SF Pastor’s Altar-Boy Policy Fuels Ire Against Archbishop Cordileone

NEWS ANALYSIS: A full-page newspaper ad signed by 100 local Catholics calls for the ouster of the archbishop and tags Father Joseph Illo and his boys-only altar-server program as part of the problem.

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SAN FRANCISCO — “Holy Father, please provide us with a leader true to our values and your namesake. Please replace Archbishop Cordileone,” read the headline of a full-page ad published on April 16 in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Marking a new tactic in an aggressive campaign to remove Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco from ministry, the paid “open letter” echoed the talking points of critics who have attacked his effort to insert “morality clauses” in teacher contracts as intolerant, homophobic and divisive. The ad described his pastoral style as “closer to persecution than evangelization.”

The proposed morality clauses and a new teacher handbook highlight definitive Church doctrine on abortion, sexual ethics and the Eucharist, among other teachings, and direct teachers to avoid any public statements or actions opposing these beliefs. And while opponents of the archbishop's educational initiative have received broad media attention, his many supporters will hold a picnic on May 16 at San Francisco’s Little Marina Green to celebrate his efforts and have launched a petition campaign on his behalf.  

But Thursday’s broadside against the archbishop also targeted his decision to place Father Joseph Illo, a priest ordained in the Diocese of Stockton, Calif., as pastor of Star of the Sea in San Francisco’s Richmond District.

In recent months, Father Illo has received criticism from parents at his parish school, after he introduced an altar-boys-only policy for Sunday Masses at the parish church. The ad charged that the policy “marginalizes women’s participation in the church by banning girls from altar service.”

The Chronicle ad also noted parents’ concerns about the distribution of a “potentially abusive, sexually oriented” pamphlet, which was designed to guide an examination of conscience but was unsuitable for children. And the ad claimed that the priest had a “troubled” history in the Stockton, Calif., Diocese.

Yet, even as the signatories framed Father Illo’s appointment as another blot on the archbishop’s legacy in the city, the situation on the ground at Star of the Sea remains far more nuanced — and far less grim — than the harsh claims would suggest.

“The old-timers are delighted that Father Illo has come because he is ‘breathing new life into the parish,’” Vivian Dudro, a new parishioner and mother of four who returned almost two decades after her youngest child was baptized at Star of the Sea, told the Register.

“The parish is attracting new people who want to go to the liturgies and public prayer open to the public. My husband went to the men’s prayer, and a high-school student was there who had shown up on his own for prayer.”

“If that’s not evidence of new life,” Dudro said, “I don’t know what is.”

Indeed, those who attended the retirement party for Carmel Tickler, the parish's operations manager since 1991, said Tigler's farewell speech noted that there had never been more pastoral activity during her tenure than at the present time, under Father Illo's leadership.


Father Illo’s Perspectives

During an interview with the Register, Star of the Sea’s new pastor explained what was happening behind the scenes at his new parish.

“The altar-girls decision touched a nerve because we were indicating that boys should have their own space, their own fellowship,” said Father Illo during an April 16 interview that addressed the charges in the newspaper ad but also noted the jump in parish membership, income and programs.

“That decision upset many parents who, perhaps, don’t understand the difference between the sexes as the Church understands it.”

“But the distinctive genius of each sex is the principle that inspired our efforts to shape our altar-server program,” said the priest, who has told reporters that boys often lose interest in becoming altar servers — a traditional path to the priesthood — when girls are involved.

According to statistics from the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops, almost 80% of the 595 men who will be ordained to the priesthood in 2015 were altar boys.

The pastor made the decision to focus on training altar boys back in November. Two months later, he said, “the day before the 2015 Walk for Life, the local CBS affiliate arrived with cameras to do a story” on the only all-boy altar-server program in the diocese.

When he watched the story on the news, the pastor recalled his surprise at the “the grim way it was treated, as if there was some kind of catastrophe or scandal in San Francisco.”

“We have a Girl Scout troop but [the reporter] didn’t find it scandalous that no boys were allowed.”

Father Illo explained the rationale behind his decision to the parish-school community and in an article for Catholic San Francisco, the archdiocesan newspaper, and hoped the furor would fade away.

But later, the issue resurfaced, after additional concerns were raised about the examination-of-conscience pamphlet that included questions about abortion and sodomy.

Asked about the adult-oriented pamphlet, Father Illo acknowledged that the materials, which were produced by the Fathers of Mercy, were inappropriate for elementary-school children. But he also noted that the pamphlet had only been handed out once last December, before concerns were raised, and it was promptly removed. He has apologized to parents.


‘Popular’ Pastor in Stockton

Finally, the priest strongly disputed the claim that he had a troubled history in the Diocese of Stockton before his arrival at Star of the Sea.

Media reports have already noted that Father Illo created a stir in Modesto when he told parishioners that it was wrong to vote for a candidate who supported abortion rights even if his or her other positions were good.

