You grew up in San Jose and attended Santa Clara University. What attracted you to the Jesuits? What attracted me was: They saw ministry as a spectrum. I met Jesuits who were parish priests. I met Jesuits who were president of a university or professors. I knew Jesuits who were doctors, who were social workers. And I was interested … the irony is, I didn’t want to get pigeonholed into being a parish priest. And of the four jobs I’ve had as a Jesuit, this is my favorite.

I understand that when you were at Santa Clara, you were quite an oarsman. You were on a championship crew team in the early ’80s. Do you still row? The last time I was in a boat was in 2010. I rowed two years at Santa Clara. And then 18 years later, I found rowing in the port of Sacramento [at the] River City Rowing Club. I rowed with them for 10 years. Rowing is such a team sport, which I loved.You’ve been at St. Ignatius for eight years now. What has your growth trajectory been and what are the best things about your job?The best thing about my job is the privilege of being invited into the most vulnerable places in people’s lives. I’m always in awe of that. This is not a model of maintenance here; it’s a model of mission.

Lightning Round

The biggest risk I’ve ever taken … Accepting the job as president of Jesuit High School [Sacramento] because I had no training whatsoever.

My biggest regret is … Not applying to the national rowing camp after college to see if I could’ve made the lightweight boat.

I’m happiest when … That church is full. There’s nothing better than celebrating Christmas Mass when that church is chock-full.

If I had a magic wand, I would … Change people’s hearts with regard to the climate change crisis.

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