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Interview: Fr. Illo on Preaching the Gospel in San Francisco

Posted: June 30, 2015

Note: After serving for two years as a chaplain at Thomas Aquinas College, Rev. Joseph Illo departed last summer for San Francisco, where, at the invitation of Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, he is now the pastor of Star of the Sea Church and a co-founder of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri. Fr. Illo graciously accepted the College’s invitation to return to campus for this year’s Commencement ceremonies, where he served as the principal celebrant and homilist at the Baccalaureate Mass.


When you left here a year ago, it was to create the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, a community for secular priests in San Francisco. How is the Oratory coming along?

The oratory is progressing nicely. We started with two men, myself and Fr. Patrick Driscoll, and we are now up to four, having accepted two candidates; and we have several other inquiries as well. We are still in the aspirancy phase, and we are hopeful that we will soon be entering a three-year canonical probation, after which we would be erected as a clerical association of pontifical right.

What has the experience been like at your new parish, Star of the Sea?

It has been quite different from pastoring a parish in the suburbs, as I did in Stockton, or a smaller venue. San Francisco is a big city, with a defined culture that is not always in sync with the Church. So it is a challenge, first to understand that culture, and then to be accepted in it.

This is one of the wealthiest cities in the country, and it arguably has the highest base of education. Software giants are moving here, and there is a lot of money to be made. In this kind of climate, there is a temptation to think that we can determine our own lives in every aspect because we have the education, the money, and the power to do so. People can come to believe that they have not much use for religion, which makes it challenging to evangelize. Any effort to bring about a more traditional approach to religion in San Francisco is going to meet with a certain opposition. We have made some tactical mistakes — not getting to know the lay of the land as well as we should have before making certain changes.

Are you referring to the controversy that erupted over Star of the Sea’s altar-server program?

That is part of it. We are the only parish in San Francisco that offers the Latin Mass every day, and there is a kind of split in the community between those who go to the Latin Mass and those who go to the English Mass. We wanted to bring the two groups together, to unify the parish, and we thought that having a single altar-server program would help.

Well, there are no altar girls in the extraordinary form. Also, if you look at the program from the Congregation for Divine Worship, the 1994 document permits altar girls, but says that altar-boy programs should always be promoted as a source of vocations to the priesthood. So, three months after our arrival at Star of the Sea, we decided to train only boys going forward, which in retrospect was too much, too fast.

We did not imagine that this shift would be met with so much controversy. At the time, there was no roster or schedule for children serving at the altar; Masses were mostly being served by elderly men and women. Nobody complained about the change until two months later — the night before the Walk for Life West Coast, when CBS arrived with their cameras and made it the first item for the evening news.

Looking back, we should have thought this through better and more strategically. That was our mistake, but on the other hand, I think that no matter how or when we did this, we would have gotten some explosive reactions.

Has the controversy finally subsided?

Yes and no. Archbishop Cordileone has said that how we administer our altar-server program is our call, and he permits all-male altar-server programs in his archdiocese. Ours is the only parish out of 90 in San Francisco that has an all-boys program, and the Archbishop assures us that there is room for that in this archdiocese.

Yet the altar-server question is only part of a larger controversy. Some rather vocal people (not from the parish) have read my blogs, where I have articulated traditional positions on the nature of marriage, the life issues, and the liturgy, and they are calling for my removal.

As I said, we have made our own errors, too. We inadvertently gave a class of children who were preparing for their first confession an examination of conscience that was made for adults, and one of the items had specific language pertaining to the Sixth Commandment. Obviously we should never have done that, and we removed the pamphlets as soon as it came to our attention.

Archbishop Cordileone is under fire for his efforts to require teachers at Catholic high schools to uphold Catholic teaching. Has that controversy affected your parish?

Ours is an elementary school, so we do not have the same issue of contracts. What is an issue for us, though, is parishes’ authority to direct the curriculum and the Catholic dimension of the schools. Because parish schools have tended to operate somewhat independently of their parishes for some time now, it can be an unwelcome surprise when a pastor wants to be more hands-on, even in terms of curriculum development or spiritual practices.

At our school, only 40 percent of the students are Catholic, and very few go to the parish. My wish is to bring the school and the parish closer together.

Did you ever imagine that you would encounter so much opposition?

I did not expect this level of aggressive push back from those outside the parish, but the parish herself is flourishing. I am told that we had a greater attendance at the Triduum Masses this year than we have seen in 10 years. We exceeded our Bishop’s annual appeal goal in a single weekend. Our weekly holy hours and men’s fellowship are well-attended. So there is definitely growth here, but you would not know that from reading the newspaper.

With the country’s culture seemingly following in the direction of San Francisco’s, what lessons have you learned that the rest of us should know in the years ahead?

One can get the feeling that the culture is turning upside down in terms of gender questions, sexuality questions, and the identity of the human person. It may seem like that in San Francisco, but I think that most of the people of this good city are reasonable and even God-fearing. Those who control the media, the academy, and the government — the ones calling the shots — seem to be postmodern, and they are portraying this image to the rest of the country. It does seem like America is following this line of thought, and that can be most discouraging. I fight real discouragement on a daily basis and spend more time in prayer than I ever have. One of our more involved parishioners told me that her personal and family prayer life is deeper now than it has ever been. Against what seems like a tidal wave of postmodernism, we must turn to God in prayer even as we fight these cultural battles. We are working to develop perpetual adoration in the parish, and we offer confessions at every Mass. We have also begun to keep the church open all day, and we installed more light and heating units to make it a brighter and more welcoming place to pray. The only recourse we really have is prayer and the Sacraments.

Has working in this climate heightened your appreciation for the sort of priestly community that the oratory seeks to create?

That is a good point. I did not really understand the oratory until I came here. I think most diocesan priests want some form of community, but on our own terms, more as a comfort. Yet now I can see that if we do not band together as priests, if we do not have common prayer, we may not even exist in the future. I don’t think I could go on without this common prayer life. The community here has provided a lot of support as we go through these terrible struggles. I now see the necessity, especially if you are facing these sorts of culture wars, to have the support of common prayer, the support of the community. We are discovering what it is to be an oratory.

What insights has your experience — first at the College and now at the oratory — given you about fostering vocations to the priesthood and the religious life?

Thomas Aquinas College tends to attract serious, educated Catholics, so it is going to generate a good number of vocations just by virtue of its constituency. The College reinforces and deepens students’ faith through beauty, truth, and goodness, giving young men and women something to aspire to, even on a supernatural and otherworldly plane, which is what the consecrated vocation is.

We are attempting to do the same thing here. We have to be unequivocally clear about fidelity to Church doctrine, morality, and liturgical observance. That is what attracts people to pursue the priesthood and religious life, but it also has to be based in prayer. We have been praying as a community twice a day together, morning and evening, before the Blessed Sacrament, saying our Rosaries together, and making retreats. If we do not develop ourselves as a community of prayer, first and foremost, then nothing else will work.

Fr. Illo for 2015 Interview Story
Thomas Esser (’18)

“It’s wonderful how, in the integrated curriculum, everything matches up. You’ll be reading one thing in language class, and then it will come up again in philosophy, and goes on to affect everything you read from then on. You get a deeper understanding of each discipline by seeing how they connect with the others.”

– Thomas Esser (’18)

Chino Hills, California

“I am happy with the mission of Thomas Aquinas College and with the results spread through various countries in the world!”

– Most Rev. Lionginas Virbalas

Metropolitan Archbishop of Kaunas, Lithuania