Bring your parish back to life: here’s how

Mass attendance is up 12 percent, income has more than doubled at Star of the Sea Parish in San Francisco

Star of the Sea Church, San Francisco: the parish is primarily a school of prayer (Courtesy of Fr Joseph Illo)

The following is written by Father Joseph Illo of Star of the Sea Parish in San Francisco.

Four years ago the Archbishop of San Francisco assigned me to the Star of the Sea, a large and beautifully Catholic building. Its statues, stained glass, marble altar and altar rail were still intact, but, like the entire parish, languishing in dilapidation. Mass attendance had dropped precipitously since the Italians and Irish began moving to the suburbs in the 1980s. The aggressive secularism of the last decade seemed to seal the fate of this once thriving parish, and the archdiocese began talking about a “merger”.

The other day a priest who had served 10 years ago at Star of the Sea remarked on the parish’s “amazing revival”. Mass attendance has been growing annually at 12 per cent, and income has more than doubled. We’ve planted flowers and shrubs, installed new lighting, restored the marble sanctuary and flung the doors wide open to the city. The parish school begins an Integrated Classical Curriculum (consisting of grammar, logic and rhetoric) this autumn, and parishioners are caring for the homeless and advocating for the elderly and unborn.

Mass attendance and activities are good fruits, but the best fruit of any parish is healthy Catholic families. Are parishioners getting married and staying married? Are they having children? Are spouses faithfully living their sacramental vows, and is this fidelity reflected in their children’s lives? As healthy families are generational and need years of cultivation, a pastor may not see this fruit during his tenure. But he will see swifter fruits, such as increasing Mass attendance, blossoming schools and a zeal to serve the poor.

We have seen both short and long-term fruits by building on St Prosper of Aquitaine’s three laws, the lex orandi (relating to prayer), lex credendi(belief) and lex vivendi (living). The way we pray determines the way we believe, which determines the way we live. Fidelity to these three laws provides Beauty, Truth and Goodness.

In his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, Benedict XVI defined the three munera, or essential tasks, of the Church, governed by Prosper’s three laws. “The Church’s deepest nature,” he wrote, “is expressed in her three-fold responsibility: of proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia) and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia). These duties presuppose each other and are inseparable.”

Let’s consider how a parish can balance these three essential tasks.

The parish is first of all a school of prayer, in the words of John Paul II. It teaches prayer best by following the lex orandi which make liturgy beautiful. The Curé of Ars began his pastorate by spending money on new vessels and vestments for his country parish. Making everything in and around our churches bright, beautiful and clean is a priest’s first business. It’s as simple as following the General Instruction to the Roman Missal and reading the 2001 Vatican Instruction Liturgiam Authenticamclosely.

Music, as the queen of the liturgical arts, requires particular attention. In music you get what you pay for, and people will pay for what they get. At one point we were spending 25 per cent of our budget on music, but our offertory increased by 50 per cent.

This school of prayer must also provide the Sacrament of Penance, because we all make mistakes and can learn from them. Young adults flock to the parish mostly because we put a priest in the box at every Mass, and an hour every Tuesday night.

Eucharistic Adoration seals the deal. We put $300,000 (£226,000) into a Eucharistic Chapel that burns brightly day and night. It’s worth every penny, because people need a beautiful place to pray before the Eucharistic Christ. The sacred liturgies must stir the soul with deep beauty.

The parish must also be a school of God’s Word. Following the lex credendi through fidelity to the Church’s doctrine revives a parish because “my people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6). After Beauty, we seek Truth.

In our parish, priests teach children and priests teach adults, along with lay instructors. Besides the forthcoming Integrated Classical Curriculum, our school uses the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, both proven effective in transmitting the kerygma. Homilies are expected to be good enough for publication and website posting, and our communications staff broadcast the Word through extensive use of social media, including a weekly bulletin for older folks. “How will they believe if they have not heard?” asks St Paul (Romans 10:14). The parish’s homilies, catechesis and school must stir the mind with deep truth.

