Editor’s note: California Catholic Daily publishes Homilies of Note as a regular feature, but these two by Father Joseph Illo of Star of the Sea in San Francisco stood out. Transcribed versions are below the videos:
Father Illo on Humanae Vitae, July 22, 2018:
I want to tell you a story of a man who made a very unpopular statement fifty years ago, this Wednesday. On July 25, 1968, a respected world leader published a document predicting grave social consequences if a certain drug were to be approved. His document set off an international controversy and outrage. But all he said has come to pass. In 1968, I was seven years old, the fourth of six children in a happy home. In those days the American family was strong. I can remember gathering with my parents and siblings to watch The Andy Griffith Show every week. A portrait of American marriage and family life perhaps— few divorces, many healthy children. Pornography was criminal in those days. Children played in the streets without fear. I used to ride my bike every day, two miles to my elementary school. You know, one of those bikes with a banana seat and tassels on the handlebars? No fear. Fifty years before the #MeToo movement, this world leader predicted the exploitation of women, widespread divorce, and a general lowering of morality that we suffer from today. He saw it from fifty years ago. The drug to which I refer was the hormonal contraceptive pill, and Pope Paul VI was that world leader.
“The widespread use of contraception,” he said in his encyclical Humanae Vitae, “will open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. A man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregard her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to a mere instrument of his desires.” The Pope’s foresight is certainly remarkable, and I would say a clarity of vision from the Holy Spirit. At a time when almost everyone thought the contraceptive pill would strengthen marriage and liberate women, he saw the weakening of family life and disrespect for women.
Now, he had the example of the Soviet Union which had legalized contraception forty years before. Today, Russia’s divorce rate is still an unbelievable 90 percent. The average Russian woman has had eight abortions, because abortion always follows contraception. Most Russian children do not know who their father is. I have been to Russia. In my last parish, we had a sister parish in Vladivostok and it breaks your heart to see the devastating social landscape of four decades of this reduction of marriage and family life. In fact, the Soviet Union collapsed because society always passes by way of the family. It will take generations to rebuild family life in Russia.
The Bible condemns contraception, as did Saint Augustine in the fourth century, as did Thomas Aquinas in the 12th century, as did Martin Luther and John Calvin in the 16th century and every Christian theologian until 1930 when the Anglicans became the first in Christian history to approve the limited use of contraception. In 1930 the divorce rate in America was 15 percent. By 1968, when virtually all religions but Catholicism had approved of the pill, the divorce rate had risen to 30 percent. It had doubled. Today almost everyone uses contraception and the divorce rate is 50 percent. But in fact less than half of Americans are even getting married. Modern contraception is not only a fact of our time but maybe even the central fact. “It is hard to think of any other innovation whose demographic social behavioral and personal fallout has been as profound,” writes the author Mary Eberstadt.
But did, in fact, the sexual revolution deliver on its promises to liberate women, to bring love and peace to the world, and to strengthen society? Paul VI knew that he was preaching unpopular gospel in 1968, the year after the Summer of Love here in San Francisco. “It is to be anticipated,” he wrote in paragraph 18, “that perhaps not everyone will easily accept this particular teaching”. It is not easy to be married, and still less easy to live the fullness of that vocation to which God calls most people. But on this, the fiftieth anniversary of his prophetic encyclical, we should listen carefully to the Vicar of Christ. He teaches that there was no real love outside of God’s natural laws. God is love. He wrote the book on love. And to step outside of His will is to step outside of love. In response to the errors of the Anglican Church in 1930, Pope Pius IX published Casti Connubii. That same year, just to be very clear on the church’s teaching, quoting Pope Pius, “any use whatever whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature.” In other words, we frustrate our love when we sterilize it. Love was made for life and life was made for love. One woman or one man cannot, by themselves, meet my need to love and to be loved. It takes a family, and a big family, because I need lots of love. Contraception is designed to limit our families. The technology was designed to avoid. It’s contra-ception, it’s against the conception of life. In other words, it limits the family’s potential to provide that love we all crave.
