The following comes from a Feb. 8 (and earlier) postings on the blogsite of Father Joseph Illo, pastor of Star of the Sea church in San Francisco.
….The Catholic Church in San Francisco is but a shadow of what she once was, and I suppose that is true in most of our big cities. I realized this most forcefully last week with the storm of protest against our altar boy policy, but it became much more apparent when I saw Archbishop Cordileone attacked for requiring Catholic school teachers to teach Catholic doctrine. These protests are generated by the secular media, of course, but what surprised me was how quickly and cruelly our own parishioners joined in. For CBS to belittle Catholic belief and practice is understandable; for a Catholic to do so is dysfunctional and disobedient. If Catholics side with the media against their own archbishop, then we must say that the Church in our city has somehow failed. In 1939 France and Germany were still “accommodating” the National Socialists in Germany even as the Reich’s armies overran Poland; our Church has also been complicit to some degree in the rise of the increasingly militant “dictatorship of relativism” in this country.
“The people are dying for lack of knowledge,” cried out the prophet Hosea (4:6). “They don’t know me, and so they don’t want me” Jesus said to Mother Teresa in 1946. People are dying because they have not found a credible witness to Christ. Last year 38 people jumped to their deaths from the Golden Gate Bridge, down from 46 the previous year. Jesus spent from morning to night healing these people, principally by witnessing to the love God has for them. He commands us to work with him.
“But father, I’ve tried to bring my children back to Mass!” many lament. True enough: it’s downright difficult to serve people who don’t want our services. The 50 Catholic parishes in San Francisco offer hundreds of “services” every Sunday, and most are mostly empty. So let us begin with silence and prayer, as Mother Teresa counsels on her “business card.” His bishop assigned St. John Vianney a dying parish in 1818 with these words: “there is little love of God in that parish.” Fr. Vianney sat in the confessional and no one came. He offered Mass and no one assisted. So he gave himself over to prayer, spending long hours in his silent church. Eventually people started coming, because they knew they needed what he had to offer.
As always, we turn to Our Lady. She knew she could not save even one soul, so she gave herself over to prayer. Her prayer was: “Let it be done to me as you say.” We who have faith will avoid the terrible discouragement of seeing our society lose its faith by repeating those words, and turning to Our Lady for consolation and strength.
A Statement of Apology – 2/4/2015
I would like to apologize to the parents, children, and faculty at Star of the Sea School who have been hurt by my words posted on my blog and in the media.
In the first place, I’m sorry for not discussing my school concerns with our principal, Terry Hanley, before giving a Catholic World Report interview. What should have been kept a matter between parish and school became public. In the second place, I apologize for using the word “purge” in my blog following the interview (which has been corrected). A friend described a new pastor’s first year as a “necessary purge,” meaning not of people but of pride, expectations, and uncharity within pastor and people. I pray that God will continue to purify all of us with the fire of his Holy Spirit.
I am deeply grateful that God has sustained Star of the Sea School through some very difficult times, largely through the sacrifices and generosity of parents, faculty, and principal in these last few years. The school is thriving and a home for hundreds of Catholics and non-Catholics alike. I hope our non-Catholic families will know how much I appreciate their presence and generosity at Star of the Sea. There are needs that will always need to be addressed. With God’s help, I hope to forge trustful friendships with parents, students and staff.
A simple altar boy policy at my parish has unleashed a media firestorm. Hundreds of parishes in this country, and some entire dioceses, do not permit altar girls, so why the outrage? It is because I tried this in San Francisco, the city I love, the city that was founded in 1776 as a Catholic mission, the city whose churches flourished for a time, but the city that has once again become mission territory.
Clergy often remark that the Church in America, and certainly in Europe, has reverted to mission territory. Africa and Asia, to whom we sent missionary priests for 300 years, are now supplying priests for American parishes. But not only priests. Here in San Francisco, my Sunday offertory cannot even meet minimal operating expenses; we must ask poorer parishes to fund us. In an effort to jumpstart the parish, we’ve increased our clergy from one priest to two, and we’ve invested in a first-class choral program. Our parish cannot afford these up-front costs, but many friends from former parishes in the Central Valley have sent money to help this “missionary church” in wealthy San Francisco. People do not fill the churches in our cities like they used to, but the faith is growing in this lovely city of St. Francis.
Two months ago I implemented an altar boy policy that reflected the norms of the Catholic Church, particularly the 2001 directive of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship regarding female altar servers. This document says that “it will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar.” If girls are invited to serve the Mass, “it would remain important to explain clearly to the faithful the nature of this innovation, lest confusion might be introduced, hampering the development of priestly vocations.”
I explained to our school parents the reasons why we are declining the “innovation” of altar girls, pointing to the essential connection between the Church’s male priesthood and the acolytes who assist them in their high priestly office. This beautiful big parish church that we’ve been given to administer needs more members to sustain its irreplaceable mission of word and sacrament in the city. To revive a parish we look first to the sacred liturgy, and among other improvements we wish to strengthen the altar server, lector, and sacristan programs. We consider that developing an all-boys and father-son acolyte program will strengthen the community as it has in many parishes by bonding boys and focusing their efforts on the Mass as sacrifice offered by the priest. We are also training our lectors, and most of them are female, many of them girls from our school.
Still, some members of our church, and of our school in particular, were not happy with the new boys-only acolyte program. Somehow CBS got wind of this unhappiness. The night before the massive Walk for Life in San Francisco, complete with grim anchorpersons and shocked reporters live-on-the-scene, KPIX portrayed our parish as demeaning women in their lead story on the nightly news. Television and newspapers around the country grabbed the story, and a storm of controversy ensued. Of the hundreds of emails and calls from across America, Ireland, England and Australia, almost every one from the San Francisco area was condemnatory, and almost every one from outside our area was supportive.
But it is precisely in the storm of controversy surrounding the altar girl question that I see a first step towards greater faith in our parish and school. For years the school has operated somewhat independently of the parish. Laudably, it needs no funding from the parish; it manages its own staffing; its principal and faculty choose curricula; Masses are planned by teachers and students. It has been many years since parish priests or nuns have taught children at my school. Only 42% of its families are Catholic, many are not attending Mass regularly, and a number of faculty are not Catholic. I know and love my school principal and faculty, and I am coming to know and love the parents and students, but these are the unfortunate facts. It is precisely in this roiling controversy that parish and school have taken the first step in facing these anomalies. And this is certainly a step toward greater faith, because all of us want the school and parish to flourish, and we know we must make sacrifices to allow God to do this work.
Vatican II (Lumen gentium 25) defines a Catholic as one who exercises “religious submission of will” to the Church’s teaching authority. At the parish level, this simply means trusting your priest. Catholics used to trust their priests, and there are various compelling reasons most do not trust them today. But to be Catholic means to regain that trust, both in the Church as mater et magistra and in the local bishop and priest. How can priests serve their flocks as spiritual fathers if their spiritual children do not trust them?
Parish and school are at a turning point. Some will undoubtedly leave the school and some the parish and some will leave the faith (hopefully only for a season) because they cannot bring themselves to trust the Church. But those who face the inconsistencies that have obtained at Star of the Sea for many years will grow deeper in their faith. In a time when churches are empty, every pope, bishop, and priest must be a reformer. I see reform all around me, and reform is the only hope for the Church. This little controversy is a part of the difficult process of pursuing a course that is intended for the good of the entire parish, not only through the encouragement of vocations, but also a purified focus on the ultimate goals of the Church. A friend described this as a difficult but necessary process. May God give us the strength to embrace this constant reform of our faith and practice as Catholic Christians.