Fr. Joseph Illo celebrating Mass (Photo courtesy of Fr. Illo)
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
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.
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.”
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?
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.
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?
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
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
community is named for St. Philip Neri (1515-1595). When you study his
writings and life, are there any particularly notable qualities you
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?
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
I’ve personally known many fine priests, such as Father
Joseph Fessio. He’s a man faithful to prayer, faithful to the
Magisterium, intelligentI consider him a Superman when it comes to
being smartand 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.
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
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?
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?
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
CWR: San Francisco is known for being a secular city. Do you have any concerns about establishing a religious house there?
However, I believe that most San Franciscans are God-fearing people,
eclipsed by a secular minority that is vocal and well-funded.
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.