I want to report a curious phenomenon here in San Francisco. The city’s strange restriction on religious worship (services can be held only outside, limited to 12 people) has actually strengthened our community. Draconian social distancing has brought us closer together. Instead of Mass in a massive church, I’m now offering Mass on the deck of our rectory. Instead of 100 people sitting as far as possible from each other in a 1000-seat church, 12 people are now sitting six feet from each other. I don’t have to use a microphone. Before starting Mass, I ask the names of those I do not know, and even a little about them. I have become friendly with some I’ve seen at Mass for years but who normally leave immediately after Mass. They are now “trapped” into talking to me and their fellow congregants, and they are rather enjoying it. It feels like Mass in the catacombs, especially in the cold fog of a San Francisco summer. We are making a real sacrifice, as one body in Christ, to attend Mass. We feel that we are all in this together, and that God is with us. Thank you, Board of Supervisors, for providing the means to strengthen our faith!
Today is the feast of St. John Vianney, patron saint of parish priests (or, as one of my Latin Mass attendees pointed out, August 4 is the feast of St. Dominic—but on August 8 in the older calendar it will be the feast of St. John Vianney, but in the newer calendar the feast of St. Dominic. They do the old switcheroo).
After two years as a young “curate” (associate pastor), Fr. John Vianney was assigned as pastor to a very poor parish in a miserable little village in southern France called “Ars.” The year was 1818, and he would stay at St. John the Baptist parish in Ars for the next 41 years, until the day he died on August 4, 1859. He grew up in the aftermath of the French Revolution, which had attempted to “cancel” Europe’s Christian culture in 1789. It was the first time people had actually unleashed the practical consequences of secular philosophies that had been developing in Europe since the fourteenth century. This line of thought has driven other revolutions such as in Soviet Russia and Communist China, and it is driving the “soft” revolutions against Judeo-Christian culture in the world today.
The little village to which Father John Vianney was assigned in 1818 was typical in a France recovering from social chaos. People would spend weekends drinking and hooking up for sexual experiences, and they had very little hope of anything better or deeper out of life. “You are going to Ars,” the bishop told his young priest. “There is little love of God in that town. You are going to bring it there.”
Over the next 41 years he worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week, and towards the end so many people were flocking to Ars from all over Europe that the French railway had to build a dedicated line to accommodate them. My favorite story is of a woman whose husband committed suicide. She tried to get to Fr. Vianney but the confessional line sometimes took days to reach him. He saw her in line and cried out “He is Saved!” People looked up and wondered by the priest was crying out to a woman in line. “I tell you he is saved,” Fr. John insisted. “He is in Purgatory, and you must pray for him. Between the parapet of the bridge and the water he had time to make an act of contrition.”
Through the intercession of St. John Vianney, I pray that we, your priests, will help free you from the fear of death and judgement, and any other darkness, by witnessing to the goodness of God. May we be found worthy of the trust God has placed in us!
Following is my pastor’s message for this Sunday’s bulletin
Le Curé d'Ars
This Tuesday is the feast day of St. John Vianney, patron saint of parish priests. Please pray for your men on the front lines, through his intercession!
Some have been saying that I trivialized the pandemic in my bulletin column last Sunday. It was not my intention to make light of the disease or the suffering it is causing. I have always taken the safety of our people seriously, and have gone to great lengths to make sure our church is distanced and sanitized at all times. In a letter to priests last week, Archbishop Cordileone asked us to “please regularly remind people to follow the safety practices necessary to curb the spread of the virus. This is real, it is dangerous, and it has to be taken seriously.” I am committed to his directive, and am truly sorry that some were scandalized by what they felt was a priest’s insensitivity toward their suffering.
Body and Soul
The pandemic, as some have pointed out, can lead to other serious ills such as suicide, alcoholism, depression, and pornography, especially among less advantaged classes. Our parishes are uniquely able to safely provide for the whole person—body, soul, and spirit—through human community, sacraments, and prayer. This requires an immense amount of work from staff and volunteers, to whom we are all grateful. In his letter last week, the Archbishop urges priests to celebrate three Masses each on Sundays for the people, and to generously provide the sacraments of penance and anointing. He hopes churches will soon be able to reopen, and points out that church services can be operated at least as safely as retail stores. All of us are suffering in many ways in this pandemic. I can say that I’ve been able to keep my peace in the current turmoil by spending at least an hour a day in silence before the Blessed Sacrament, and by reading my Bible every day.
