If you had no idea that Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone is an Italian-American who had four Sicilian grandparents, his hands would give the game away. From the minute we start talking in the parlour of the London Oratory, he gestures with his fingers and swirls his hands for emphasis. I even wonder whether, if his hands were tied, he would be able to speak.
But speak up he must. Now, as Archbishop of San Francisco, he is one of the most vocal members of the US bishops’ conference in objecting to the re-definition of marriage.
Promoting marriage is not a new mission for the shepherd. As a newly ordained diocesan priest in California, he confronted the situation of preparing young couples for marriage who were not always fully practising their Catholic faith. Then, as a veteran canon lawyer of the Apostolic Signatura, his speciality was the legal points of marriage. This month he was invited to London in his capacity as a member of the working group on the liturgy for the Anglican ordinariates. Archbishop Cordileone’s contribution is to bring the perspective of a canon lawyer and a pastor. This was especially helpful in preparing the rite for marriage that will be used by former Anglicans who are coming into the Catholic Church, so that their traditions are incorporated into the marriage ceremony, while it remains an entirely Catholic and canonically correct rite.
The 56-year-old is a native of San Diego and grew up in a strong, inter-dependent Italian-American family, with his paternal grandparents living next door and his maternal grandparents a few miles away. During his childhood he was in constant contact with his grandparents, who spoke the old Sicilian dialect with his parents, as well as with his entire extended family on both sides. They didn’t keep every feature of life from the old country; as he says, “our generation lost the old Sicilian language”. But the family remained loyal to the traditional pieties of Sicilian Catholicism. St Joseph was the focal point of their devotions.
On the feast day of Jesus’s foster father they set up an altar in their home with his statue and three loaves of bread to represent the Holy Family, which included a braided loaf of bread for Our Lady. They would stage a drama of the Holy Family coming into the home, with a young girl as Mary, an older man as Joseph and, on several occasions, the young Salvatore was in role as Jesus.
The archbishop says there was never a time when he struggled with his faith or did not believe in God. He did, however, feel the stirrings of a vocation, while also feeling drawn to being a husband and father.
“My main challenge in seminary was interior, in discerning if this was really my call,” he explains. “When I entered the seminary at the age of 19, in 1975, I felt strongly inclined in that direction but was not yet absolutely convinced that God was calling me to be a priest. It was when I gave my life totally to God, I felt a burden was lifted from my shoulders, and had the confirmation of my vocation to the priesthood.”
At seminary he developed a keen attachment to St Peter Claver, a favourite saint whose courageous ministry to African-Americans and radical holiness has inspired him throughout his 30 years of priesthood. Now, as a member of the Church hierarchy, he continues to pray to the patron saint of slaves, for “commitment to the Church’s mission and for graces to help the poor and marginalised”.
As Archbishop Cordileone was a seminarian in the 1970s, the obvious question is whether he inclined more to the spirit of rebellion of that time or if he held true to the Church’s time-honoured teachings.
“I’m quite a law-abiding type who doesn’t have a problem with authority,” he says, “but more than that, the Church’s teachings are completely rational and made sense to me.”
It was the time of the Humanae Vitae wars: did he have any problems with any of the details in the most resisted encyclical of the age? No, in fact, in 1978 he and some fellow seminarians travelled from San Diego to San Francisco so that they could attend a symposium held by the archdiocese in honour of the 10th anniversary of Humanae Vitae.
After he was ordained in 1982, he was assigned to St Martin de Tours church, near where he had grown up, which was a very friendly parish. This was, however, the era immediately after the sexual revolution and as a young priest starting out he found it difficult to know what to do when couples who were living together wanted to be married in the Church.
“To begin with, I was naïve enough to think that people would follow reason, and I would say to couples that, if they wanted a Catholic wedding, were they not aware that they were violating Catholic teaching by cohabiting? They would respond that it was ‘special’ to get married in the Church. But I learned that you can’t make a blanket policy; you have to look at each case separately. You have to know the couple well first, and pick your moment for asking that they live separately before the wedding. One couple had coped with a lot of addiction problems and had come very far in their journey of faith very quickly, and they didn’t have family close by. So I was concerned that asking them to live apart would jeopardise the progress they had made so far. But instead I asked them to sleep apart before their wedding, and I believe them when they told me they did.”
