At San Francisco school, priests stir parental ire

End of the school day at the Star of the Sea Parish in San Francisco Feb. 18 (Polaris/San Francisco Chronicle/Michael Macor)
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San Francisco — Star of the Sea School in the San Francisco archdiocese has become a kind of war zone between the majority of school parents and Star of the Sea Parish's two priest leaders -- Fr. Joseph Illo, administrator, and Fr. Patrick Driscoll, associate pastor.

The priests began their assignments there last August as part of a plan to establish an oratory, or a kind of fraternity where diocesan priests live in community.

Battle was engaged in November when Illo announced that girl altar servers would be discontinued. Made without known consultation with parents or other archdiocesan priests, the decision generated parental protest, local headlines, and eventually national media coverage.

Illo's actions were also the subject of heated exchanges at an archdiocesan priests council meeting, NCR learned.

Star of the Sea generated more heat in early February when it came to light that Driscoll had distributed to even young students a pamphlet titled "Examination of Conscience and Catholic Doctrine," an extensive listing of potential sins, including adultery, masturbation, fornication, entertaining impure thoughts, and abortion -- without notifying teachers or the principal.

Parents and teachers reportedly retrieved the pamphlets as quickly as they could. Driscoll and Illo later apologized.

Parental ire increased further when Illo dropped the long-standing practice of blessing non-Catholic children who presented themselves during the Communion rite at Mass, and said he wanted to discontinue allowing non-Catholic children from Scripture reading at school Masses.

Both of those decisions have been rescinded until the end of the school year. Illo told NCR he would not be able to respond to inquiries until after the April 10-23 issue of NCR went to press.

In addition, already-trained girl altar servers now will be allowed to continue service at school liturgies, but no new female servers will be recruited.

In apparent response to a letter-writing campaign and other pleas, Auxiliary Bishop William Justice and archdiocesan vicar for clergy Fr. Raymund Reyes agreed to represent the archdiocese and meet with concerned parents and others at a March 25 forum in the school auditorium. Nearly 200 attended. Illo and Driscoll were also present, but did not speak.

Sixteen parents delivered brief statements describing the changes instituted by Illo and the impact on their children. Most of the speakers concluded, "We respectfully ask that Fr. Illo and Fr. Driscoll be removed from Star of the Sea."

Several started to cry as they spoke.

Justice told the audience he would convey the parents' concerns to Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone.

In addition to the school gathering, a group of parents presented their concerns to the archdiocesan Board of Education Feb. 19.

On March 30, a group of school parents announced the launch of a petition urging Cordileone to "reverse your decision to allow Fr. Illo to ban girls from being altar servers at Star of the Sea School."

The petition charges that the ban "sends our girls the wrong message and is in direct conflict with the Pope's direction to increase women's roles in the church."

A petition supportive of Illo and his leadership is also circulating at the parish and "has a long list" of signers, a parishioner told NCR.

Archbishop backs Illo

During both a Feb. 12 Council of Priests meeting and during an hourlong videotaped session Feb. 24 with the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board, Cordileone defended Illo's right to establish male-only altar servers.

"I had a long talk with Fr. Illo about a few things going on at the parish -- identified where the problems are, and we came up with a plan for moving forward," Cordileone told the Chronicle.

Cordileone then asked to speak "off the record," which the Chronicle declined.

"Let me say this then," he said. "It could have been handled better. The church does allow a pastor to use his discretion with regard to having only boys serving Mass, or boys and girls serving Mass. Apparently a lesson that Fr. Illo learned is that it takes much more sensitivity around this issue [in the San Francisco area] than in other parts of the country.

"But he was exercising a pastoral discretion that the church allows. ... We have discussed that -- and a better way forward. I am hopeful things will be able to be resolved there."

During the Feb. 12 priests' council gathering, several priests voiced concern about the altar girl issue. They noted anger, frustration and confusion surfacing in their own parishes.

According to minutes provided to NCR by a priest who asked not to be named, two appeals were made during the meeting for public statements countering Illo's ban.

According to the minutes, Auxiliary Bishop Robert McElroy called exclusion of altar girls "invidious discrimination" and suggested Cordileone issue a directive of disagreement with Illo's prohibition.

The minutes said that McElroy "mentioned the Pope recently spoke on this very theme and said 'to live by exclusion is a corrupting method of living.' "

The Vatican announced McElroy's appointment as bishop of San Diego March 3; his installation was scheduled for April 15.

Retired Sulpician Fr. Michael Strange, who lives at St. Stephen Parish in San Francisco, told council members that he found aspects of Illo's explanation of the new policy "troublesome." Strange criticized a lack of prior consultation with fellow clergy, and asked the council to pass a recommendation that Illo rescind his decision.

"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.

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. 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," the minutes also noted.

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."

Boys-only rationale

Illo has provided rationale for his boys-only stance on altar servers on his blog site, in media interviews, and in a Feb. 11 essay in the archdiocesan newspaper, Catholic San Francisco.

In the Catholic San Francisco commentary, Illo describes the "priest's role in the Mass" as "an act of fatherhood."