“Come away with me.” Those words are from the gospel, but it made me think of a certain song by Norah Jones. “Come away with me to a mountaintop, come away with me and I’ll never stop loving you,” sings Norah Jones. Isn’t that what we all want? To love and to be loved without fear? So why do so few of us get it? Almost every young person I know has seen their parents’ love end in bitter disappointment, a trauma that makes it almost impossible for them to believe in love. How can we trust God, or anyone else who tells us “I love you”, when love almost always turns out badly? So now most young people just don’t get married. They put it off, dreading that time when they will have to get married and so many just don’t do it. Maybe hookups will satisfy me, they think. Maybe pornography will meet my needs. And maybe, when love fails, well there’s always suicide, which is now the second leading cause of death for teenagers in America.
But Norah Jones got her lyrics from today’s Gospel. “Come away with me.” Jesus beckons His apostles “come away with me to a deserted place.” Marriage and family is that mountain top of which Norah Jones sang. That deserted place that Jesus speaks of where we are safe to love and be loved. It is our home. That’s the bad news. The good news is that some marriages do provide that love, and some families are very happy. Statistically, spouses that do not use contraception almost never divorce. They have a divorce rate of something like two or three percent. If I could give you a magic potion that would guarantee life long married love and fidelity, what would you pay for it? Paul VI offered us that magic potion, so to speak, but so few take it. Most of us do not know about these marriages because the sexual revolution has spoken more loudly than the Gospel in the last 50 years.
In the first reading, Jeremiah laments the shepherds who did not care for their flocks. And the fact that the sexual revolution has spoken more loudly than the gospel is squarely on the shoulders of the priests and the bishops of the church. And that’s the tragedy. “My people are dying for lack of knowledge,” says the Lord. But there are signs that people are fed up with the false promises of the so-called Summer of Love. Love is more than what they told us. They are turning back to the perennial teachings of Jesus transmitted through the Catholic Church. I know of a young family, “young” meaning Mom and Dad are in their early 40s (with eight children) who have never used contraceptives. Happiness has not been easy for them, but it has been possible. Marriage doesn’t make life easy, it doesn’t make love easy, but it makes it possible. These people can count on each other. They know that they have found it. They have hope that 30 years down the road there will still be a home, where Mom and Dad will still be there and Grandma and Grandpa will still be there for them. They know and follow God’s plan for marriage. Somehow they got the message. There is no reason more families cannot be like them.
Come away with God, away from the flashy promises of immediate gratification, away from the false religion of unlimited personal autonomy. Come away from this false doctrine of free choice into a quiet place where true love is to be found. So your homework, on this 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae today, is to read the encyclical or at least a synopsis of it. Now if you don’t know how to spell Humanae Vitae, I think it’s in the my pastor’s message on the front of the bulletin. In any case Google will find it for you. Read the document or at least a description of it and see how love is still possible. Love in this life and the fullness of love in the next. I can still remember the first time I read the document when I was 21 years old. I was in love with a girl I’d been dating for two years, and marriage was in my future, and I read this document and I was filled with joy to know that there is a way. It’s not just about contraception, it’s about marriage and human love. It’s about human life. That’s what the name Humanae Vitae means. So read the document, or re-read it as an act of devotion and study on this 50th anniversary. And believe again that true love, the love of God, is possible in this life in anticipation of its fullness in the next.
Father Illo on clerical abuse scandals, August 19, 2018:
I have bad news, very bad news indeed. But also good news, and very good news indeed. So let me start with the bad. You don’t want to hear it but it must be said. I’m going to read a letter actually, from our Archbishop, that is difficult to hear and difficult to process and I’ll make a few comments on that letter. I’ve been doing this at all the Masses actually, and after Mass nobody adverts to it because it’s a toxic subject but it must be said. So let me start by saying my sister-in-law in New Jersey who converted to Catholicism 20 years ago, a dedicated and active Catholic, is on the edge of leaving the Church. But actually most Catholics in our country left the Church years ago. Although they still check the Catholic box on census forms, most Catholics don’t do the one thing necessary to be Catholic, which is to receive the Holy Eucharist at Mass every Sunday. This is what defines us. And this is the real scandal and the real crisis in the Church, that we are not eating the Flesh of Christ and drinking His Blood as he commanded us. But there are other scandals that are consequences of that loss of faith. Last week Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, said that the McCarrick scandal is not a “massive, massive” problem. For the archbishop of Washington, where less than 1/4 of Catholics even come to Mass, where the archdiocese protected his predecessor, Theodore McCarrick, from crimes against children, for this man to say that we do not have a massive problem, is a massive problem.