Powers of the Air
Our struggle, wrote St. Paul in Eph 6:12, is not with flesh and blood but with the “powers of the air.” My dear children: our earthly lives are relatively short. I am sorry, in my imprudence and pride, for speaking glibly about the pandemic. Despite my mistakes, however, I want you to know that there is nothing more important in this life than the next life. “What does it profit a man,” Jesus said, “to gain the whole world but to lose his soul?” It is terribly easy to fixate on this life, forgetting the things of God. The Archbishop concluded his letter with these words: “In addition to adoration, we have to reclaim an authentic and serious spirit of fasting.… I am asking you to join me in observing Friday as a day of fast (unless your health condition cannot allow for it): please abstain from at least one meal on Fridays....” I have not been fasting enough, but last Friday I noticed one of our priests giving up a meal. So I gave up a meal, and it was not as hard as I thought. We can live on a lot less than we think, and once we offer even a little thing to God, it becomes infinite. We do what we can on a human level, but I urge you also to fast and to pray. God is with us, and we must be with Him!
“All”Romans 8:28 is just about my favorite verse in the Bible. “All things work for good for those who love God….” The operative word is “all.” No exceptions. No worries. Love God, and all will be well. A lawyer asked Jesus: What is the first commandment? “Love God.” Full stop. Nothing bad can happen to a man of God; nothing evil can harm a woman who makes the love of God her first priority. In the Gospel, a man finds the supreme good—described as a pearl or a treasure buried in a field—and he sells ALL that he has to buy that supreme good. If you find God, you must sell all that you have to get it: you must love Him with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.
An Understanding Heart
In our first reading, the great king Solomon, the wealthiest and most powerful ruler in Israel’s history, asks one thing from God: an “understanding heart. “You have made me, O God,” he prays. Now give me nothing more than a heart great enough to understand you, so that I might govern your people wisely, “to distinguish right from wrong.” What do you get when you make God your first priority? You get an “understanding heart;” that is, the capacity both to understand and to love. What distinguishes humans from the rest of the animal kingdom is intellect and will, powerful gifts from the Creator. We can refuse to cultivate these two gifts—to act irrationally and impulsively. In fact, we are doing so at this moment: the unreasonable fear and confusion, the impulsive anger and hatred gripping our nation today is making a hell of our nation. Refusing God’s gifts of intellect and will, the human mind cannot understand, and the human heart cannot love. “Give me, O Lord, an understanding heart!”
The Supreme Good
How do they catch monkeys in Polynesia? I have been told that they drill a hole into a coconut and put a bit of tasty food it. The hole is just big enough for a monkey’s empty hand to fit through. The monkey cannot withdraw his hand if it is clenched around the food. They chain the coconut to a tree, and in the morning they find monkeys desperately clinging to the food inside the coconuts. Terror fills the faces of these monkey as they see the hunters approaching, but they will not let go of the food. They are not rational animals, after all. What they hold tightly in their clenched paws has become their entire world. The hunters capture the monkeys and cook them up for dinner that night. We, however, are not irrational monkeys. We are children of God, endowed with right reason and free will. We can let go of lesser goods to embrace the supreme Good. We can sell all that we have to buy that field.
“All marriages end in tragedy”
Today is my parents’ 67th wedding anniversary. It’s not been an easy marriage, but it’s been a good one. "If you're not careful,” my sister told him this morning, “you'll make it to 70 years." My Dad is melancholic by temperament, and in his wry humor replied “All marriage ends in tragedy.” My sister quipped back “either death or divorce,” but then added in her email to us, “theirs will not end in divorce. Bravo, Mom and Dad!” Marriage is not a compromise. There are many times it must be 100% from both spouses. It must be all in from all the family, and that’s why it’s a sacrament, a sign and channel of God’s grace, his love for us. It manifests God’s total love for us.