He argues, "Once boys begin to realize the sacrificial dimension of the Mass, the desire to become men -- to defend their loved ones with their lives -- awakens within them. Of course, a father, including a priest who shepherds his parish, loves his daughters as well as his sons. Certainly I cherish the girls as much as the boys and the girls at Star of the Sea are being offered opportunities to serve God in ways they find exciting and satisfying."

Illo quotes the 1994 Congregation for Divine Worship letter granting permission for girls to be altar servers: "The Holy See wishes to recall that it will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar. As is well known, this has led to a reassuring development of priestly vocations. Thus the obligation to support such groups of altar boys will always continue."

On its website, the Star of the Sea parents group counters, "We were unable to find any data demonstrating a link" between altar service and priestly vocations. "On the contrary, the available data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), Georgetown University, may support the argument that there is no causal link."

Both Illo and members of the parent group concede that the school community and parish community often orbit separately.

According to the Star of the Sea School website, its enrollment of 233 students is 42 percent Catholic and "reflects the many cultures of the Bay Area: 3% African-American, 35% Asian, 38% Caucasian, 2% Latino/Hispanic and 22% multi-ethnic."

Illo told The Catholic World Report in a January online interview, "The school is thriving, but not as a Catholic school. Like Catholic universities who want to be independent of the bishops, many parish schools like to be independent of their pastors. Of its 150 families, about three attend the church."

He continued, "I must admit, the disjunction between the parish church and school and the vehemence of the school's opposition has been surprising to me. In other parishes I've served at, the school loves the parish priest. When I'd go over, they'd run over and want to talk to me, or if, say, I were walking by a basketball court they'd hand me a basketball and want me to play. It's not the case here. The priest is ignored. The school is lacking in Catholic identity."

Pulling no punches

" 'Lacking Catholic identity' and 'My vision is the archbishop's vision' are the two things that we are now repeatedly hearing from Fr. Illo," parent Christy Brooks told NCR.

"The staff has the devotion of our entire community, and Fr. Illo and Fr. Driscoll have criticized them publicly based on inaccurate information and rumors," Brooks added. "This is one of the many things that Fr. Illo apologized for at the Parent Club meeting he attended in February. He acknowledged that two people had told him something about some of the teachers that turned out not to be true. Consistently, he judges the school community without bothering to get to know the people involved."

Parent-speakers at the March 25 forum pulled no punches in sharing their objections to Illo's interactions with the school.

Ruth Callanan, a mother of two preschoolers, said, "Our children are taught about acts of kindness, loving our neighbor and treating each other with respect. How can we have a spiritual leader, a priest, not following the same guidelines? What message does this send to our children?

"Fr. Illo has repeatedly encouraged families that disagree with his views of the church to leave. I beg to differ, I think it's Fr. Illo that needs to leave because he doesn't agree with our community culture and our views," she said.

Many parents mentioned Illo's blog, in which he described the culture of San Francisco as "savagely distorted" and said changes at the school were to effect a "purge." On his blog, Illo later apologized for his choice of words.

Scott Castro, who represented the kindergarten class at the forum, said the blog showed that "Illo has been preparing for a personal crusade for some time."

Castro, who said his family is not Catholic, talked of the pain he felt seeing "non-Catholic children sitting segregated in the pews."

"Is this really what Jesus taught?" he asked. "The answer is a resounding no."

"The particular 'church' envisioned by Fr. Illo is one steeped in what I can only characterize as a rhetoric of division and deep-rooted animus against Catholics and non-Catholics alike who do not adhere to his 'vision' of the church," Castro said.

In addition, parents say Illo had asked their children during confession how frequently their families attend Mass.

"I deeply resent the use of confessional as a polling place," said parent Stella Bialous.

The speeches of parents who spoke at the meeting are posted on the website, as is extensive documentation on the controversy and background on the genesis and development of altar girl service.

The Chronicle reported March 26 that after the meeting, Illo "acknowledged that there is a lot of tension and anxiety between himself and the school parents. He said there have been misunderstandings, but now he'll leave it to the archbishop to decide what happens next."

"It was a good forum," Illo told the newspaper. "It's important to hear their perspective."

This isn't the first time that Illo has garnered national headlines. In 2008, Illo told parishioners of St. Joseph Parish in Modesto, Calif., that voting for President Barack Obama was tantamount to voting for abortion. "It is a grave mistake and probably a grave sin," he said at the time.

"If you voted for a pro-abortion candidate on Nov. 4, and you knew what you were doing, you need to go to confession before receiving Communion," he said at Mass.

'Divisive' oratory

Illo and Driscoll were released from the Stockton, Calif., diocese and St. Louis archdiocese, respectively, to staff Star of the Sea and begin the process of establishing an oratory last August.

According to a May 2014 story in Catholic San Francisco, the priests 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."

The minutes of the Feb. 12 priests' council meeting said that 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." The minutes state that other priests expressed concerns as well.

Illo recently reported on his blog that two laymen have joined the fraternity, and will be known as brothers.

[Dan Morris-Young is an NCR West Coast correspondent. His email address is San Franciso Bay Area freelance journalist Mandy Erickson contributed to this article.]

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