Ending the Ecclesial Crisis: The Fatima Perspective
Lecture Title: Recovering the Ancient Liturgy in San Francisco
by Fr. Joseph Illo
PART THREE of THREE
How can we recover right worship, which in Greek is translated “ortho-doxy?” Right worship leads to right faith. But many folks in the pews seem to be spiritually “supine,” flailing helplessly on our backs like upside down turtles, seemingly beyond recovery. In one parish, for example, I encouraged people to receive communion on the tongue. The president of our Finance Council, a good-hearted man, generous with his time and money, at Mass every Sunday—he simply chuckled. “I was trained by the Jesuits, father, and they told us Vatican II changed all that. It was hard to make the change from the tongue to the hand, and it’s too late for me to change back.” Who, after all, will the people believe—a professor of theology or a simple parish priest?
Even our best rational arguments for liturgical reverence simply will not make sense to the vast majority of Catholics, even those who attend Mass every day. They’ve been through too many changes already. They’ve heard too many conflicting opinions, and now they see even Cardinals and Popes disagreeing with each other.
The most effective recovery of the Sacred Liturgy is, in my humble experience, simply to begin implementing simple changes. One must be ready for backlash, but one can remain firm, patient, and charitable. A few years ago I spent a week with the Oxford Oratory, at St. Aloysius parish, a former “Jesuit Institution.” For over 20 years the Oratorians have practiced beautiful, reverent, and proper liturgy. They met disapproval with humility and criticism with firm conviction. They responded to controversy with informed intelligence. At first people were suspicious and some resentful, but the Oratorians were kind, patient, and helpful to all. And after 20 years, the Oratorians have become an integral part of Catholic Oxford, prized by Catholics and non-Catholics alike for their reverence and charity.
Our Experience at Star of the Sea
Here are some of the simple changes we have made at my parish, Star of the Sea in San Francisco, that have made the parish more prayerful:
a. Confessions. One must begin at the beginning, which is the fact that we are sinners and beggars at the throne of grace. We put a priest in the confessional 15 minutes before every Mass; that is, we offer confessions at least 17 times a week. If nobody comes (rarely) we catch up on our breviary or our reading. People come from all over the city, because they know they will find a confessional light on at Star of the Sea.
b. Altar servers. I’ve already related the story of “altargate” and my five minutes of fame over our all-boys server program. We remained firm despite almost unanimous opposition from our local area. I received over 900 letters and emails from all over the world, 90% of which were positive. But 90% of the negative emails were from the San Francisco Bay Area. We stood firm, and trained our young men so well that the Archbishop stole some of our best ones for his cathedral Masses. Some boys serve two or three Masses in a row, both in the Ordinary and Extraordinary Form. We did not neglect the girls either, but established a “Star Girls” group that meets every other week for fun and service, including altar guild activity.
c. Sacred Music. We put time and money into our music department, recovering chant and polyphony. At one point the department consumed 25% of our budget. Sacred Music had been much developed before I arrived at the parish, but much had to be done, and still needs to be done. Good music costs a pastor time and money, but I remembered St. John Vianney, the pastor who lived like a pauper but spent money on the Sacred Mass like a king.
d. Vessels and vestments. We quickly moved banal vestments and vessels to storage, and we repaired what was torn and tarnished, purchasing new vestments where needed. We asked this question: in 100 years would you find this vessel or that vestment in a museum? The timebound and faddish are now in a closet, and the beautiful and timeless grace our altars every day.
e. Church Interior. We restored the altar predella marble by removing the tired red carpet that had been glued over it. We replaced the same old carpet over our sanctuary with splendid stone tilework. We gilded the altar, replaced burned out fixtures, installed more brilliant lighting, and made the sanctuary lamp prominent and brighter. Our church has “good bones” and has preserved its essential integrity, but much remains to be done so that it regains the vivid beauty of an age of greater faith.
f. Ad Orientem Masses. I wanted the trust of the people before leading them into ad orientem worship, so I approached this move progressively over three years. The Archbishop wanted us to spend a few months in education, and we even made a Youtube instructional video, before entering a three month experimental period, from Ash Wednesday to Pentecost last year. After Pentecost we asked people what they thought, and not one person complained. Everyone loved seeing the priest face the altar during the collects and canon of the Mass.
h. Perpetual Adoration. We built a new chapel at significant cost ($300,000) and promoted adoration at every opportunity. Our adoration program is still very much a work in progress, but perpetual Eucharistic adoration is a game changer for any parish or diocese. It draws people to the parish, of course, but beyond that it transforms the parish into a praying community. The nocturnal hours are unparalleled hours of grace for priests and people. A young men’s group, for example, does a holy hour every Thursday from 5-6am.
In an area where Mass attendance is generally diminishing, our attendance has increased about 8% annually. The Sunday offertory has tripled in three years. Many new social, study, and service groups have formed, such as the Knights of Columbus, Young Adults (who begin their weekly meeting with an hour of Eucharistic adoration and confession), a Mother’s Group, a monthly men’s recollection, a Reading Club, and many more. We baptized seven adults last year in a parish that apparently hadn’t witnessed an adult baptism in several years. Four men entered the seminary from Star of the Sea in 2017.
But success is a fickle friend. This year we will baptize no adults, and who knows what the attendance and offertory will be in a year or two? We only know that we must worship God as he would have us do. As Cardinal Ratzinger pointed out in his book Introduction to the Spirit of the Liturgy, Moses insisted on leaving Egypt for three days to worship God in the desert. “Why can’t you worship your God right here?” Pharaoh asked Moses. “Because,” Moses said, “we must sacrifice to the Lord our God as he will command us.” The prophet would not compromise with a furious Pharaoh—he insisted on taking his flocks and herds, for, he said, “we don’t know how God would have us worship until we get there.” Moses put every one of his people’s lives in jeopardy in order to get to the desert, the place where they would have freedom of right worship. The Exodus was not a political or economic liberation, but a liberation from false gods and false worship. True Worship is freedom. Young people, in particular, have a deep sense of this, as I have seen in my parish. They will flock to right worship, if we provide it for them.
We are all sinners in my parish, struggling against our fears and distrust of God. We labor to worship the Good God in spirit and truth, denying our preferences to adore Him in the manner He chooses. Despite our limitations, and the immense tasks before us, we rejoice in what has already been recovered, and what we know can be recovered in years to come. May Our Lady, Star of the Sea, guide us into true and right worship of her Divine Son.