Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone Takes St. Francis’ Mission to Heart

San Francisco’s shepherd discusses the challenges and opportunities that go with being the bishop in a large multicultural region.

(photo: CNA)

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco was installed as the metropolitan archbishop in 2012. In 2008, he came to national attention when, as an auxiliary bishop in the Diocese of San Diego, he helped spearhead a campaign that won voter approval of Proposition 8, which effectively banned same-sex “marriage” in the Golden State. Proposition 8 was subsequently overturned following a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

In 2009, he was appointed the fourth bishop of Oakland and was named the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.

Since his arrival in San Francisco, he has focused on priestly renewal, seminary education and the formation of lay liturgical ministers, along with a range of social-outreach initiatives and support for comprehensive immigration reform. He spoke with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond on Dec. 13.


When you were named the archbishop of San Francisco in 2012, you were best known in California for your efforts to launch a petition drive to get Proposition 8 on the ballot. Some Catholics may have expected you to speak emphatically about that issue, as media coverage of your appointment focused on that. Instead, your homily addressed the spiritual renewal of priests. Why?

First of all, I am not really a “guns blazing” kind of a person. When I am in a new place, I try to understand the people, the culture and the reality, and then craft a vision with those who are my collaborators.

The marriage-amendment initiative in California was a unique moment in history. I realized, along with a small group of people, that we could lose marriage for good and that we had to act then.

Before my installation, as I was reflecting on the message for one of the most important homilies I would give in my life, I thought, “Well, I am coming to San Francisco,” and I thought about St Francis’ mission: “Go, rebuild my house.”

We have a lot of good to build on. But any renewal has to begin with formation, and the heart of that is priestly formation. So that is why I focused on renewal of the priesthood, the renewal of marriage and of consecrated life, so that the Church can be a more effective instrument of God’s salvation for those we serve and in the communities in which we live.


You have established the Pope Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Worship at St. Patrick Seminary in Menlo Park, Calif. What is the mission of the institute, and how will it guide parish life in your diocese?

Renewal of the Church also will necessitate a renewal of worship — that is the heart of who we are and what we are called to do.

The point of the Pope Benedict XVI Institute is to provide formation for laypeople who exercise liturgical ministries, especially music, but also lectors, extraordinary ministers of holy Communion and those who bring Communion to the sick.

We have a lot of wonderful people exercising these ministries, but I have noticed a lack of formation and a lack of a liturgical mindset or sensitivity to the sacred — how we handle the sacred and approach our worship.

Training will be one component. But we have to go deeper than training. There has to be a renewal of our appreciation of who we really are encountering when we come to worship.

For example, it is not enough for lectors to pronounce the words correctly. The best way to proclaim the word effectively is to understand it, to believe it and to take it to heart and be convinced of its truth. Lectors need to have a deeper understanding of Scripture, so they can understand the context in which it was written and the message the author is trying to convey — and thereby more effectively proclaim the word to the assembly.


During a time of cultural crisis, with the rapid decline of marriage, the seminary now offers a more integrated vision of priestly formation that links family, liturgy and theological education. Would you explain what this vision entails?

What we learn from the theology of the body is that marriage is the key sacrament for what God reveals to us about himself and about our relationship to him. Blessed John Paul II points out that the Bible begins and ends with a marriage — Adam and Eve and the wedding feast of the Lamb.

God’s covenant with Israel is presented as a marriage covenant. Christ fulfills that by giving his life for the Church. He is the Bridegroom for the Church, his bride. Holy Communion is the consummation of this mystical marriage of the Lamb with his bride, the Church.

We need to have this deeper theological, mystical understanding of marriage in order to properly understand everything that our faith teaches us in liturgy, theology and how we practically live out our life.

The Church speaks about the family as the “domestic church.” That is where children are schooled in the Christian way, where they develop the virtues they need to be Christians as adults and live out their lives.

We see the crisis in family life and the decline of marriage and the divorce rate, the problem of fatherlessness and the redefinition of marriage. Yes, we need to do a lot of education in this area.


Some scholars suggest that the Church should opt out of civil marriage, as is the case in some parts of the world, and only provide sacramental marriage. What are your thoughts on this?

I have been studying it and discussing this question in my role as the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage and as a member of the [bishops’] Committee on Canonical Affairs.

Those who suggest it make the point that what the state calls “marriage” is not what we call marriage. So when we perform a marriage in the Church, what we understand ourselves doing is not the state’s understanding, and so we should not implicitly endorse the state’s understanding by giving civil recognition to it.