Finally, the parish is a school of service, following the lex vivendi. Beauty leads to Truth, and Truth leads to Goodness. Charity begins in the rectory, with priests taking meals together and praying a weekly “family rosary”. I require my priests (there are currently four of us) to pray lauds and vespers together every day in the church. Lay people always join us.

Having ordered our lives together in charity, we can serve others. Our parish serves the very poorest of the poor by praying every week outside an abortion clinic. We feed the homeless every day from the rectory and join Mother Teresa’s Sisters regularly in the streets. A stewardship council articulates what St John Paul II called the “Law of the Gift”, which motivates all charitable giving. According to this law, we increase in the measure that we give, because life is about giving, not getting. The parish’s spirit of charitable service must stir the heart with goodness.

Structuring the parish on the three laws of praying, believing and living guide the parish’s three essential tasks of Sacrament, Word and Charity. But there is a fourth way to revive a parish: let no parish forget Our Lady.

My very first act in a new parish is to consecrate it to Our Lady. I myself lead the rosary processions, the Angelus before Mass and the rosary after Mass. No parish devoted to Our Lady will fail to bear fruit, because she is the mother of all the living.

Full story at The Catholic Herald.


  1. Clinton R. says

    Excellent article. Not said was this parish has the Mass in Latin. Restore the Mass of All Time to all parishes, and we will see them full. Souls are starved for the Truth, starved for Christ. Diluting the Faith will not bring souls to Christ, but the timelessness and beauty of the Church will.

    • Excuse me, but the Mass in the Ordinary Form reverently and devoutly offered contains as much of the Truth as the Mass of St. John XXIII, because the Truth is Our Lord. Honestly people, the persecution you level against the Sacrament of the Eucharist in the Ordinary Form–and the faithful devoted to it– is nothing less than heretical, uncharitable, and anti-Catholic. The Ordinary Form, rightly offered, DOES NOT dilute the faith, plus it is just as beautiful. And I say all of this as one who loves the Extraordinary Form myself.

      • Commentator says

        It doesn’t dilute the faith? That’s just your opinion. Empirical evidence to the contrary is the exodus of self-identified Catholics from attending Mass. 75% attendance at weekly Mass in the 1960’s to 25% today. This isn’t about your personal feelings or anybody else’s, it’s about the effects on the body Catholic as a whole. The new Mass is one component, consistent with many others, of an overarching climate of liberalism throughout the mainstream Church in the U.S. The Novus Ordo supports this climate, the TLM does not, and cannot. That’s why the TLM has been suppressed for the better part of 50 years.

        • False. Correlation doesn’t mean causation. Blaming the Mass of St. Paul VI (that’s the Ordinary Form for you protestants and dissenters out there) and blaming Vatican II for the lower number of Mass attendees is like blaming the Council of Trent and the Tridentine Mass for the rise of Protestantism. Your argument is fallacious. Your “empirical” evidence is no evidence that the Ordinary Form dilutes the faith nor is it “evidence” that Sacrament in the Ordinary Form is part of an overarching “climate” of liberalism.

          • St. Christopher says

            “Jon,” wrong again. The TLM, and Catholic sacraments prior to the senseless “write down” post-VII, provide a perfect venue for worship, unclouded by the Protestant-pleasing nonsense brought in by Mgr. Bugnini and his pals. It is only the present institutional Church’s pride in its own destructive handiwork that stops it from taking the obvious path to rebuilding the institutional Church: restoring Catholic Tradition. “Clinton R” and “Commentator” are entirely correct. But, in the end, it does not matter in that soon, and very soon, there will be no more NO churches to close and it will be host to very few worshipers.

        • Anonymous says

          YES, Comentator! Many Catholics of today, need a history lesson on this subject! Many of us who were born long before the Council– in a very different Church!– know all about this situation, having lived and struggled through it all! It is not a matter of opinion— it is a matter of history! Catholic families today are really struggling! There is an extreme loss of Catholic religious culture, identity, and Christian morality– as well as good catechesis! And too much rebellion and sin! The focus on humanistic concerns, personal freedoms, extreme secularism, and the temporal world of today– puts millions of souls at risk, also!

