San Francisco priests' council debates 'P.R. disaster' parish

by Dan Morris-Young

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During what one participant described as an "explosive" meeting, the San Francisco archdiocese's Council of Priests in mid-February addressed Star of the Sea pastor Fr. Joseph Illo's decision to phase out altar girls as well as the designation of the parish as an oratory-in-formation.

Retired Sulpician Fr. J. Michael Strange, who lives at St. Stephen Parish in San Francisco, "proposed this agenda item and raised the issue for discussion because many of his constituents and parishioners at St. Stephens and elsewhere have contacted him regarding Fr. Illo's recently announced policy of admitting only altar boys at Star of the Sea Parish," according to a draft of the Feb. 12 meeting's minutes.

NCR obtained a copy of the minutes from an anonymous priest.

Strange told council members that "he found other aspects of Fr. Illo's parish bulletin explanation [in regard to] this new policy troublesome, as was the fact that Fr. Illo did not consult his deanery to see if this was a wise and prudent move prior to implementing this policy, noting consultation is one of the purposes of a deanery."

According to the minutes, Strange said he and other priests have had "to spend much time on the issue with parishioners."

Strange asked "for a decree that altar servers are open to boys and girls in the archdiocese, or that the Priest Council issues a recommendation that Fr. Illo reverse his policy," the minutes state.

Related: Parents ask San Francisco archdiocese to remove controversial parish priests

Toward the end of the meeting, then-Auxiliary Bishop Robert McElroy suggested that San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone issue a directive stating disagreement with Illo's exclusion of altar girls, the minutes report.

McElroy, whose appointment as bishop of San Diego was announced March 3, "distinguished between personnel issue and the policy issue," the minutes say, explaining that personnel issues belong to the archbishop.

However, the minutes continue, McElroy said "excluding girls from being altar servers is 'invidious discrimination' and to do this in this day and age in our culture has no justification."

McElroy "mentioned the Pope recently spoke on this very theme and said 'to live by exclusion is a corrupting method of living'" and "further stated that if this was just a case of a pastor acting rashly, he could be talked to."

"But the dilemma, in [McElroy's] view," the minutes say, "is that Fr. Illo repeatedly stated in public interviews that he proceeded with the Archbishop's permission. That was the killer ... and that the public perception will be that the Archbishop is in favor of these actions."

Jesuit Fr. John Piderit, archdiocesan moderator of the curia and vicar for administration, told council members he felt that "in an archdiocese with 93 parishes, having a few that do something different is a healthy thing," the minutes state.

Cordileone echoed Piderit during closing remarks about the Star of Sea situation, the minutes report: "There are some people in the archdiocese that like worshiping in this way, they like seeing only altar boys on the altar, and [Cordileone] wonders why we can't have one or two parishes ... with this practice, so the lay faithful with this preference have a space to go."

"Regarding calls for a policy to be implemented, the Archbishop does not want to impose a policy that would restrict a pastor from exercising pastoral discretion in situations where the Church allows such discretion," the minutes state.

Cordileone also told the council that a Congregation for Divine Worship instruction had "made clear that a pastor can have altar boys only, and highlighted the connection between altar serving and vocation," according to the minutes.

"The Archbishop did acknowledge that Fr. Illo could have handled the matter much differently and in doing so could have avoided the P.R. [public relations] disaster that ensued," the minutes say, adding that the archbishop "reminded that this has been the 'M.O.' [modus operandi] of the Church in recent times -- citing the example when altar girls started. Pastors just started doing it, they didn't talk about it at their deaneries, they didn't consult others, they just did it. So there is nothing new in handling things poorly in matters of change."

The archbishop said he would discuss the council's concerns with Illo during an upcoming, already-scheduled meeting.

According to a participant in the priest council's March 12 meeting, there was little more discussion of Star of the Sea, and "the archbishop simply said he had talked with Fr. Illo."

The Feb. 12 minutes report that Cordileone said he felt he was responding in part to past council discussions on rectory life "and how to promote priests having a more fruitful common life living together" when he accepted the request from Illo to form an oratory in San Francisco.

The oratory, Cordileone told the priests, could be a model for "fostering this sense of common life in rectories," the minutes say.

According to a May 2014 story in the archdiocesan newspaper Catholic San Francisco, Illo and Star of the Sea associate pastor Fr. Patrick Driscoll were to be the initial residents of what is called a fraternity, the first "step toward the canonical establishment of an Oratory of St. Philip Neri" at Star of the Sea.

An oratory is a "Clerical Society of Apostolic Life of Pontifical Right," first begun by St. Philip in Rome in 1575, Catholic San Francisco reported. "Its members are secular priests and brothers who live in community without formal vows and carry out pastoral ministry, usually in an urban parish."

Strange called "the Oratory -- as it exists in our archdiocese -- a divisive force and wonders if there is an implication that the rest of us are not imparting the true Catholic faith."

During the discussion, several other priests expressed concerns, including Fr. David Ghiorso, who also brought up the controversial examination-of-conscience guide that had been distributed at the Star of Sea School, as well as the establishment of an oratorian community. He reportedly said he had "concerns about this group doing their own thing" and "running their own show."

In early February, it came to light that Driscoll had distributed to even young students a pamphlet, "Examination of Conscience and Catholic Doctrine," an extensive listing of potential sins, including adultery, masturbation, fornication, entertaining impure thoughts and abortion.

Parents and teachers reportedly retrieved the pamphlets. Driscoll and Illo later apologized.

Ghiorso, pastor of St. Charles Parish in San Carlos, Calif., said he "would never vote to invite them into the archdiocese, finds them an embarrassment and thinks they should be returned to their own dioceses," the minutes said.

Illo was released to the San Francisco archdiocese by Stockton, Calif., Bishop Stephen Blaire, and Driscoll was given permission to join the fraternity by St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson.

Dominican Fr. Michael Hurley, pastor of St. Francisco's St. Dominic Parish, questioned if any council members had visited with Illo about the recent issues. The minutes indicate no responses. Hurley criticized "casting aspersions and making wide sweeping generalizations and recommendations prior to actually speaking with him."

According to the minutes, Hurley said he "senses that he [Illo] is very pastoral." Hurley added that he and Illo are in the same deanery, that he had spoken with Illo following the highly publicized events and that he thinks "Fr. Illo feels he is on an island and was looking for advice."

Responding to Hurley, pastor of St. Cecilia in Lagunitas, Calif., Fr. Cyril O'Sullivan argued that "the onus should have been on Fr. Illo to first talk to his brother priests, especially being new in this archdiocese," the minutes state. O'Sullivan said Illo should be taught about "where we are in our Church today; if he wants to be pre-Vatican II he needs to be told, 'We're not Vatican I, we are Vatican II.' "

The minutes say that O'Sullivan said Illo's "actions were totally disrespectful to his brother priests and the archdiocese" and asked if Illo might be considering the ban of female eucharistic ministers.

Carmelite Fr. Michael Greenwell lauded Cordileone's "policy of not micromanaging pastors, as evidenced by giving authority to Fr. Illo, even if he might disagree with the pastor," the minutes said, also noting that Greenwell described parental concerns he'd heard about potential perceptions caused by a pastor wanting "only boys in the program" in light of the "priestly pedophile scandals."

According to the minutes, Paulist Fr. Bart Landry, pastor of Old St. Mary's Cathedral Parish in San Francisco, expressed frustration at spending inordinate time "having to respond to angry parishioners," "putting out fires," and doing "damage control."

[Dan Morris Young is NCR West Coast correspondent. His email address is]

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