An Interview with Father Joseph Fessio of San Francisco and Ignatius Press
In spite of a recent newspaper poll that showed 89% of the public supports San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, a small but vocal group of people are keeping up a campaign to get Pope Francis to replace him as archbishop of San Francisco.
The controversy surrounds the archbishop’s plan to strengthen the Catholic identity of high schools that are run by the archdiocese and his support of a priest who decided not to allow girls to be altar servers anymore.
Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, founder of Ignatius Press, based in San Francisco, discussed the controversy with Aleteia.
What’s the latest in the campaign against Archbishop Cordileone?
They’re keeping up the pressure. It’s a well-orchestrated and organized campaign. They’re taking no prisoners.
How did this controversy start?
A lot of priests were not happy when Cordileone was made bishop here because he’s known as a conservative…. Especially once Francis came in, people said, “Now’s our chance. We’ve been waiting through all these pontificates, and now we have Cordileone.”
Then he brings in Father [Joseph] Illo, who was a priest of the Stockton Diocese…. Father Illo was very successful down there. After 12 years as a pastor, Father Illo asked if he could go do some college work, and he was chaplain at Thomas Aquinas [College]. He knows Archbishop Cordileone, so the archbishop asked him to come to San Francisco to start an oratory. So they gave him this parish which was really dying. It had an Extraordinary Form Mass there, but the priest got sick. It was in a Chinese area—not many Catholics there any more.
The parish has a school, and I think there are three parishioners who have children in the school. Only 40% are Catholics. And he decided that in the parish and at the school Mass once a month he was not going to have any more altar girls. So there’s a huge resistance to that. They started a campaign: "He’s against women, it’s discrimination, blah blah blah."
And then they were having confessions for the kids in their Catholic school and they didn’t have any material for the examination of conscience. So the associate pastor, Father Driscoll, went to the parish and quickly grabbed a Fathers of Mercy examination of conscience and gave it to the kids. It tells you have to make a confession, make the sign of the cross, etc., but they didn’t look carefully inside to find that it talks about masturbation, sodomy, adultery. It’s for adults. So there was a huge uproar about that.
This was back in November. Once they found that they took it out.
Then in early February, Archbishop Cordileone had planned to implement some changes in the faculty handbook for the four archdiocesan high schools, basically simply to make explicit what was already there implicitly: they’re supposed to teach Catholic doctrine and not publicly oppose the Church or join other organizations that are opposed to the Church’s teachings. He spelled it out with all the controversial issues. That’s where a huge uproar started. Their first protest was on Ash Wednesday, so, very soon after this happened.
It appears that it’s the parents of the school who hired this [public relations guru] Sam Singer, to get rid of Father Illo as pastor. But they’re using that as a way to get to Cordileone, and that organized campaign now is directed against him. The two big complaints are one, that he’s imposing this “morality clause,” he’s not being inclusive, he’s not being accepting of people, he’s not really following Pope Francis. And number two, that he brought this priest in and hasn’t gotten rid of him.
They then brought up this lawsuit that was decided 10 years ago. There was a woman who had been stalking him, and he tried to get her to stop stalking him. She was a divorcee. He tried to counsel her when she was getting her divorce, and she fell in love with him, so he tried to put some distance between her and him, and she sends her daughter in to say that her mother told her to say that she’s uncomfortable with this [other priest].