Thanks be to God my parents have been married 67 years and had six children. Thanks be to God young people are still getting married. Last Sunday two young ladies of our parish entered into formal betrothal with two young men. The young man said: In the name of our Lord, I, Christopher Ho, promise that I will one day take you, Emma Silmaro, as my wife, according to the ordinances of God and Holy Mother Church. I will love you even as myself. I will keep faith and loyalty to you, and so in your necessities aid and comfort you; all that a man ought to provide for his espoused wife, I promise unto you, by the faith that God has given me. And the young woman said: In the name of Our Lord, I, Emma Silmaro, do declare that, in the form and manner wherein you have promised yourself unto me, do affirm that one day I will bind and oblige myself unto you, and will take you, Christopher Ho, as my husband. And all that you have pledged. Our thoughts and prayers go with my parents, 67 years married, and with Chris and Emma, soon to be married. We are all in the hands of God, whose care is with His elect.
Here in California we are told there is a spike in cases and so we can’t open our schools next month. That will be very hard on the children, and their parents. I have given up reading the newspapers because it takes so much energy to try to sift out simple facts. Reading the New York Times these days is like reading the Soviet newspaper Pravda: shameless propaganda. One article I did read said that the number of cases is rising sharply, along with the massive effort to increase testing. The article said nothing about hospitalizations, nor the mortality rate. The article offered no scientific evidence of an actual increase in cases. When you test more, you discover pre-existing cases, but the cases themselves have not increased. The question that should drive shutdowns, especially of our schools, is not cases but hospitalizations. Fear, however, not reason, rules the day.
Have we paused to ask ourselves how much of our consciousness is defined by the screen—the prepacked media delivered into the palms of our hands—rather than what we see with our eyes? How much of our intelligence have we ceded to the propagandists?
May I suggest taking your eyes off the screen and looking around you. As a priest for 30 years, I know thousands of people personally. How many of those thousands have tested positive for Covid? The answer is three. One is a 94-year-old woman with multiple pre-existing conditions whom I’ve anointed a few times at her nursing home. She tested positive for Covid a few weeks ago but has no symptoms and feels fine. The second person is a 40-year-old priest friend who got symptoms last week, tested positive, and is quarantined at home with a “sore throat and no sense of taste.” We are cheering him on and praying for him via text. And the third person is a 70-year-old female who has suffered pretty seriously from the virus, was in the hospital for a few days, and is now at home on the mend. Now, there may be many more that have contracted Covid, but have not been tested. But they are not sick. They may have the virus, like we all have cancer cells in our bodies, but we are not sick.
Covid is real, but please know that the news reports on Covid are largely unreal. Actual hospitalization numbers easily obtainable on local hospital websites will show a much less alarming picture. Unfortunately, the hysteria and social chaos generated by the media industry is also real. We cannot ignore the fact that the obvious discrepancy between media reports and hospital reports is taking place in an election year. Note two facts: 1) those who control the media have stated a vitriolic opposition to our incumbent president. 2) a proven means of unseating an elected official is to induce fear among the incumbent’s constituents.
The good news is that you can look out your window and see God’s peaceful order in the flowers and the trees, the earth and sky and sea. You can choose to look at the order and beauty around you rather than giving in to the dramatic fear portrayed on your cellphones. You can break your addiction to the internet and the news cycles. So please: at least balance the weaponized politics on your phones with a look around you, at the real world. It is beautiful, peaceful, and joyful.
Our thanks go out to the small army of volunteers who have been setting up three and four Masses at a time in various parts of the parish campus, in order to provide the Holy Sacraments to as many people as possible. The Mayor has restricted religious services in the City of San Francisco to 12 people, outside, and so at least 192 people are receiving the Holy Eucharist on Sundays between the 16 Masses our four priests are offering. It’s a bit nerve wracking to hold four Masses simultaneously, within earshot of each other, but also beautiful to hear the bells ringing in different parking lots marking the moment the word becomes flesh on our makeshift altars. My thanks to our priests as well, who are tripling the number of Masses they usually offer.