After he finished his stint at St Martin of Tours, he was sent to Rome in 1985 to study canon law. The 1983 code had been promulgated, and he was one of the priests selected to go to Rome. It was while studying at the Gregorian University that he got to know the future cardinal Mgr Raymond Burke, when the Wisconsin-born prelate taught a course on jurisprudence. Archbishop Cordileone says that Cardinal Burke was the same then as now, “very gentle and gracious, wise and holy”.
It is often said that Cardinal Burke and Archbishop Cordileone were colleagues, collaborating on projects together for years at the Apostolic Signatura, but in reality this was not the case. Fr Cordileone started at the Vatican’s canonical court in early 1995, just as Mgr Burke was leaving to return to America. At the Apostolic Signatura, Fr Cordileone’s main duty was to advise bishops on their tribunals, especially regarding annulments of marriage on grounds such as “psychic incapacity”, which refers to an instance where a person may not be capable of understanding what they are committing themselves to in marriage. It was no mean feat that he had responsibility for all the English-speaking countries and select Spanish-speaking countries.
Having earned his stripes at the Apostolic Signatura, he returned to California and became an Auxiliary Bishop of San Diego in 2002. A new chapter in his priestly ministry began when he was asked by a group of lay people to offer Mass in the Extraordinary Form. An elderly Augustinian priest, Fr Neely, taught him how to offer it. Archbishop Cordileone is quick to add that the task was made easier because “I only had to learn the rubrics. When I worked at the Apostolic Signatura, I would go to a Benedictine convent to celebrate the Triduum. There I learned to sing the Mass in Latin and the chants are the same in both forms of the Mass.”
For nearly 10 years Archbishop Cordileone has accepted invitations to celebrate the Tridentine Mass. In the middle of our interview, the Oratorian priest Fr Rupert pops in and asks the archbishop if he will offer the 8am Tridentine Mass the next day, and he enthusiastically agrees to do so. Commenting on what he feels distinguishes the Extraordinary Form, Archbishop Cordileone says: “With that form of Mass you can feel the Church breathing through the centuries.”
He has strong opinions about Latin. “It is the common language of the Catholic world and it’s especially advantageous when people of different language backgrounds come together,” he says. “The irony is that the Church made the move to the vernacular just at the point in history when, because of migration and tourism, people began travelling all over the world. Thus, it would be convenient to have a shared language that we can all worship in. But it does make sense to have parts in the vernacular, such as the Propers and especially the readings.”
We get on to discussing why there is a relatively high number of young men pursuing vocations in seminaries dedicated to the Extraordinary Form. “The Old Rite corresponds more to a masculine spirituality in that the masculine psyche is one that protects, defends and provides, and during the Mass the priest is the one who dares to approach God to reconcile His people to him. In the Old Rite there is a greater sense of the priest as intercessor, offering a sacrifice for the people and bringing God’s gift to the people.”
While women may not become priests, Archbishop Cordileone clarifies that women do not in any way occupy second place. Instead, he pinpoints why women should be shown the highest respect and says that chivalrous practices such as holding a door open for a woman ought to be the norm. “A woman should walk out, ahead of the man, because she is the life-giver and, in holding a door for a woman, the man is recognising her special place as the one who gives life.” He says that mantillas, or chapel veils, are a way for a woman to veil their sacredness: “In Christian worship what is sacred is veiled, women are sacred because they are the life-givers.”
Why are the youth associated more and more with the Old Rite? “It follows the phenomenon of young people being more traditional in their religion,” he says. “In the years after the Council there were social revolutions in religious groups and the thinking was that the Church should be more like modern culture. Prayerfully minded young people of this generation want something different or opposed to secular culture. But they perceive the failures of western civilisation. They want something seriously Catholic and meaty.”
He does say, however, that being drawn to the external beautiful trappings of Catholicism is not enough. “We won’t deepen their faith by window dressing. They might be attracted to externals and there’s nothing wrong there, but we also have to bring them to a deeper faith.”
People are quick to say there is something staunchly “traditional” about Archbishop Cordileone. He says the rosary every morning. He traces many modern-day problems back to the secular doctrine that discounts the differences between men and women (the specific confusion, he explains, is that men and women are conditioned to think of themselves as the same and not complementary). And he loves the Tridentine Mass. But he sees a potentially dangerous trend in the traditionalist movement, if it simply wants to revert to a distant time in the past and stay there. Here, Archbishop Cordileone refers to Ronald Knox, who called this blinkered outlook “an impoverishment of our heritage”. But where does one find a happy medium between the old and the new? He hails the London Oratory, with its Ordinary Form in Latin and frequent Benediction, as “the ideal model of the hermeneutic of continuity, which has been so consistently promoted by Pope Benedict”.
