I am going to assume the best of intentions on the part of Father Joseph Illo, pastor of Star of the Sea Catholic Church in San Francisco, but in the past week he and his parish have come under increased scrutiny from the national print and blog media over his decision to discontinue allowing young women to serve at Mass. This is one of those visceral issues for a lot of people. Again, I strive to be fair and balanced: the pastor is enthusiastic in his efforts to recruit more young men to the priesthood. My concern is his method and his methodology.
If you are not familiar with this situation, I attempted to find a comprehensive Catholic news source for you. National Catholic Register, the popular conservative weekly paper, has no mention of the story. Catholic News Service, the 24-hour communication site for the US Conference of Bishops, has no mention. The independent National Catholic Reporter covered the story at a bit of a distance here in this NCR byline. The best source in terms of “feet on the ground” comes from the diocesan Catholic San Francisco coverage. Father Illo's Statement is contained in the Star of the Sea’s parish website.
If you have a minute, take a look at the pastor’s explanation, because it does embody currents of thought that are very common in strongly conservative blog sites, publications, and in particular in the utterances of Cardinal Raymond Burke, whom Pope Francis recently demoted. My concerns run along these lines. First, Father Illo states that this policy change is the decision of the two priests. There is no mention of consultation with parish bodies such as a parish council, liturgy committee, or formation personnel. Second, he has been pastor of Star of the Sea for only several months; common courtesy would suggest more of a breaking in period for a pastor to know and gain credibility with his new community. Third, his appeal to a 1900 year tradition of male serving is a gross simplification, as any brief web search will reveal. (Always publicly document your sources!)
Then what are we to make of his assertion that altar boys “lose interest” because altar girls generally do a better job? Here is an example of taking a personal impression and rendering it into policy. (Never make policy without adequate consultation!) My own parish, by contrast, has altar boys and girls, and we have three men in the seminary as of this writing.
In his fourth paragraph Father Illo argues the point that serving at the altar is the logical jumping off point for entrance into seminary training, and thus it makes little sense for young women to get involved in a career track with no future, so to speak. Again, Father Illo is speaking from his own impressions. He may be advocating return to a day when young boys like me were shuttled off to minor seminaries at 14, in part to keep us safe from feminine charms. He does not seem current with the recent literature on seminarians such as The Inner Life of Priests by researchers McGlone and Sperry, among other professional and magisterial writing, which indicate that young men approach seminaries at a variety of ages and psych/sexual development.
His fifth paragraph is disturbing, suggesting that those who have difficulty with his policy have been seduced by dangerous secular trends. Presumably he is including St. John Paul II as one of those seduced; it was John Paul who approved the ministry of altar service for young women in the first place. While he notes that two dioceses in the U.S. do not permit altar girls, he does not pause to consider that the other 198 (including his own) see wisdom in the practice. (In ministry, stay on the reservation!) His use of the term “plumbing arrangements” in discussing sexual identity is simply crude and has no place in an official church statement of any kind.
I did not enjoy writing this entry today; every other day has been a delight. But as catechists and servants of the Church we are always looking for ways to improve our ministerial work ethic; sometimes the best lessons come from actual life situations. Again, I emphasize that Father Illo has not broken the letter of any law; he enjoys the permission of his local bishop. I assume that he is deeply dedicated to his positions for the best of reasons, the growth of the priesthood. It is his pastoral style that, I fear, has generated more heat than life. A wise woman could have told him that.
On a happier note: my head says “Seahawks” but my heart says “Patriots.” (I’m from Buffalo; we AFC East folks stick together.)
On My Mind