“While We Were Asleep”
Christ’s parable today describes the Kingdom of heaven in terms of a farm. I grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania and can tells you how hard entire families work from sunup to sundown in rural America. In the parable, “when everyone was asleep, an enemy sows weeds in the wheat….” My parents lived through both the Great Depression and Second World War, but after these twin devastations they rebuilt a peaceful, ordered, and prosperous society. Today we still enjoy the prosperity they built up for us, but our peaceful order is threatened by poisonous weeds. Bitter divisions increasingly alienate friends and colleagues. We can’t agree on basic biological facts, let alone what “democracy” means. The suicide rate among our young people has tripled over the last 10 years. We are isolated, gripped with fear, and addicted to food, opioids, and pornography. Where did these weeds come from? In Christ’s parable, the farmer answers: “an enemy has done this.”
Bread and Circuses
We cannot see the enemy, or even the weeds, because we are asleep, or at least dozing at the wheel. The enemy has given us plenty of food and entertainment to keep us quiet. Our ability to think rationally, to perceive truth and falsehood, and to discern the good from the bad have been disabled by a constant diet of Netflix and Cheetos; or if you are in the upper 5%, a constant diet of expensive travel and high end therapists. We have an enemy, and he works at night. But he is known by his fruits. Look around this city right now. Almost all Catholics have not received the sacraments, or joined together in liturgical praise of the Creator, for five months. We have meekly accepted and obeyed the little signs all over town: stay home. Keep isolated. Don’t think and don’t question. “We” will make sure you have a steady diet of “bread and circuses.”
Together Under the Bright Sun
I must say, however, that if you have to isolate, San Francisco is a beautiful city to do it: great cycling and hiking. Yesterday I rode through some lovely parks bathed in warm afternoon sunlight. And what did I see? Hundreds of people gathered on the grass having picnics together. No one was wearing masks, and they were they were laughing and singing and playing games under the sun. They were not afraid. Thank God the city government is permitting this. Thank God the city government has permitted restaurants to reopen with outdoor seating. I had dinner on Friday night at an exquisite Greek restaurant with old friends. The tables were placed within two feet so that more people would be able to eat together. My friend’s mask dropped off his chair, and the stranger at the table beside us—no more than 12 inches away—leaned over to pick it up for him. Freedom from fear and human kindness are slowly returning. The government is allowing us to decide for ourselves if risking infection is worth having a meal together again, even near strangers. That’s because we all instinctively know that community, and meals together, are essential to human health. But religious community is also essential to human health. Wouldn’t it be nice if the government would allow public Masses to reopen in San Francisco? We promise to wear masks and keep six feet apart, even if they don’t do that at parks and restaurants.
God is Everywhere
If you ask a wise child “where is God,” he will tell you “everywhere.” In the Book of Wisdom, our first reading, we hear “There is no god besides you, who have the care of all.” We are all in the hands of the Good God, and we have nothing to fear. Are we aware of His presence, or of his existence? Or is our world limited to Netflix and Cheetos? In this world evil will always fight against good, but good will win. True love wins in the end, as Our Lady said at Fatima: in the end, her Immaculate Heart will triumph. Thanks be to God!
Freedom of Movement
Yesterday I met with an engaged couple that is scrambling to find a church for their wedding on August 15th, since churches in San Francisco remain closed. “After we are allowed to move about normally…” he said. I had to say that I didn’t think we would ever be able to move about as freely as we did before. This is not a conspiracy, but a consensus, which is much worse. Most of us have chosen “safety” over freedom. Most of us have too easily given up freedom of worship and the Sacraments. Most churches in San Francisco have been closed since March, and do we think Catholic life and worship will resume? Most Catholics will not return to the sacraments, because for five months we have been told that the Eucharist is not essential. 75% of Catholics did not attend Sunday Mass before Covid; I expect only five or ten percent of the total Catholic population will attend Mass after Covid. And five percent is just about what we have here at Mass this morning. But God can save the world with very small numbers.
Five Percent: “Some” Seed
In Christ’s parable only a fraction of the seed puts down roots and bears fruit—most of the seed dies. But the seed that survives yields fruit thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold. A friend of mine grows wheat, and he tells me that it’s hard to increase even four-fold from year to year—four times the amount of wheat from the previous year. The highest anyone has ever increased his wheat yield, with every modern technology, is forty-fold. But Christ promises a hundred-fold. How is that possible? Can San Francisco’s million inhabitants be saved from the violence and lawlessness of atheism with only 48 people at our four Masses this morning? Yes. The battle, and the victory, is the Lord’s, not ours. This city is His. Our job is simply to be faithful, few as we are.
