Fr. Joseph Illo Explains Altar Boys-Only Policy at San Francisco Parish

The pastor of Star of the Sea Church notes that “altar service is intrinsically tied to the priesthood"; says media furor over decision is "biased"

Star of the Sea Church in San Francisco made national news recently when its priests announced that female altar servers were being phased out and the parish was returning to the traditional practice of having only altar boys assisting the priest during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. A CBS television news report (“Peeved Parishioners Leaving SF Catholic Church Over Ban on Girls as Altar Servers”) declared there was “outrage” among parishioners and featured a girl from the parish school saying she feels “insulted” because “it makes me feel like I’m not good enough because I’m a girl.” Other reports were also negative. “Because they are too good at fulfilling their duties,” the New York Daily News stated, “girls will no longer be trained as altar servers at a Catholic church in San Francisco.” 

A Religion News piece reported that the “move that is sparking both criticism and praise and comes amid a wider debate over conservative concerns that the Catholic Church has become too ‘feminized’,” seeking to connect the story to recent remarks by Cardinal Raymond Burke about the lack of men attending Mass.

Fr. Joseph Illo is pastor of Star of the Sea Church and is a co-founder of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, which operates the parish. (He was interviewed by Catholic World Report last May about the Oratory.) 

On January 26, he issued a two-fold defense of the policy, stating 1) that mixed altar-server programs typically result in boys losing interest; conversely, “a boys-only program gives altar boys the space to develop their own leadership potential,” and 2) more importantly, “altar service is intrinsically tied to the priesthood and serve as feeder programs for the seminary. If the Catholic Church ordained women, altar girls would make sense, but the Catholic priesthood is a male charism. Nothing awakens a desire for the priesthood like service at the altar among the brotherhood of young men.”

Fr. Illo’s decision was supported by the San Francisco archbishop, Salvatore Cordileone.

Star of the Sea Church is a beautiful historic church in the City’s Richmond District established as a mission in 1887 and parish in 1894. It’s located in a densely populated (and often foggy) neighborhood between the Presidio and Golden Gate Park. In recent years, it has been home to the local traditional Latin Mass community (which drive in from the surrounding communities). Archbishop Cordileone, in fact, visited the parish on September 14, 2014, to celebrate an Extraordinary Form Latin pontifical solemn high Mass.

Fr. Illo spoke with CWR about the altar boy controversy.

CWR: Have you been surprised at all the media coverage regarding your decision?

Fr. Illo: Yes, I am, because there are many parishes that do not allow altar girls and some dioceses as well. My guess is that the desire was to present a negative, “the Church hates women,” story just 12 hours before the San Francisco Walk for Life [on Saturday, January 24]. I do think it was coordinated.

Also, an altar boy-only policy is a poke in the eye of the liberal culture of San Francisco. I’ve received over 300 emails about altar boys—mostly positive, except for the ones from the Bay area.

CWR: The CBS news story interviewed several people besides yourself, all of whom were opposed to the altar boy-only policy. It has a clip of you saying parish income is up, and then cuts to a parishioner saying that that is a “shallow argument.” Did this story strike you as biased?

Fr. Illo: It was biased. What’s going on is that we have two entities: a parish church and a parish school. The 1,000-seat church draws about 100 to 130 for each Sunday Mass. It’s a big, empty city parish. Our contributions cover about 40% of our operation; we survive by renting out the empty buildings we don’t use any more. It’s a dying parish we hope to revive.

Those who attend the church are, for the most part, fine with it. Most of the people complaining about the altar boy decision have left.

The school is thriving, but not as a Catholic school. Like Catholic universities who want to be independent of the bishops, many parish schools like to be independent of their pastors. Of its 150 families, about three attend the church. The school is only 40% Catholic. Most of the people CBS interviewed are school people from whom you heard the objections.

I must admit, the disjunction between the parish church and school and the vehemence of the school’s opposition has been surprising to me. In other parishes I’ve served at, the school loves the parish priest. When I’d go over, they’d run over and want to talk to me, or if, say, I were walking by a basketball court they’d hand me a basketball and want me to play. It’s not the case here. The priest is ignored. The school is lacking in Catholic identity.

