Father Joseph Illo is planning to open the San Francisco Oratory of St. Philip Neri, an institute in the Catholic Church which allows “secular” parish priests the opportunity to live in community under a rule of life. The oratory was approved by San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, who welcomed the new community provided needed funds were raised. Fr. Illo requested $220,000 from followers of his blog (www.frilloblog.com); he has currently received 130 percent of his requested donation amount. The donations will cover living expenses until the community can become financially self-sustaining.
Fr. Illo was born in New York and grew up in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He worked with Ignatius Press after graduating college, subsequently pursuing studies for the priesthood. He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Stockton, California in 1991. His parish assignments include serving as pastor of St. Joseph Church in Modesto, California from 2000 to 2012.
Known for his outspoken fidelity to Catholic teaching, Fr. Illo made the news when he wrote his parishioners in 2008, “If you are one of the 54 percent of Catholics who voted for a pro-abortion candidate, you were clear on his position, and you knew the gravity of the question, I urge you to go to confession before receiving Communion.”
Since 2012, he has served as chaplain at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California. Fr. Illo [pronounced I-low] recently spoke to Catholic World Report.
CWR: What made you want to become a priest?
Fr. Illo:Many factors influenced me, including the desire to offer Mass. I wanted to be one more person to bring the Eucharist to the world. I recall a book written by Jesuit Father Walter Ciszek, With God in Russia. He spent many years in Siberian prison camps but was able to celebrate Mass, bringing the Eucharist to the people. He felt it was his calling.
I’ve been very happy as a priest. There are days of stress, but at my age, I think I’ve gotten past most of the big challenges a priest can face.
CWR: What are some of the common problems parish priests have?
Fr. Illo:Overwork is a big one. Many people need services, but there are not enough priests. You might be working a 14-hour day to the point of near exhaustion. It’s hard to find time to pray. The priest is then tempted to become an activist and give up on having a prayer life. Many priests do this.
When I was a pastor, I set up a chapel in the parish rectory. I invited all the priests in the parish to pray a holy hour together. Most did, and it was a great blessing. Often we’d pray the rosary together. One of the priests who participated was a retired pastor. He admitted that during his 25 years as a pastor, he’d never been able to pray properly. That’s a recipe for disaster.
CWR: What is your plan for the new San Francisco Oratory of St.Philip Neri?
Fr. Illo:It is our hope to establish it as a community for secular priests, living in community, with a common prayer life and a common rule of life. It will support the work of priests called to work in parishes.
We hope it will be one solution to the problem of priests living in isolation, which has become a deepening difficulty in the Church. Even in a rectory with multiple priests, they can be like ships passing in the night, with little contact with one another and no common prayer life. This is an issue that bishops and diocesan personnel boards speak about all the time. I served as a vocations director for four years, and this was a big concern among men considering the priesthood. They were afraid if they gave up wife and family, they’d be lonely and isolated.
A priest in this situation has little or no accountability. Take the case of Father John Corapi. Although he was in a religious community, he lived on his own, and he got into trouble. A good prayer life is essential to the well-being of a priest; if he prays regularly, he is protected from many evils.
A priest needs support, and he needs to be kept accountable. There are many ways to do this, the oratory being one of them. There are many oratories throughout the world today, and many oratorians. [Bl.] John Henry Newman was famous for bringing the oratory to England in 1848. Today, there is still a large oratory in England, and another in Toronto. In the United States, you can find them in places like St. Louis and Cincinnati; I’ve been in touch with one in Lewiston, Maine, the Fraternity of St. Philip Neri. They have a wonderful life together and do much good work in their diocese.
CWR: How large will the San Francisco Oratory be?
Fr. Illo:God only knows. We hope it will have five or six priests, as well as a couple of brothers. Right now we have two priests, and three seminary candidates who expressed an interest in participating.
We’re planning to move into facilities in August, but as of yet, the location has not been disclosed.
CWR: You’ve raised far more in pledges than the amount for which you asked. Why do you think there is so much enthusiasm among the faithful for the community?
Fr. Illo:The people know that priests ought to be living in community and want to support efforts to bring priests together. Priests living alone or together without a common rule should be an anomaly, not the norm.
CWR: Your community is named for St. Philip Neri (1515-1595). When you study his writings and life, are there any particularly notable qualities you admire?
Fr. Illo:One of Philip’s main charisms was joy. We really need more joy in the world today. Many people are paralyzed by fear. Some Christians feel isolated, persecuted, and marginalized. Philip can help teach us the importance of having a sense of joy, particularly among us priests.
CWR: Who are other priests you particularly admire?
Fr. Illo:As far as saints, Maximilian Kolbe and John Vianney are wonderful models. Reading a biography of St. John Vianney helped convince me to become a priest. Father Walter Ciszek, whom I mentioned earlier, is another good example.
I’ve personally known many fine priests, such as Father Joseph Fessio. He’s a man faithful to prayer, faithful to the Magisterium, intelligent—I consider him a Superman when it comes to being smart—and a hard worker. Any young man considering the priesthood would be inspired by his example.
I’ve also had some outstanding spiritual directors. Father Paul Donlan of Opus Dei comes to mind.
CWR: When you served as vocations director for Stockton, you must have noticed that some dioceses do well for vocations, others do not. In your experience, how are dioceses effective in attracting men to the priesthood?
Fr. Illo:When dioceses teach what the Church teaches, respect and obey the Holy Father, and have a devotion to the Blessed Mother, they tend to have good vocations rates. When they disregard the Magisterium and a devotional prayer life, they do poorly.
CWR: Marriage has been in a state of decline in recent years. How has this affected the priesthood and religious life?
Fr. Illo:It has had a major impact. Priests come from marriages. The priesthood is as strong as family life is, and vice versa. The two move together. When marriage is in a state of decline, the priesthood will be, too.
CWR: What is it like working at Thomas Aquinas College?
Fr. Illo:It’s a paradise. There are many fine young people here, as well as the faculty and staff. Rarely will you find such a concentration of faithful and well-educated Catholics.
I feel like I’ve been on sabbatical, and now it is time to get back to the parish diocesan work to which I’ve been called. Dominican Father Paul Raftery will be taking my place; he had served at the college previously. They’re happy to be getting him back.
CWR: San Francisco is known for being a secular city. Do you have any concerns about establishing a religious house there?
Fr. Illo:Yes. However, I believe that most San Franciscans are God-fearing people, eclipsed by a secular minority that is vocal and well-funded.
I had one recent experience there that gives me hope. I attended the Walk for Life West Coast through downtown San Francisco with another priest. We were traveling through the city to get there, both by the BART rail system and by bus. By our clerical clothing everyone knew we were priests. The people working the public transportation system respected us and would not take our money. We rode for free. It indicates to me that there are many faithful, religious people living in San Francisco who respect the priesthood and the Church.