The Chastisement that makes us whole
First we have to acknowledge that we are slaves, as St. Paul writes in Romans 8: He describes all creation in “bondage to decay,” in slavery to corruption. All that you see around you will rot. This body of mine, in 50 years, will be food for worms. Google and Facebook will probably be long gone, and perhaps even this great nation will have been dissolved. “Heaven and earth will pass away,” the Lord assures us, “but my words will not pass away.” Or, in St. Paul’s words, “Creation was made subject to futility—"nothingness”—in hope that when it fails us, the children of God will be revealed. Covid is the Great Revealer: how strong is our Christian faith when we face opposition? We must be revealed as the children of God, not the children of this age. We must put our hope and trust not in politics, or technology, or economic security, or physical health, but in God. “The sufferings of this present time,” Paul writes, “are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed … the glorious freedom of the children of God.”
In the years of social disintegration leading up to the Great War of 1914, GK Chesterton wrote an exquisite hymn, O God of earth and altar. It calls upon God’s chastisement, which is our only hope of regaining our freedom.
O God of earth and altar,/ bow down and hear our cry,
our earthly rulers falter,/ our people drift and die;
the walls of gold entomb us,/ the swords of scorn divide,
take not thy thunder from us,/ but take away our pride.
Only God can purge our individual and national perverse willfulness. Gold—economic prosperity—entombs the human spirit, and scorn divides us, so, God, “take not thy thunder from us, but take away our pride.”
Tie in a living tether/ the prince and priest and thrall,
bind all our lives together,/ smite us and save us all;
in ire and exultation/ aflame with faith, and free,
lift up a living nation,/ a single sword to thee.
“Smite us and save us:” he afflicts us only to strengthen us, he wounds only to heal. Only God can lift up “a living nation, a single sword to thee.” We must be that united sword of the Spirit, witnesses of fidelity to Christ in a godless age. May God keep us faithful to Him, especially in these gloriously difficult times. May we be revealed as the “children of God” in this time of struggle.
Rats. This year the city government canceled July 4th. For a boy, July 4th means fireworks, and this year the nanny state took away our skyrockets. They think we are not smart enough to keep from getting sick, and so the city canceled municipal fireworks displays.
But we outsmarted them. On Saturday night a bunch of us snuck out to a large open park behind a friend’s suburban home. Every year, it seems, a neighbor transports a carload of skyrockets across state lines to provide the neighborhood with a proper July 4th. A full moon was rising over the trees when the first roman candles burst into the night. A small band of furtive pyrotechnicians scrambled back and forth to position and ignite each round of rockets. The neighborhood was most appreciative, oohing and ahhing and singing patriotic songs.
Then the rockets stopped. A little boy ran over to report that the police had arrived. It was cordial encounter, however, and the lawmen informed the lawbreakers that those kinds of incendiaries were not allowed in suburbia. Then they obligingly drove off, and, after a respectful pause, the magnificent bursts of glowing magnesium resumed above our heads.
Now wasn’t that a wonderful balance of law and freedom? America’s social order is based on checks and balances not only between the three branches of government, but also between federal government and local initiative, between civil laws and individual rights.
Human laws are generally good (provided they don’t violate divine laws), but they must be understood in the light of greater goods. It’s good to protect the neighborhood from a possible misfired skyrocket, but it’s a greater good to have the neighborhood come together to celebrate the birth of their fatherland. Yes, it's possible that a skyrocket could set a house on fire, but in case you haven’t noticed, the whole country is on fire. Strong local communities can put those fires out, and should be trusted to do so. Allowing neighbors to celebrate Independence Day under the heavens is healthier in the long run than forcing them to stay indoors, isolated from each other. Could someone possibly get sick from CO19 at a fireworks display? Yes, but the risk of some people catching the virus is far less harmful than the risk of social chaos brought on by social isolation. We are not machines to be kept running efficiently, and we are not animals to be kept in cages. We are human beings who need more than food and water and physical health. We have relational and spiritual needs that have been increasingly neglected. The government's approval of BLM mass gatherings demonstrates that it does understand those needs, although communal celebrations of our nation's birth are far healthier than angry protests (a lot less shouting and spitting going on).