CWR: Is this the first time you’ve had such a policy in the parishes in which you’ve served?

Fr. Illo: Yes. In my last parish we did not recruit girls, but would not deny them if they applied. Hence, we had few girls serving at the altar.

When we arrived at Star of the Sea four months ago there were hardly any servers, so we decided to only have a boy’s program. We’re the new administration, we’re building from zero, so we thought we’d start by implementing our vision.

CWR: An internet search on CBS San Francisco and Catholic news turns up headlines such as “Vatican reviewing Catholic stance of gay marriage, contraception; calls for being ‘less judgmental’”, “New S.F. archbishop riles gay rights advocates”, and “San Francisco Catholic high school apologizes for snubbing tuxedo-wearing girl’s portrait”. Is the San Francisco secular media pretty hostile to the Church?

Fr. Illo: [laughing] Of course. The media and liberal Catholics are on edge because of the new archbishop. One of the emails I received from one such person lamented, “This is the beginning of the end.” I do hope it is the beginning of the end of cultural Catholicism in the Bay area.

San Francisco is an amazing city in many ways. It has a rich history and is beautiful. But it is very secular and is a battle zone for faithful Catholics. One of our biggest problems is that it is so expensive to live in the city, that we have few families with children here. And where you don’t have families, you don’t have the Catholic Church!

At our Masses, you hardly see any children. I was speaking to one parishioner and she was crying, telling me it was so hard to raise children Catholic in a culture that is so secular. She’s afraid they’ll be brainwashed.

CWR: What have your fellow clergy said to you about the altar boy policy?

Fr. Illo: The archbishop is supportive, but it is not a big topic of discussion between us. I just saw him. He said the negative press coverage was par for the course for this kind of announcement, and we expect it to just be a flash in the pan.

Some of the priests I’ve spoken to have been supportive, but others probably think I’m crazy.

CWR: Do you wish you’d taken a more low-key approach?

Fr. Illo: If you have the support of your bishop, I think it’s better to be clear. It’s a moment of evangelization, and I think it’s great that we’re getting all the media attention. It helps us define the mind of the Church.

In 2001, the Congregation for Divine Worship issued a response to a bishop’s question regarding the question of female altar servers. While the innovation of altar girls has been permitted since 1994, it stressed that a preference for altar boys is to be greatly encouraged as it leads to vocations to the priesthood. It also indicated that it was for the bishop to decide, and that no priest is obliged to have female servers. Altar girls are permitted if there is a pastoral need, but you have to prove the need. It is not the normal way of doing things.

CWR: You came to San Francisco to establish the Oratory of St. Philip Neri. How has it gone, and do you have any big plans coming up?

Fr. Illo: It is going well. We have two priests, and we have accepted two men as applicants. They’re living in our community now, and will be going to seminary in the fall. They’ll be going to St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park during the week, and spend the weekends at our house.

We have three key things we’re looking at doing in the near future: 1) We have a big empty convent on the grounds; we want to bring in a community of sisters to fill it up. 2) We want to start a perpetual adoration chapel; right now, there is not a single one in the City of San Francisco. We need people to keep this going, though. 3) We’ve hired a music director, and we want to start a music program to teach Gregorian chant and polyphony. We’ve talked to the archbishop about this; we want it to be a model for parishes and schools.

CWR: You mentioned the Walk for Life through downtown San Francisco. How did it go?

Fr. Illo: It was great, as usual. There weren’t too many protestors this year, but the few who came walked alongside us. Most were from outside the City.

CWR: Has it been tough receiving so much hostile press on the altar boy program?

Fr. Illo: It has been difficult for the moment, but it was a necessary purging. We needed to draw a line in the sand and say what we had to say. The parish has declined so much that there is only one way we can move. And, part of becoming more committed to the practice of our Catholic faith is trusting your pastor and the universal church. The Church is a divinely-guided institution, and we must place our trust in her.

Read more on Fr. Illo’s thoughts on the altar boy controversy and other topics by following his blog,

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About Jim Graves 219 Articles
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.