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Archbishop Cordileone Rebuilding Church, Society in San Francisco

Archbishop Cordileone Rebuilding Church, Society in San Francisco


John Burger - published on 10/03/13

Known as an outspoken marriage defender, Archbishop Cordileone marks first year as leader of the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

The names of California’s cities reflect the heritage of the Spanish missionaries: places named in honor of Our Lady of the Angels, the Blessed Sacrament, and, of course, St. Francis of Assisi. Today, the names of those locales tend to remind people more of the City of Man than the Kingdom of God; we associate Los Angeles with Hollywood and its sleaze, Sacramento with liberal politics, and San Francisco with the attempt to redefine marriage.

The failure of Proposition 8, a voter-approved constitutional amendment to defend marriage against any redefinition, and the passage of a law allowing non-physicians to perform abortions are just two of the most recent developments that cement California’s image in the rest of the nation’s consciousness as the “Left Coast.”

But some active Catholics are encouraged by the changing leadership of local churches up and down the West Coast, not just in California. High on the list of a new generation of orthodox bishops is Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, who marks his first anniversary as Archbishop of San Francisco this Friday, Oct. 4.

“If you look at the appointments over the past few years, from Seattle down to San Diego, the whole landscape has changed,” said Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, founder of Ignatius Press, which is based in San Francisco. He cited Archbishops José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, J. Peter Sartain of Seattle, Alexander K. Sample of Portland, and Bishops Robert Vasa of Santa Rosa, Michael C. Barber, S.J., of Oakland, and Kevin W. Vann of Orange. “In my old age, I’m saying ‘Nunc Dimittis.’ We have a generation of good strong bishops on the West Coast. … I think it will help Archbishop Cordileone have the support of his fellow bishops to do the things he wants to do.”

Several people Aleteia spoke with, including Father Fessio, characterized Archbishop Cordileone as a person who stands by Catholic principles but presents them in gentle ways. One would hope that that helps him in San Francisco, which is often called the “gay capital of America.” He is considered the “Godfather of Prop. 8,” and chairs the United States bishops’ conference’s Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.

“He stresses not what the Church is against but what the Church is for,” said Father Fessio, a former doctoral student of Pope Benedict XVI. “He says the consequences of being for strong family life and strong marriages and children having a right to a mother and a father means we are opposed to those things that obstruct that. I think he’s become more appreciated by his priests, who see him as a good and reasonable person, but of course he’s going to be in a surrounding society that’s hostile to the Church’s teaching.”

Father Juan Velez, a priest of the Personal Prelature of Opus Dei and author of Passion for Truth: The Life of John Henry Newman, said he was struck by Archbishop Cordileone’s personal piety. “He’s a man of prayer,” Father Velez said. “When they were trying to pass Prop. 8, he was fasting for that. … He knows that problems in society and the Church are long-term things; that you need a supernatural approach and you need prayer.”

“Archbishop Cordileone is a particularly good listener and very courageous teacher,” said William B. May, President of Catholics for the Common Good. “He is very dedicated to helping people understand the depths and beauty of our faith.”

Based on a series of interviews with several Catholics in and around the archdiocese, three main themes emerge as the new Archbishop’s main concerns: marriage and family; the seminary and priestly formation, and the renewal of the liturgy. He recently oversaw a replacement of the rector of St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park; is launching an institute to improve the celebration of the Mass and church music, with the help of a world-renowned expert in Gregorian chant; directed that a daily Extraordinary Form Latin Mass be celebrated in a central location; has hosted a day for laity to deepen their appreciation of the sacrament of matrimony, and has recruited an expert who worked for him when he was Bishop of Oakland to run the Archdiocese’s marriage and family life office.

Standing Up for Marriage

Archbishop Cordileone’s tenure got off to a rough start, in part because of a DUI incident in late August 2012, a month after his appointment to San Francisco had been announced and while he was still serving as Bishop of Oakland. Following dinner with friends and family in San Diego, he was stopped at a DUI checkpoint near San Diego State University and was found to be over the California legal blood-alcohol level.

“I apologize for my error in judgment and feel shame for the disgrace I have brought upon the Church and myself,” he said in a statement the following day. “I will repay my debt to society and I ask forgiveness from my family and my friends and co-workers at the Diocese of Oakland and the Archdiocese of San Francisco. I pray that God, in His inscrutable wisdom, will bring some good out of this.”

He referred to the incident during his homily at his installation Mass, using it as an example of his own need for constant personal renewal. God’s command to St. Francis to “rebuild my Church” goes far beyond the physical – right down to the pursuit of holiness on the part of each Christian, he said.

The DUI incident wasn’t the only thing that made for a difficult beginning. According to a study of the 2010 U.S. Census by UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy, San Francisco ranked number one on a list of large American cities having the most same-sex couples per 1,000 households. Archbishop Cordileone’s reputation as one of the leading Catholic voices for marriage preceded him; he was the driving force behind Prop. 8, going back to 2007, before an earlier pro-marriage act, California Prop. 22, was struck down.