Thanks be to God that the local police respected our intelligence on Saturday night. They trusted us, as fellow citizens, to celebrate the birth of our nation in a manner that would serve the greater good.
On Tuesday night a film crew from ABC7 showed up at my church. They wanted to interview me about the city attorney’s 7-page “cease and desist” order to my archbishop demanding that religious services above 12 individuals cease in San Francisco. Since I declined to give channel 7 an interview, and since their story that night falsely reported that this blog showed a picture of a violation of the city order (the photograph of an “outdoor procession without masks” posted on my June 13 blog was from three years ago), channel 7 is welcome to quote me here:
The free exercise of religion is an essential activity in America, guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”). Fifty people crowd onto city buses outside my door several hundred times a day, in the most unsanitary of conditions. Groups of twenty people gather in Golden Gate Park without masks on every sunny day, four blocks from my door. Hundreds gather in Costco from 9-9 every day. Dozens of people eat at restaurants on the streets around my church, without masks. The mayor addresses hundreds of people in a protest at City Hall, many of whom wear no masks. And the city is telling my church that we cannot have a gathering of more than 12 people, outside, for an activity that is specifically protected by the Constitution?
Clearly some people in the city government and the news media find religion intolerable. They may hate religion, and they may hate religious persons. They may not restrict our rights as free American citizens.
Today is the feast of St. Junipero Serra. A day after a mob tore down his statue five blocks from my parish, we prayed at the site in Golden Gate Park. On Saturday we joined the Archbishop of San Francisco as he exorcized the site because what happened on June 19 was not just anti-history. Tearing St. Junipero Serra holding forth a large cross was anti-Christ. Most Americans are not anarchists or anti-Christian, but in our ignorance we are being incited to mob violence and hatred of religion. Part of this is due to the failure of our school systems, both public and parochial, to teach critical thinking.
During our rosary a man loudly claimed that Fr. Serra had killed scores of indigenous women and children. Is that even remotely true? What is the historical record? I recommend this 35 minute podcast on the historical context and life of Junipero Serra: https://youtu.be/GwhvNZ_XEgw. This interview explains a curious fact I’ve always wondered about: why are the Spanish presidios (military garrisons) situated far from the missions? In San Francisco, for example, the Presidio is nine miles from the Mission. The presidios were set up to protect these first settlements. The answer is that Fr. Serra wanted to protect the Indians from the soldiers. He exposed his friars and laypeople to violence in favor of the indigenous people, and in fact one of the friars was killed by renegade Indians at San Diego Mission in 1775. If Fr. Serra were the man the mob says he was, he would have demanded swift justice for the brutal murder of his friend, Brother Luis Jayme. In fact, he begged the Spanish government not to punish the killers. He even stipulated that if he or any other friar were killed by Indians, that the government could not retaliate. Far from killing Indians, as the mob claims, Serra offered his life for them. That is the historical record.
Back to the gentleman protesting our rosary in Golden Gate Park. “Serra murdered hundreds of Indians” he angrily asserted. “The three biographies I’ve read didn’t mention that,” I said. “Of course,” he replied, “your books wouldn’t say that.” All points of view are equal, according to relativism, but some points of view are more equal than others. That recalls a line from Animal Farm by George Orwell, a book that used to be required reading in public schools (“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”). In fact, not all assertions are equal. Some are false, as in the assertion that Fr. Serra brutalized Indians, when historical fact demonstrates the opposite. As our primary schools have largely failed to teach grammar, logic, and rhetoric, we are now a republic whose citizens cannot think for themselves. It cannot remain a democracy for very long. The stronger will inevitably force “their truth” on the weaker. But rather than cursing the darkness, I’m lighting a candle. I’m starting a classical school at Star of the Sea, a school that will teach children to think for themselves rather than parrot propaganda. This school may be shut down by the powerful commercial interests that control our digital world, but we will give it the old college try! Meanwhile, let us celebrate the life of St. Junipero Serra and thank God for his luminous achievement in developing the first agrarian communities in California that led it to become the peacefully ordered society it once was.
Fr. Joseph Illo
Star of the Sea Parish,