While evangelical churches and multiple denominations have been called out around the country and in California for encouraging people to gather for worship in spite of public health orders, it's the Catholic Church in San Francisco that appears to be the biggest problem.
This week we learned of the landmark Saints Peter and Paul Church in North Beach allowing a wedding mass to go on with 100 guests earlier this month, and now we get a church newsletter from a controversial figure at another SF church, Father Joseph Illo, who is trying to preach the gospel that people shouldn't be living in fear of COVID-19.
"The only reason to be a Catholic is to become a saint," Illo writes, in a statement that I'm sure many contemporary Catholics would disagree with. "But we are more concerned about 'safety' than sanctity [in this pandemic]." He goes on to make a number of outrageously irresponsible statements that sound like they came from Fox News, including one about how he knows "thousands of people," but only three who have had COVID-19, and all of them are doing just fine.
Illo figured into a story last year about how Star of the Sea School in the Richmond District was suspending classes for the 2019-2020 school year due to reportedly declining enrollment. Parents at the school filed a complaint with the Archdiocese's Department of Catholic Schools, citing Illo's alleged aggressive behavior in meetings with parents. According to the parents, Father Illo "lacks the proper temperament of a priest and school leader, cannot empathize with people’s frustration, cannot work collaboratively with others, and cannot facilitate a community meeting."
Parents complained that since joining the Star of the Sea parish, Illo had been on a mission to turn the place into an "ultra-conservative" one, and that he was singlehandedly responsible for the declining enrollment at Star of the Sea School. One parent pointed to his "taking every ounce of joy out of the annual Christmas concert by forbidding them to sing 'secular carols.'"
Illo says that he plans to reopen the school as a "classical academy."
Now Illo is proving himself to be a Trumpian "conservative" in his thinking about the pandemic as well, trying to convince parishioners to put their attendance at church services ahead of their own health, and downplaying the seriousness of the virus threat.
Covid is real, but please know that the news reports about Covid are largely unreal. Actual hospitalization numbers easily obtainable on hospital websites will show a much less alarming picture. We cannot ignore the fact that the glaring discrepancy between media reports and hospital reports is taking place in an election year. Note two facts: 1) those who control the media have stated a vitriolic opposition to our incumbent president. 2) a proven means of unseating an elected official is to induce fear among the incumbent's constituents.
Sounds like baldfaced Trump support to me! And also promoting the misinformed idea that low hospitalization rates in San Francisco are somehow indicative of a lesser virus threat, when anyone paying attention to non-Fox news sources would know that hotspots like Houston this month or New York in April have seen hospitals overrun with gravely ill patients, and higher mortality rates as a result of overwhelmed systems.
But Father Illo says people should look outside their windows and "see God's peaceful order in the flowers and the trees," and stop reading news on the internet that scares them into staying away from church.
Meanwhile, Pope Francis himself has urged Catholics to obey lockdown orders. And outbreaks have been linked to churches in Alabama, South Korea, and elsewhere. A choir practice at a church in northern Washington State also led to a large outbreak in March that claimed several lives.
KTVU picked up the news of Illo's newsletter, and the station attempted to determine if Illo was persisting in holding in-person mass at Star of the Sea — the priest referred them to a spokesperson who did not have an answer.
But we have an answer, that at least in June when such church services were not allowed, the City Attorney's Office cited Star of the Sea as one San Francisco church that had been illegally holding mass indoors without a mask on — based on YouTube evidence. And Illo was also cited for holding a large mass outdoors. The Archdiocese of San Francisco responded by saying it had instructed all of its parish priests only to hold outdoor services with a maximum of 12 parishioners. But in the story about the wedding at Saints Peter and Paul, the Archdiocese washed its hands of responsibility and said it was not aware of all the activities of its parishes.
Jerick Rea, a priest in training in San Francisco, gave a quote to ABC7 earlier this month saying, "Anything involving the holy mass, the priests and servers will not wear a mask. We consider the holy mass to be something special and sacred which shouldn't be tarnished by something that has a human concern, and part of it as well is that we're just being rational about it." He added, echoing Illo's perspective, "None of us have experienced any symptoms. I understand if people are dying left and right, but they're not."
Related: SF Catholic Churches Have Been Holding Illegal Gatherings; City Attorney Threatens Restraining Order