      • ftp://Anonymous says

        Why is the faith watered down in Ordinary Form parishes?

      • Clinton R. says

        Jon, you said ” The Ordinary Form, rightly offered…” That’s the problem, there are far too many cases of the OF being offered however the priest wants. In other words, they are not doing the black and saying the red. This attitude has lead to a plethora of liturgical abuses. The OF, as it is, offers way too many options, compared to the Vetus Ordo. Plus, we would be fooling ourselves if we denied the sacrificial nature of the Mass was deemphasized with the New Mass. Is the Mass valid in the OF? I would not say otherwise, but is it the best man can offer to the Lord? I think not. When souls are at stake, we should always offer God the best we can. And that is the Mass of All Time.

        • “And that is the Mass of All Time.”

          In Aramaic? I agree completely.

          • Anonymous says

            Go to a Middle Eastern Catholic church– you will find a Mass in Aramaic! But not in the Latin Rite Church! Latin is still the official language, of the Latin Rite Church– and the official Roman Missal– is still printed in Latin– and translated into contemporary vernacular languages!

          • Anonymous says

            For the Mass in Aramaic– try the Syro-Malabar Catholic, Syriac Catholic, or Maronite Catholic churches– there are lots of them in the Middle East– and there might also be one of them here in California, too!

      • Well said Jon. Those who love the Latin mass should be content to love the Latin mass without suggesting the Church made a big mistake with the Novus Order mass. I am 74 and grew up and loved the Latin mass but not being all that smart I love the fact that I can now immediately see the beauty in the English words like: “From age to age you gather a people to yourself.. ” By the mystery of this water and wine….” “And so father we bring you these gifts…” ” Lord wash away my inequity…. ” ” Thjis is the chalice of my blood the blood of the new and eternal convenant…. ” ” …… giving thanks that you have held us worthy to be in your presence and minister to you..” Wonderfull wonderful words that stick…

    • Anonymous says

      Good for you, Clinton! Abp. Cordileone says that he is very interested to bring back the Tridentine Latin Mass and Traditional Catholic schools! But also— the Novus Ordo is done very well, very reverently, at Star of the Sea– so there are both Masses, done very well, for all Catholics to choose from!

  2. Anonymous says

    Too much me not enough He.

    • “Me” had to explain what was done that led to “He”.

    • Back in the age of the dinosaurs when I went to school, we were told to always put ourselves last in a sentence because to do otherwise was rude and unmannerly. Example:”Bob, Jane and I went to the store together.”

      Now I hear all kinds of people, including supposedly well educated ones say such things as, “Me and Alice went shopping.” Yes, there has been a change all the way around.

  3. Anonymous says

    Excellent article!

  4. Anonymous says

    Good for you, Clinton! Abp. Cordileone says that he is very interested to bring back the Tridentine Latin Mass and Traditional Catholic schools! But also— the Novus Ordo is done very well, very reverently, at Star of the Sea– so there are both Masses, done very well, for all Catholics to choose from!

  5. William Robert says

    Pray, pay and obey baby!

  6. Trumpovsky says

    Commentator: your analysis of the superiority of the EF of the Mass over the OF is deeply flawed and inconsistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church. There are many factors that led to the changes in American culture during the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Among them: a more educated populace, feminism, civil rights movements and the anti-Vietnam war movement. To assert societal changes would not have occurred if the TLM had been retained is myopic and absurd. Correlation does not equal causation.

    • Every objection to the OF enumerated in the Ottaviani Intervention of 1969 still hold water, even after 50 years. In essence, the OF is a Protestant service with the bare-minimum essentials to make it legally Catholic. But this is not what Our Lord wants nor deserves from us.