But my own opinion is that there are more reasons not to do this than to do it.

First, the Holy See has concordances with different countries throughout the world. And one provision they always press for is civil recognition for Church marriages. Because of our understanding of marriage, we do not want people to get the idea that it is possible for two baptized people to be validly married and it not be a sacrament.

Further, if the state were to take this from us, that would be a more dramatic step and a wake-up call for people than for us to voluntarily withdraw from it.

Others have voiced a concern that it would cause confusion among our people. They may not understand that they still need a separate civil ceremony and may think they are married, but according to the state they are not.


How do you deal with the cultural indifference, if not outright hostility, of cultural forces in California? What support do you want to offer faithful Catholics who may feel overwhelmed by this reality?

California is a complex reality. There are a lot of components to it. The Bay Area is a perfect example.

It is challenging because those who have the greatest influence on popular culture for the most part disagree with us on [many] issues.

But I would tell our people, “There is more support for our teaching than you realize. And be strong in your faith, which means you need to be involved in your parish, be close with people who share your faith and your values. Study these issues in depth so you can articulate them well and so people understand that we don’t take these positions because we have an animus against anyone.”


Libertarians are also part of the cultural mix. They are not necessarily critical of the Church, but adopt an individualistic mindset: “You leave me alone, and I’ll leave you alone.” They believe that each person has his or her own truth.

It is impossible to have a society of disconnected individuals. There have to be common values and a common understanding.

What if my truth [says] that because what I believe is true then I have a right to harm, silence and marginalize anyone who disagrees with me?

The Founding Fathers understood the experiment in democracy would not work without a virtuous people, without a religious people. They understood the practical aspect of religion, that it helps people to become virtuous. People have to be honest, hardworking, capable of keeping their promises. All these self-restraints are necessary for democracy to work or the powerful will exert their power over the weak without any check on their power.


The Archdiocese of San Francisco, like most of the state, is multicultural. How do you speak to this reality and still have a unified Church?

There are certain feast-day devotions that have particular provenance in certain ethnic communities. We just celebrated the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and that is probably the biggest one.

I want to preserve those traditions, but also tap into the common identity of our Catholic culture that all these ethnic cultures have in common.

Like any culture, Catholic culture speaks in a certain common language, a sacramental language. So we can see commonalities in devotions, processions, the way we pray, the intercession of the saints. These are common things we have in our Catholic culture, and I think we need to build on that commonality.

I speak of language in a metaphorical sense. Our religion is sacramental. We understand that truth is conveyed more powerfully through symbols than through words.

For example, procession is symbolic of who we are as a pilgrim people. As Christians, we are not at home here; we are on a pilgrimage toward our heavenly homeland. That is why we process: It is a symbolic expression of a spiritual reality.

Latin is the traditional language of the Church. And it is the more literal aspect of the common language that we speak, though it’s not used much anymore. But it is not difficult for a congregation to learn simple chant [in Latin] for parts of the Mass. And when they become used to it, it doesn’t seem foreign; it is part of who they are.


Pope Francis sees the Church as a “field hospital” for wounded souls. How might this vision guide the work of the Church in San Francisco?

Pope Francis is cautioning us against an inward-looking approach and just taking care of ourselves. That is not what the Church is. We always have to be looking out.

Those of us in ordained ministry are responsible for the care of the people in the Church. And people need formation so they can be evangelizers.

But we need to go out to the fringes because that is where people need to hear the Good News and understand that God really loves them and is calling them to live in a better way, where they can find true happiness.

People are spiritually in need of a field hospital because they are alienated from the Church, either because of something that happened to them or because of a misperception from a media stereotype. Through Pope Francis, they see a side of the Church they haven’t seen before. We need to be proactive and find a way to connect with them.


What will be your message for Christmas?

I am just today sending out a letter to my priests with a book I am giving for Christmas. I make reference to Pope Francis and his call for priestly renewal. He is calling us to eschew the trappings of privilege and comfort and to give ourselves wholeheartedly as Christ does to the Church.

We celebrate at Christmas the mystery of the Incarnation: The Word becomes flesh. He calls us especially as preachers to incarnate that Word in our own lives so the Word can become flesh in our own lives. That is how we continue the mystery of the Incarnation that we celebrate at Christmas. The Word has to be lived in our flesh if we are going to preach it effectively from the pulpit.

Pope Francis waves to pilgrims during his Angelus address August 30, 2020.

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