We may be seeing the end of the episcopate in this country as we know it. We may be seeing the end of the Catholic Church in America as we have known it. Who knows but in five to ten years this property will have to be sold off. Who knows but those who are left in the Catholic Church will be worshipping, as in the early Church, in homes. You don’t know. But let us hope that reform is finally coming to our Church which has been paralyzed by corruption from top to bottom for well over a hundred years. The grand jury report from Pennsylvania was very bad, but it will pale in comparison to what will come out of New York and California, and the other states. Imagine the grand jury report from Chicago when that one comes out, or Los Angeles, or San Francisco, or New York. God will use the government as a scourge to reform the Church because neither the Vatican, nor the bishops, nor the laity have been able to reform it thus far. There have been significant reforms but we haven’t gotten to the bottom of the problem.
Saint Paul says to the Ephesians today, “The days are evil. Watch carefully how you live— not as foolish persons but as wise.” Yesterday I was talking with some good Catholic men who have been through the Catholic education system, who go to Mass every Sunday, who support their church with their time, talent, and treasure. But believe me, these good men are still either unaware or in denial of the true state of affairs. Let us be wise because the time of reckoning, of public and civil accounting, is coming. We will not be able to hide the crimes of the Church much longer. The time of reckoning has already come in some degree to Pennsylvania, and it will come to the archdiocese of Washington. It will come to the archdiocese of San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and Chicago. And I could only say let it come. The filth and the crimes that have lain hidden in our church must be exposed and cleaned out.
Well that’s the bad news. The good news is that Jesus is Lord. Jesus is Lord. He will shepherd his church despite the grievous failure of our leaders. “Wisdom has built her house,” we hear from the book of Proverbs today. This wisdom became incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, who has indeed built His church, it is His church, and the gates of Hell will never prevail against it. “Wisdom has dressed her meat, has mixed her wine. Come eat of my food and drink the wine I have mixed.” The Lord Christ, who is this wisdom incarnate, offers his bread “and the bread that I will give” he says in today’s Gospel, “is my flesh for the life of the world.” The double lives of many clergy, the homosexual activity of many priests and bishops, the hypocrisy and infidelity to their vows of many clergy, the sins against children, the financial crimes to cover up these sins, all of this comes from refusing to eat the Flesh of Christ in faith. It is essentially a crisis of the sacrament of the Body and Blood of the Lord. Infidelity to the Mass and to the Eucharist has brought this upon us. We have trivialized the Mass. We have reduced it to a kind of cheap birthday party in many places. We refuse to go to confession or to do penance in preparation to receive the Flesh of God. We’ve forgotten our essential identity as Catholics, which is the Holy Mass.
And every filthy and criminal thing has made its way into the Church because of infidelity to the sacrifice of the Mass. The good news is we can return to the Mass, to the Holy Eucharist. “Unless you eat my Flesh and drink my Blood, you have no life within you.” The Church is low on life at the moment. There is death in the Church. But there is life in the Church as close as the nearest Tabernacle, as the nearest Mass. We who are still coming to Mass, we who are left and we who will be left. I pray that my sister-in-law will stay with the sacraments. Jesus said, “stay with me” to the Apostles. Only one of them came to Calvary to the first Mass, Saint John the Beloved. But he was the seed. There will be always a Saint John standing beside the Mother of God at the foot of the cross who will rebirth the Church. God will always send us saints in our time of need who will be the face of Christ.