      • Anonymous says

        Everyone should read the Ottaviani Intervention! It gives a broader perspective on the happenings of the Council! Ottaviani was second to the Pope– the prefect of the Holy Office, during that era. It is now called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Interesting prelate, good historical reading, whether or not you agree with him! Many admire him! (me, too!) It is good to read all you can, on all the great prelates of this era– it will broaden and deepen your perspective. I also admire Pope St. John XXIII, and Pope St. Paul VI!

      • Sorry, but the Ottaviani intervention didn’t and still doesn’t hold water. Read what some of the Conciliar Fathers said about it. Ottavianni’s remarks at the time were judged to be on the surface level, almost trivial. The fact remains that the Holy Father and all the bishops of the Church have sole authority over the rites of the Church. Whatever they decide with respect to the liturgy is valid–provided they do not contradict Scripture, Tradition and the magisterium. And folks, there is NOTHING in the Ordinary Form that is contradictory to the Catholic Faith. NONE!

        • Anonymous says

          Both the old Latin Mass and New Mass are valid. There are some big differences between the two. Good to see what many Catholic leaders have had to say, historically! Cdl. Ottaviani was a brave conservative in his day, and stood steadfastly by his beliefs. Nothing wrong with him! Some at Vatican II also were very liberal during that era (such as the future Pope Benedict XVI emeritus) and later changed their views. Good to read, and broaden and deepen your perspective!

        • West coast says

          Yes, the best that can be said about the NO is that it doesn’t contradict the faith.

          • Your Fellow Catholic says

            Let’s try on a few other “best thing” to say about the NO: it is the source and summit of Christian life. It is the annuciation of the Gospel to the world. Christ is really truelly and substantially present in his body soul and divinity. It is the assembly of the People of God, for wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there He is in the midst of them.

    • Commentator says

      But the problem is that correlation proves correlation. Re-read my post it doesn’t say “societal changes would not have occurred if…” What it says is that the NO accommodates liberalism. Tired cliches about causation are all that liberals know because that’s all they want to know. They’ll fight to their deaths defending a Mass with dubious origins (research the history yourself), hold hands, waive their hands, take communion in hand, take communion under both species and on and on. I don’t expect to convince these people (they’re liberals), this is for people with ears to hear. I went to the NO for 30 years myself. Then the light went on.

      • You may have a problem with the way some parishes offer the Ordinary Form, but to say–as you just did– that the Sacrament of the Eucharist in the Ordinary Form (OF) is from “dubious origins” borders on the heretical. Intrinsically, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the OF, and to say that there is, weakens the faith of Catholics who are nourished by it and who receive God’s graces from it. This is diabolical: to weaken the faith of Catholics on the efficacy of the sacraments.

  7. Fr. Illo is a blessing to our Holy Church. Met him when Fr. was Chaplain at Thomas Aquinas College and gave us TLM at Ventura Mission and St. Mary Magdalen’s in Camarillo (still 10 am every Sunday). He keeps a wonderful blog ar with all his homilies. San Francisco is very lucky to have this priest.

  8. If four years Fr. Illo rebuilt Star of the Sea. Initially parents of the school rebelled over altar girls. Then fellow diocesan priests questioned him following the lead of Robert K. McElroy, who we now know through the Viganò testimony, was already a protegé of our liberal bishops and Pope Francis. Illo is a Holy priest. Hope one day he is allowed to build an Oratory as well. We miss him in Southern California.

  9. I’d like to hear from someone that knows: With regard to the Eucharistic Chapel noted in the article, is it a perpetual adoration chapel where there is someone there 24/7? If not, is the Blessed Sacrament intermittently exposed or reserved in a tabernacle?

    • Chardin- this parish is striving for Perpetual Adoration. You can call (415) 751-0450, for more information and for help to sign up for a Holy Hour.

  10. Feeding homeless from the rectory is ill-advised to say the least, unless done remotely. It’s especially dangerous for the women and children of the parish. Ask Elizabeth Smart.

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