“When he first came, he received threats on his person from various critics who were not pleased,” said Deacon Christoph Sandoval, who serves Archbishop Cordileone’s Sunday Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral. “He understood that when he took the job, this would require that he stand and deliver the Gospel irrespective of whatever comes to him. He speaks the truth in a respectful and loving way. He’s often depicted as some kind of unreasonable, illogical fundamentalist. Not true – he’s a loving Christian man. What he’s doing is engaging the world.”

Victoria Evans, the Archdiocese’s pro-life coordinator, said that when Archbishop Cordileone was named to the Archdiocese, there was picketing outside the cathedral and the archdiocesan headquarters. “They saw this as a slap in the face to San Francisco because of the large gay population,” she said. “It’s really mission territory; the gay lobby is pretty strong.”

But, according to those who know him, Archbishop Cordileone speaks the truth in love. “He speaks the same language to everyone,” said Dolores Meehan, co-founder of Walk for Life West Coast, which takes place each January in San Francisco and which Archbishop Cordileone has participated in for several years. “He’s very clear that this is for the good of society. Whether you’re homosexual or heterosexual, you have to want what’s best for society so that you can exist and live your life freely. The homosexual community is enjoying the sap from the tree of Judeo-Christian society and culture. The Church has fought for the dignity of everybody.”

Archbishop Cordileone’s approach helped sway Catholic voters who might have been opposed to same-sex “marriage” but afraid their vote for Prop. 8 would alienate gay friends and relatives, according to Cathleen Gillies, a local volunteer coordinator for 40 Days for Life. “He helped us articulate to all people that marriage is between a man and a woman in such a loving way,” Gillies said. “Even in our neighborhood in the city, it was something like 60 percent of the population that voted for Prop. 8.”

May, of Catholic for the Common Good, helped promote Prop. 8. He recalled meeting then-Auxiliary Bishop Cordileone of San Diego, who advised him, “When you go around the state talking to people, ask them to go to confession.”

“I knew that he was really saying that to be able to advocate public policy on marriage we’d first have to reconcile ourselves to God. It was just an indication of the depth of spirituality that this man has,” May said.

“He’s… promoting the positive side – promoting traditional marriage,” said Father Mark Mazza, Pastor of Star of the Sea Parish in San Francisco. “We had study days on marriage, for example, that all the priests did.”

Gibbons J. Cooney, Parish Secretary at Saints Peter and Paul in San Francisco, said that an Aug. 17 archdiocesan Day of Marriage and Family Life was an important effort to begin to rebuild a culture of marriage and family at a time when “marriage as a whole is not taken seriously anymore.”

Still, Cleve Jones, a prominent gay activist in San Francisco, said in an email, “Generally, I would say [Archbishop Cordileone] is viewed with contempt by most LGBT San Franciscans.”

Father Brian Costello is the Pastor of Most Holy Redeemer Parish in the heavily gay Castro District. The parish website makes a point that gays and lesbians are as welcome there as anyone. Father Costello reported that Archbishop Cordileone visited the church for the first time on Sept. 18, not overtly to reach out to the gay community but to help serve dinner at a regular Wednesday night supper for the poor and homeless.

“The Archbishop served a table full of people and everyone was delighted that he took time out of his busy schedule to be with them,” Father Costello said. “He promised he would be back.”

Seminary and Priestly Formation

On Sept. 6, Aleteia interviewed the Rector and President of St. Patrick’s Seminary and University, which is run by the Society of Saint-Sulpice for San Francisco and 14 other dioceses.

“It’s a wonderful thing to have an Archbishop who is so collaborative and supportive,” Sulpician Father James McKearney said of Archbishop Cordileone. Ten days later, the Archbishop announced a “change in leadership” there, with San José Auxiliary Bishop Thomas A. Daly becoming Interim Rector and President, effective Oct. 1.

“Bishop Daly is expected to hold the position for up to a year while the Society of Saint-Sulpice, the traditional administrators of the seminary, work with the seminary Board of Trustees to search for a permanent President and Rector,” reported Catholic San Francisco, the newspaper of the Archdiocese, quoting unnamed officials.

In an interview after the announcement, Melanie Morey, the seminary’s Provost, said that Archbishop Cordileone “determined that it was time to bring in Bishop Daly, who is an alumnus of this institution…. Bishop Daly has wonderful credentials…. We’re beginning to move forward with plans for the future that are very much in line with a general direction we had and the commitment of the Archbishop to doing all that he possibly can to make sure that this institution continues to be one of the strongest seminaries in the United States.”

Asked whether the seminary is looking for a permanent Rector, Morey said, “That is going to be something that emerges out of a conversation with the Sulpician community itself. Archbishop Cordileone is very clear that he has the greatest esteem for the Sulpician community and their commitment to this institution for the last 115 years. He would like that commitment to continue. He will be in significant conversation with the community about how to assure that that can continue in the future.”

It was unclear why Father McKearney left, and efforts to reach him and his provincial were unsuccessful. The Sept. 16 press release said only that Father McKearney would “continue to serve in ministry” with his community.

