Rev. Joseph Illo was born not far from a college campus, in the Bronx, N.Y., while his father was earning a doctorate in literature at Columbia University. Growing up as a faculty kid, he always lived near one college or another and enjoyed the spirited, intellectual atmosphere. As a young man he assumed that he, too, would spend his adulthood working on or near a college campus. Providence, however, would soon intervene to alter those plans — or at least to defer them.
When Fr. Illo was 10 years old, accompanying his mother as she delivered meals to shut-ins around the parish, he thought little of the frequent suggestion that he should one day become a priest. While an undergraduate at Pennsylvania State University, he delighted in serving the Catholic community through the campus Newman Center, but he interpreted this joy as a confirmation that he should become an academic, not as a calling to the priesthood.
His vocation only became evident to him shortly after his graduation from college, during which time Fr. Illo worked at Ignatius Press in San Francisco. While there he came to know the vocations director from the nearby Diocese of Stockton (Calif.), to which he applied and was accepted. He then went on to study philosophy and theology with the Dominicans in Oxford (Blackfriars) and Rome (the Angelicum), and finally as a seminarian at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, N.Y.
On June 29, 1991 — the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul — Fr. Illo was ordained to the sacred priesthood of Jesus Christ. Since then he has faithfully lived out his calling as a diocesan priest, primarily by serving in parishes, including St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Modesto, Calif., where he was pastor for the last 13 years.
Yet the desire to return to a college campus has endured, and it came to fruition by way of his latest assignment — as a chaplain at Thomas Aquinas College.
“I had been asking for permission for several years to be a Newman Center chaplain, or perhaps to work in a college or university,” Fr. Illo explains. “The Bishop kept saying, ‘Well, we need you in the parish,’ but finally he said, ‘OK, after your second term is done in your current parish, we’ll consider that.’”
Fr. Illo received his Ordinary’s permission in the spring of 2012 and promptly sent out inquiries to several faithful Catholic colleges and one seminary, receiving offers from four of them. He ultimately opted for Thomas Aquinas College, due in large part to its proximity to his Diocese as well as an admiration he had formed for the school nearly three decades earlier. In 1984, shortly before entering the seminary, he had visited the College with his younger brother, who was thinking about applying. “I realized, boy, if I had my undergraduate years to do over again, I would come here,” he recalls.
“I thought the approach to liberal arts education was unique and spot-on; it was so much better than anything I had ever heard before. And of course the topography didn’t hurt,” he says. “It looked like a paradise here.”
As a chaplain, Fr. Illo’s appreciation of the College has deepened. “There’s a confidence among the whole community here that comes from the Socratic Method and the way conversations about the great books continue outside the classroom,” he reflects. “This is a college in the original sense of lodging together, kind of like the colleges of the Middle Ages. It’s not just the curriculum, it’s the life. It’s not perfect; of course there are challenges and problems. But the greatest obstacle in our age — the hermeneutic of our time — is fear. People are afraid of running out of resources, of overpopulation, and of ruining the planet. People are afraid of each other, and they are afraid of God. Thomas Aquinas College addresses this persistent, low-grade fear not only by studying the eternal truths but by forming a true ‘college’ of scholars who work, pray, study, and recreate together.”
Thus, after eschewing life on a college campus to follow God’s will, Fr. Illo now finds himself living and ministering on a college campus. Such is the hand of Providence!