As a teenager, I looked forward to the American Dream: coming home to a tidy house behind a white picket fence, to a lovely wife and well-ordered children. But I became a priest instead of a family man. I live in untidy parishes rather than well-ordered homes, and “here comes everyone” are my children. But I still dream of white picket fences. What measure of “success”, actually, can a priest in a post-Christian society expect?
Fifteen years ago I was assigned to a large suburban parish, in which that dream was realised to some degree. While many American parishes struggled, ours doubled in Mass attendance, activity and income. We ran a well-oiled machine, with high levels of satisfaction and a sense of home. I can attribute our “success” to various initiatives such as our Perpetual Adoration chapel, traditional music and liturgy, and lots of hard work developing a spirituality of Catholic stewardship. Then there were the simple demographics: people were flooding into our area to escape skyrocketing housing costs in San Francisco.
Three years ago I took on a city parish. Large Catholic families once filled Star of the Sea Church’s thousand seats on Sundays, and 20 fresh-faced nuns taught 900 children in our school. By the time I arrived in 2014, however, most of the Irish and Italian families had moved to the suburbs. Few of the newcomers were Catholic, and few of today’s Catholics attend Mass anyway.
Even as families move out, young adults are flooding into San Francisco (some describe the city as a one big singles’ bar). Many spend 14 to 16 hours a day in the self-contained work environments that Google and Facebook have built to meet their every need. It’s not that these bright young people don’t want God; they just don’t have time for him.
Thus, with twice the seating capacity and a tenth of the Mass attendance of my suburban parish, my new city parish seemed dark and empty. I began to lose my nerve and wondered if managed decline was the best I could hope for.
I reread St John Paul’s last encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, which opens with “The Church draws her life from the Eucharist.” So we made our first priority what is most obvious, the Holy Eucharist.
We hired professional musicians, polished vessels, acquired beautiful vestments, provided flowers and greenery in and around the church, installed interior and exterior lighting, restored the marble altar and sanctuary, and developed a first-class altar server programme for boys only (we took a lot of heat for that last one). Last year four of our older servers entered seminary, and the Holy Eucharist is indeed drawing new families and young adults to our parish.
We also spent two years and a quarter of a million dollars building a 24-hour Eucharistic chapel. And don’t forget Confessions. John Paul wrote in his 1984 apostolic exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia that the Church suffers “inexorable decline” if her members neglect the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
We began offering Confessions before every Mass and a holy hour with Confessions every Tuesday night (a big hit with our young adults). Parish income has doubled, and Mass attendance is steadily rising.
Catholic stewardship, young adults’ ministry, street evangelisation, feeding the homeless, parish barbecues and a speakers’ series, a mothers’ club and a men’s group, a clinic in Kenya, and many other initiatives have helped the parish to grow. But fidelity to prayer and the sacraments is the one thing necessary. In one sense, my job is simply to keep the doors open and the lights on, especially the sanctuary lamp and the Confessional light. Every day I face discouragement, but every day I am granted fresh courage when I too kneel before the Blessed Sacrament in the morning holy hour.
Certainly a “traditional” Catholic church in an overtly secular city causes tension. Our preaching and teaching cannot ignore the social and moral realities in which we live. During one particularly acrimonious controversy, when we found ourselves in the newspapers a lot, I was standing on the church steps after Mass. An older man passed by, cursing bitterly and making obscene gestures toward the church façade. I smiled wanly, considering that this man too must have these doors always open to him.
I still dream of a beautiful home surrounded by a white picket fence. In this dark valley in which we all travel, however, I am coming to realise that more important than achieving the American Dream is letting go of the American Dream. God is granting growth and “success” to our endeavours and plans. But in the secular city, God seems to be asking for surrender more than anything else. Joyful submission to God’s will for my parish is the white picket fence I am coming to treasure more than any measure of success.
Fr Joseph Illo is pastor of Star of the Sea parish in San Francisco
This article first appeared in the October 6 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here