Which brings me to our archbishop and his letter addressing these issues. He wrote this letter last week, August 17th, and ask that it be promulgated in all the parishes in some fashion. I’m going to read part of the letter. You can get the letter on the archdiocesan website in full. It’s on the Facebook page as well. “My dear people of the archdiocese of San Francisco, The recent reports of Episcopal negligence and malfeasance in the face of clerical sexual abuse, coupled with some reports of bishops themselves guilty of sexual predation, have reopened old wounds and inflicted new ones on victims, their families, the Catholic faithful at large, and indeed the larger society. This has been further fueled by a spirit of raw ambition on the part of some who will stop at nothing to advance their careers and climb the ecclesial, corporate ladder over investing themselves and serving the people of God. Such behavior on the part of Church leaders is despicable, reprehensible, and absolutely unbecoming of a man of God.”
He goes on to speak of the seminarians of which he has great hope. These men are still innocent. They have not been corrupted by the system and he wants to make every effort to make sure they do not become corrupted by the system. He continues, “While attending to policies and procedures is necessary, by itself that is really superficial. What is called for at this time is penance in reparation for sins against faith and morals. This is how we keep the righteous indignation that so many of us feel at this time from becoming an anger that divides the Body of Christ.”
He goes on to repeat his requests that he made last October when he consecrated the archdiocese to the Immaculate Heart of Mary on the hundredth anniversary of Fatima. “I repeat here what I asked of you then, last October, and implore you even more earnestly to join me in three things: 1) praying the rosary daily and for families to pray the rosary as a family at least once a week 2) practicing Friday penance and abstaining from eating meat and one other additional act of fasting e.g. another form of food or drink or skipping a meal and 3) spending one hour of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament at least once a week.” He goes on to say that having consulted the presbyteral council, he will offer a massive reparation. “And finally, in the meantime, I ask you, our people, to stay close to your parish priest. Our priests make great sacrifices to serve their people with generosity and compassion. They are there for you, providing you pastoral care. I am grateful to them for their labors in the Lord’s vineyard and pray that the divine assistance may be with them as they minister to you during this time of crisis. Sincerely Yours in the Lord, Most Reverend Salvatore Cordileone, archbishop of San Francisco.”
Our bishop is one of the few that I’ve heard that is not treating this problem as a public relations issue. He is treating the McCarrick issue, and the Pennsylvania grand jury report, and all the rest of it as a spiritual problem. He is calling us to that alone which can solve the problem: prayer and fasting. This kind of evil, the Lord said in the scriptures, can only be driven out by prayer and fasting. This kind of evil, the worst kind of evil, is present in our church right now and it can only be driven out by prayer and fasting. That’s the message of our archbishop. But more, he is the first to pray and to fast for the sins of the Church because, indeed, the priests and the bishops must be the first to get on our knees and do real penance for the flock.
A shepherd goes ahead of his flock and I can testify that our Archbishop is the first to get on his knees and to fast. I remember two years ago at the priest convocation (all the priests of the diocese come together for four or five days) that, unfortunately, the smallest bedroom was chosen as the chapel. It only fit about four people. So I got there at 6:00 in the morning to do my holy hour. There were two other priests there. One of them was the priest, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, and he was actually sitting in the chair. He had probably been there for a half hour or an hour already. When I came into the small chapel he got out of the chair, got on to the floor on his knees, and motioned me to sit down. Every time I come to one of these prayer services, the archbishop is always there before us, kneeling in the early hour hours of the morning to pray for his church, for his presbyter, for his people.
I’ve noticed he doesn’t eat very much these days. At dinners with the archbishop there’s wine for everyone and he rarely touches it. He rarely eats meat. He is doing real prayer and penance for his people, and as it should be because the shepherd goes ahead of his flock. It’s the bishops and the priests that must lead this prayer and penance, this return to the one thing necessary, to the mercy of God which is given to us in the Holy Eucharist. The reform of the Church is possible, but in the end only the Body of Christ will save us. Let us all return to the Body of Christ, the flesh that has given for the life of the world. It is our only hope of happiness in this life and eternal happiness in the next.