Other than being a leader in liturgical renewal, Archbishop Cordileone is best known as the chairman of the US bishops’ subcommittee for the promotion and defence of marriage. He was appointed to this position in 2011. Since then, he has earned the ire of many gay marriage campaigners and his appointment to San Francisco was met with sharp words from some outspoken progressive locals. From our point of view in Britain, we may think the gay marriage lobby is surrounding Archbishop Cordileone on all sides, but support for him often outnumbers the opposition. On his installation day, October 4 2012, there were reportedly a maximum number of three dozen protesters outside. But many more people came to show support, chief among them being members of the Neocatechumenal Way, who held banners proclaiming: “Teaching the Truth about the Family.”
If people of Italian blood sometimes have a reputation for being hot-tempered, Archbishop Cordileone defies this image by being unflappable. He consistently uses level-headed logic in arguing against same-sex marriage.
He says: “Truth is clear. Wanting children to be connected to a mother and father discriminates against no one. Every child has a father and a mother, and either you support the only institution that connects a child with their father and mother or you don’t. Adoption, by a mother and father, mirrors the natural union of a mother and father and provides a balanced, happy alternative for when a child may not be reared by their biological parents.”
I tell him that I’m searching for good theological answers against gay marriage, but he corrects this notion by saying: “If you use theology, you will play into their hands and they will say you use religion to control people. Marriage isn’t primarily in theology; marriage is in nature. Theology builds on the natural institution, giving us a deeper mystical and supernatural sense of its meaning.”
I admit that I didn’t step up to the plate when Channel 4 invited me on live television to debate gay marriage, because I didn’t want to become a hate figure. I feared my career would suffer and I wouldn’t be able to pay my rent. The archbishop sighs and responds: “You say that you can’t debate it without suffering for your beliefs, so who is being discriminated against? Who is being intolerant? It is the secular orthodoxy that allows no dissent and will punish those who do.”
When I concede that I feel like a coward for passing up the opportunity to argue the case for marriage on television, Archbishop Cordileone says: “It’s a lot easier for us priests to speak out. Fellow clergy are not going to marginalise us. And we’re not going to be passed up for a promotion or lose our jobs!”
While speaking out may be less daunting for priests, he encourages lay people to embrace the challenge, which
for us in Britain means actively opposing the forthcoming gay marriage Bill. Archbishop Cordileone urges us to see it as a way of winning grace. “Fighting for marriage is our way of loving God, and the struggle is the particular gift that God has given our generation. This is our particular trial, and by overcoming it we may achieve spiritual greatness. It will entail suffering if we are to oppose gay marriage, something which poses such destruction to the understanding of natural marriage, which is a child-oriented institution.”
Archbishop Cordileone cautions against over-using the term “gay marriage”, advising that it should be used “only sparingly” because it is a natural impossibility and if we keep talking about gay marriage we might fool ourselves into thinking it is an authentic reality, which only needs government approval to make it legitimate. He compares it with another impossibility: “Legislating for the right for people of the same sex to marry is like legalising male breastfeeding.”
One could get the impression that Archbishop Cordileone is an uncompromisingly serious person. It’s true that his face can be set in deep contemplation and his compelling blue eyes can seem still and sombre, but his face lights up when he laughs and his eyes shine with mirth. When I lose my train of thought, mess up a question and excuse myself as not being Mensa but Densa, he curls up in a spontaneous fit of boyish giggles. He finds the idea of going on Twitter hilarious, and says: “I don’t know where I’ll find the time for a Twitter account. But if I can find a way to go on Twitter, then I will!”
Even if opponents do not agree with his stance on same-sex marriage, he commands respect for his persistence in arguing for marriage between a man and a woman, in the face of being called homophobic and charged with the erroneous idea that he discriminates against gay people and lesbians. All the same, it must be unnerving at times to be on the receiving end of such hostility in San Francisco. But he doesn’t let it get to him. “All our detractors can do is call us names,” he says. He throws his hands up in the air, and adds: “Big deal if they shout at us or throw insults!”
When I say that people in Britain who oppose gay marriage have been slammed as “bigots”, by people who won’t allow any opinion but their own, he says: “How ironic!”
It’s not that Archbishop Cordileone is so indifferent and hard that he does not feel the sting of slurs. Rather, he knows that winning the battle is more important, even if it will mean personal suffering. Courage is writ large on his determined face, and he is living up to the demands of his Italian surname, which means “heart of a lion”.