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Heart of a Lion

I know Salvatore Cordileone from his stint on the monthly canon law segment on Catholic Answers Live. That was when he was the auxiliary bishop of San Diego. Today he is the archbishop of San Francisco. The notoriety he obtained by broadcasting from our studio for one hour a month is nothing compared to the notoriety he has received since his transfer to the Bay Area.

A native San Diegan, Cordileone was appointed bishop of Oakland in 2009, served there for three years, and moved across the bay in 2012. Some San Franciscans want him to move again—to anyplace else.

In a full-page ad in the San Francisco Chronicle, a group of about 100 lay Catholics has called on Pope Francis to send Cordileone packing: “Please Replace Archbishop Cordileone.” The signatories describe themselves as “committed Catholics inspired by Vatican II. We believe in the traditions of conscience, respect, and inclusion upon which our Catholic faith was founded.”

Among the signers are Clint Reilly, a political campaigns consultant whose clients have included Nancy Pelosi, Diane Feinstein, and Barbara Boxer; Brian Cahill, former head of the local Catholic Charities affiliate but best known for being a public critic of the Church’s teaching on homosexuality; and Charles Geschke, former chairman of the University of San Francisco’s board of trustees and current chairman of the board of Adobe Systems.

Many of the signers are successful businessmen, others are former or current leaders in local Catholic education, while still others are listed simply as “parishioner.” It’s not clear who organized the move to run the ad, but it is known that the group first lodged a complaint with the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington, D.C. Nothing came of that, so the group went with the ad.

The ad lists four main gripes.

1. Cordileone “coerces educators and staff in our Catholic high schools to accept a morality code which violates individual consciences.”

2.  Cordileone installed at Star of the Sea parish a pastor “who marginalizes women’s participation in the church by banning girls from altar service.”

3. Cordileone “disregards advice from his priests. . . . He relies instead on a tiny group of advisors recruited from outside of our diocese.”

4. The sky is falling. The archdiocese “cannot survive, let alone thrive and grow, under [Cordileone’s] supervision.”

Let’s look at each of these.

1. Yes, the archbishop has mandated that staff and teachers at Catholic high schools sign a statement in which they agree to promote Catholic moral teaching. Cordileone expects those who work for archdiocesan schools to pass along the faith in its fullness, not just the parts of it they happen to like.

There is nothing unreasonable in this. It’s the kind of thing found in the corporate world. I suspect the statement the school employees are expected to sign reads much like a statement that Adobe Systems might expect its employees to sign: if you want to work at Adobe, promote its products and don’t badmouth the company.

2. The ad doesn’t name the pastor of Star of the Sea parish, but I will: he’s my friend Joseph Illo. He’s been a backpacking buddy of mine. When you’re on the trail with a man for several days running, you can size him up fairly well. Illo is a compassionate and smart priest. He’s smart enough to know that most priests credit their time as altar servers as being influential in the development of their vocations.

Illo also knows that human nature is what it is and that boys of a certain age don’t care to be around girls of the same age. The consequence is that most parishes that have altars girls have had trouble finding boys to serve at the altar; in not a few parishes, all or nearly all of the servers are girls.

Illo recognizes that girls are as capable as boys in the mechanics of altar serving, but he also recognizes that the Church loses something when boys aren’t in a position to work with priests and discover what the priestly life is like.

3. I hope the ad signers’ third complaint is true. I hope the archbishop brought into the chancery his own people. Would they be “from outside of our diocese”? Of course, since Cordileone is from outside, and, over the years, he would have gotten to know reliable people who chiefly resided outside the Bay Area.

4. Is the archdiocese doomed under Cordileone’s leadership? Larry Nibbi, an executive at Nibbi Brothers construction company, thinks so. He signed the ad and told a reporter, “The crux of our worry is that the faithful are going to become very disenchanted and stop going to church because they don’t like the message, and the message is not the way they lead their lives.”

In Larry Nibbi there is no guile. He has identified the real problem in the Church in San Francisco. The problem is that many San Francisco Catholics don’t like the gospel message and the demands it makes upon them. It’s “not the way their lead their lives.”

They want the gospel message to be recast in their own image and likeness. As the ad asks the Pope, “Please provide us with a leader true to our values”: not true to Christ’s values but to “our” values.

There are many people like Larry Nibbi in San Francisco–many more than the 100 or so who signed the ad. Archbishop Cordileone will be at the receiving end of such ads for a long time to come.

Good for him. That will mean he’s doing what God expects him to do. It won’t be easy or comfortable for him; it isn’t now. But it’s what he’s called to do as the chief pastor of the Church in San Francisco. He’ll need what I know he has: courage and magnanimity. 

It’s a happy coincidence that his Italian surname means “lion’s heart.”  

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