The Rev. Joseph Illo, formerly the popular and sometimes controversial priest at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Modesto, is on loan from the Stockton Diocese to become a parish priest in the Archdiocese of San Francisco. While there, he and a fellow priest hope to start a new house for priests who commit to live, pray and study together, called the Oratorio.
Two years ago, Illo took a leave from the diocese to become a chaplain at Thomas Aquinas College in Southern California. At the time, he said he had hopes of eventually teaching at a seminary.
“College work was very relaxing, but I couldn’t really sink my teeth in it,” Illo said in an interview last week. “I’m wired to be a parish priest.”
He will serve as the pastor at Star of the Sea parish, located at Geary and Eighth streets in downtown San Francisco. The parish has a house for priests that could accommodate up to 10 men, Illo said.
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The idea would be to gather parish priests from other parishes or assignments who want to live together in community.
“We would have a way of life,” Illo said. “We’d have morning and evening prayers together. At least one meal a day together. After the evening meal, we’d have the Oratory, meaning ‘to pray,’ or ‘to speak.’ It would be like a Bible study or shared fellowship.”
He and an old friend, the Rev. Patrick Driscoll from the archdiocese of St. Louis, will try to establish the Oratory fellowship.
There are 85 other Oratories in about 17 countries, Illo said. “It’s a congregation of the Catholic Church, an order, if you will, but each house is autonomous. There are some general laws that apply to all of the houses, and then each one has their own rules of life.”
For example, each Oratory must have a minimum of four priests. They don’t take vows, but “we make promises to live simply,” Illo said. Property isn’t held in common; each priest is responsible for providing his own livelihood. The priests would commit to a time of joint prayer, but how many times a day and how long those prayers would last is up to each house.
Illo said he got interested in the order when he was a priest at St. Joseph’s. He and the parish’s other priests would pray together daily, and he had a group of about seven priests who met regularly and went on outings together, “but I want more. I’d like to establish a stable community where people don’t come and go,” he said.
“The problem with priests is we’re celibate. So if we’re not in some kind of community with others, we’re alone. It’s not good for man to be alone. It’s hard these days because we’re an oversexed society, so if you talk about intimacy or relationship, it’s hard not to think about sexual intimacy. But we all have that desire to know and be known. We’ve had others who have already expressed interest in this. For example, there’s a man in Philadelphia who wanted to be a priest, but he left the seminary before he completed his studies. He said he just couldn’t become another lonely Catholic priest. So he’s going to come out and visit us.”
Beyond living with other priests in the order, Illo said he’s looking forward to his return as a parish priest.
“San Francisco is a beautiful city and there’s a lot of fruitful, evangelical work that can be done,” he said. “There’s a vocal and even militant minority (opposed to Christianity), but I think a lot of people in the city are hungry for the Gospel. It’ll be great. I want to get back to work.”
Illo said he is technically “on loan” from the Stockton Diocese for the next three to four years. After that, if the Oratory community works out, he will “become an Oratoran priest. I will never be an Archdiocese (of San Francisco) priest, but I’ll always live in that archdiocese, unless this doesn’t work out.”
Of course, he said, Bishop Stephen Blaire could call him back to work in the Stockton Diocese at any time before that happens.
“That’s in God’s hands,” he said.