Provost Morey emphasized Archbishop Cordileone’s statement about Father McKearney, that he had “made a tremendous commitment to this institution in his years here and one of the things he found to be most significant in his leadership was the people he’d brought on to campus, both the faculty and administration.” She also confirmed that Archbishop Cordileone has “been involved in a number of the new hires as a sitting Archbishop and Chairman of the Board and Chancellor” of the seminary.

Also announced Sept. 16 was the appointment of Jesuit Father John J. Piderit, former president of Loyola University in Chicago, as St. Patrick’s Vice President for Administration. “Father Piderit is a major voice for restoring Catholic identity in Catholic education as President of the Catholic Education Institute,” the press release stated, noting that he will continue in another position he’s held at the seminary since late 2012, Vicar for Finance.

Father Fessio noted that the seminary had already been improving under the previous two archbishops, Cardinal William Levada and Archbishop George Niederauer. “It’s got a very fine faculty,” he said. “I think it’s basically strong. Many of the professors there who are faithful to the Church are feeling well supported now that Cordileone is Archbishop.”

Father McKearney, who served as rector for four years, said in the Sept. 6 interview the Archbishop is “very clear about the importance of a seminary, very concerned about the types of formation priests get in the seminary today, obviously with all the difficulties the Church has been through, the horror show we’ve had with clerical abuse and so on.

“For the most part, he’s made recommendations for the program, as we would expect for the new Archbishop, and we’ve tried to honor and be responsive to those desires he has for the seminary,” Father McKearney said. “But he’s also been very collaborative and realizes we can’t do everything all at once.”

He said he expected the number of vocations for the Archdiocese of San Francisco to increase under Archbishop Cordileone’s leadership, “and that these will be solid men who really understand what priesthood is, its demands and challenges and expectations and so on, and will want to give themselves to this wonderful life that priests share.” Fifteen of the 93 seminarians studying at St. Patrick’s are from the Archdiocese. Father McKearney noted that Archbishop Cordileone had appointed a new vocations director “who is young and energetic and a fairly newly ordained priest.”

Further, when Archbishop Cordileone was Bishop of Oakland, that Diocese “had the most seminarians in the house,” Father McKearney said, “and he was far from the largest diocese – fifty-some-odd parishes over there, ninety-some-odd here but fewer seminarians.”

Bishop Daly, the Interim Rector, also is focused on vocations. “You can’t build a vocation culture unless you have a culture of prayer,” then-Father Daly said in a 2011 interview with Catholic San Francisco. But he cautioned against engaging in a “numbers game… because one crazy, weird seminary candidate will chase away five normal guys.”

Dolores Meehan, of Walk for Life, noted that Archbishop Cordileone’s first focus has been the seminary and the seminarians, and that he has been making himself fully available to them.

“And priests’ education on issues like marriage and life and religious freedom, issues the Church is facing in a pretty perilous way,” she said. “It’s really a comforting feeling to see him taking the bull by the horns, and he knows that the most effective way is when the priests are really well formed. And you’re hearing it more. In my parish, my pastor really appreciated the priests study days. And he’s not a big conservative, a little more moderate. He just came back fired up.”

The new Archbishop seems to value sanctity as an indispensable character of priests and seminarians. Meehan noted that he “talks to the priests about the need to do a daily holy hour.”

Said Star of the Sea Parish’s Father Mazza, “I think priests have been encouraged by him because he’s a holy man and he encourages holiness of life. … He’s also very humorous, a very enjoyable person to talk to. I’ve heard from priests who have had difficult situations, and he’s been very kind to them.”

Restoring the Liturgy

If prayer and personal holiness are important for priests, in Archbishop Cordileone’s view, it’s also important for the laity, and a major source for their spiritual formation is the Mass. With that in mind, the Archbishop wants better liturgies, and a liturgical institute based at the seminary will help form laity and clergy “in the ars celebrandi and proper understanding of Church music,” said Father Fessio.

“There will be workshops on reciting liturgies and chanting,” said Father Raymund Reyes, Pastor of St. Anne of the Sunset Church in San Francisco. “I just sense that the liturgy is important for him, creating a culture of prayer and worship. Maybe he believes that through that effort of creating a culture of prayer, they change the structure of everything else in their lives of the faithful in the Archdiocese.”

Benedictine Father Samuel Weber, a visiting faculty member teaching sacramental theology at St. Patrick’s Seminary, is assisting in setting up the institute. St. Patrick’s Morey called him “one of the world’s experts in Gregorian chant.”

“For me personally, this is coming at the right time,” said Father Reyes. The new Roman Missal translation had been met with resistance by a Catholic population that had become accustomed to the old one, he said. A focus on liturgical renewal in San Francisco is “kind of a continuation” of that.

Archbishop Cordileone is “a person who has a great understanding and respect for the liturgy,” said Father Velez. “Some people see that as an adornment or something, but he sees the worship of God bearing on how we believe and how we live.”

Will it make a difference? Check back next year. In the meantime, serious Catholics in California can only be heartened by the momentum engendered by the new generation of leaders.

“In a very short period, all this wonderful infusion of energy came into California,” said Meehan. “It’s very exciting for us: We see everything collapsing around us, and the Church is emerging.”

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