However, The Modesto Bee described Father Illo as a “popular” pastor. And the priest told the Register that he ran a large parish with “5,500 families — about 19,000 members. We had more men in the seminary than any other parish and one of the highest levels of Mass attendance.”

These details were absent from the Chronicle ad. Also missing was information that contradicted the portrait of Star of the Sea’s new pastor as an unmitigated disaster.

Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, the founder of Ignatius Press, which is located in San Francisco, has known Joseph Illo since before he entered the seminary and dismissed the allegation that he had a “troubled” history in Stockton.

“When we have the annual Walk for Life, there are several busloads of people from Modesto, where he is hugely popular,” said Father Fessio, who nonetheless agreed that the priest had stumbled somewhat during his first year at Star of the Sea — and taken responsibility for it.


New Initiatives

When Father Illo arrived at Star of the Sea last August, he took up residence in a diverse but fading parish with an aging population and weak finances.

He planned to establish an oratory of St. Philip Neri at the parish, after obtaining Archbishop Cordileone’s agreement to a plan that seemed like an ideal path for revitalizing Star of the Sea.

An oratory, he explained, is a “community of priests and brothers who are committed to a life of common prayer and apostolic work.”

“Usually, the oratories enhance the parish and school because they provide a stable body of priests that stay with the parish for the rest of their lives,” Father Illo explained.

At present, one other priest has already joined the oratory. Star of the Sea has 1,200 parishioners, mostly elderly couples and single people.

Father Illo hopes to attract many more Catholics and already sees signs of hope, with a 60% increase in parish revenue since he arrived and much higher numbers at this year’s Triduum services.

“We assume we will be here for the duration, and we are putting in programs and improving the church lighting and sound system.”

“New initiatives include Bible study and men and women’s support groups,” he said.

Raymond Arroyo, an author and the host of the EWTN World Over news show, will speak at the parish on May 3.

“He will talk about reasons for hope in the lives of several contemporary saints, including Pope St. John Paul II and Padre Pio,” said Father Illo, who believes his parish and the city of San Francisco desperately need hope to overcome the challenges ahead.

“We will be encouraged by these saints who are apostles of hope and saw a future of the Church,” he said.

But if Father Illo and his oratory have actually lit the flame of hope at Star of the Sea, why has the pastor become a target of angry critics?

As Father Illo sees it, part of the problem is that Star of the Sea School is only 40% Catholic, and the school community has become separated from the parish.

Thus, even as parishioner Vivian Dudro celebrates the increase in Mass attendance, along with the new Bible study class and parish barbecues, last month also featured an angry meeting of school parents who aired a host of grievances about the priest’s policies.

Father Illo hopes he can build bridges with the school, and his immediate goal is to move from monthly to weekly Masses for students and also teach a religion class.

But even as he labors to stabilize his parish school, there is little sign that the fury against Archbishop Cordileone will abate, and that means this new pastor could face further trouble.


Caught in the Anti-Cordileone Crossfire?

Some observers suggest Father Illo was cited in the San Francisco Chronicle ad not primarily because of his own missteps, but because of the displeasure of some prominent local Catholics with Archbishop Cordileone’s upholding of Church teachings.

When the Register contacted Joe Toboni, one of the large group of Catholics, including major donors to the local Catholic Charities affiliate, who signed the “open letter” in the Chronicle, Toboni explained that he added his name to the ad because “I don’t agree with the archbishop.”

“We are more in line with what the Pope is doing: We don’t judge. Who is he [Archbishop Cordileone] to judge and march in parades against individuals — many of whom are good Catholics — and represent all of us?” said Toboni, a local builder who was identified in the ad as a past member of the Archdiocesan School Board, in a reference to Archbishop Cordileone’s involvement in the annual Washington, D.C.-based March for Marriage.

The march supports marriage as a union of one man and one woman. And as the U.S. bishops’ point man on the promotion and defense of marriage, Archbishop Cordileone has addressed march participants in the past.

U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a San Franciscan, and others — many of them partisan advocates of same-sex “marriage” — have called on the archbishop to stay home from the event, which they claim promotes “hate” against people because of their sexual orientation. However, supporters of the event have dismissed this claim, and speakers at this year's  march, on Saturday, include Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the papal nuncio, and other religious leaders.

“Every single person has a gay child in their family, and a lot of those children are no longer going to Mass in San Francisco: They don’t feel there is anything in the Church for them,” Toboni continued, as he outlined his reasons for signing the open letter.

He said he did not pay for the ad, which took up a whole page in the Chronicle, and did not know who paid for it. He suggested that “some or one” person had provided the funds.

Asked to explain why Father Illo was included in the open letter that was directed at Archbishop Cordileone, Toboni replied, “No comment.”

Father Fessio contended that the priest has become ensnared in the broader campaign against Archbishop Cordileone and that the Church leader’s critics “are doing everything they can to discredit him.”

“Archbishop Cordileone wants specific Catholic teaching to be taught and not publicly opposed. That has aroused people who are not aware of or don’t support Church teaching.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.