As a young man, Archbishop Cordileone set his sights on serving a greater cause. Colorblindness thwarted his dream of a naval aviator career, but he soon entered the seminary, impressed by the work of his parish priests.
Catholic San Francisco/Courtesy photo
A conversation with Archbishop Cordileone
on evangelization, stewardship, his heritage
and a favorite saint
Catholic San Francisco Editor Rick DelVecchio interviewed Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone on July 27, the day his appointment to the Archdiocese of San Francisco was announced. Here are excerpts.
Q. The blogger Rocco Palmo put a story out … "Bombshell by the Bay." It went into a whole argument about how this (appointment) has been a long time coming, a strategic move in a difficult archdiocese. What are your thoughts about the perception that you were sent in to correct or clean things up?
A. Well, San Francisco has a reputation, but there are a lot of good people here and a lot of good things happening among our Catholic people and I think a lot of people don't see what has been going on here. But we're against the culture and it's not like the bishop can wave a magic wand and fix things. Some of the problems we experience in the Church are not unique to here. For example, we've had problems in the area of catechesis for a very long time now. But I see a lot of renewed effort in that area across the country and certainly here.
Q. You mentioned now and I've read before that you've talked about the need for better formation and that the Church has fallen behind. How have you implemented that in Oakland, and what can we expect to see from you here in your new job?
A. Formation covers a lot of areas: formation of seminarians, there's the formation of candidates for the permanent diaconate, there's the formation of catechists. We have to make sure our catechists understand in depth the teaching of the Church and believe it, so they can transmit that to young people and be able to handle the questions young people ask, be able to respond to what's in the culture.
Q. I also read an interview where you said you feel we're going to have a smaller Church. Can you elaborate on that thought?
A. What is the percentage of people who attend Mass on Sunday? Twenty-five percent? Right now there are no consequences for being a Catholic, so it's easy for people to call themselves Catholic even though they don't go to Church, they don't believe everything the Church teaches. It could be in our society, though, that that's going to be inconvenient and people aren't going to pay what it takes to be a Catholic. Those who do, it will be because they believe firmly that this is the truth and that they're willing to die for it.
Q. It's very difficult to be a total Catholic in this culture ...
A. Yes, it is.
Q. Maybe very few can rise to that? Is that behind your thought that we're going to have a smaller Church?
A. Even if there isn't some kind of element in the culture that's going to make people want to go away from the Church, over time cultural Catholicism doesn't endure, generation after generation, in a society that doesn't support its values. When I was a young priest there were couples who came to church to be married. They didn't go to church but somehow they knew it was important to be married in the Church. Now what do we see? Fewer and fewer couples are getting married in the Church. Some of them will present their children for baptism, but when those children are adults and have children they probably won't be presenting them for baptism. It's kind of a gradual fading away. But those who are strong will remain. This trend will continue, unless we revamp our efforts in the area of formation.
Q. I believe it was during your installation Mass in Oakland that you mentioned you like big plans because they lead to big projects.
A. Action items.
Q. Can you name a couple of large projects in Oakland that you have planned for and implemented, and some of the areas you might look at?
A. We issued new guidelines for the sacrament of confirmation. I wanted something that was comprehensive, more substantial, something along the lines of a curriculum. A lot of work had been done before I came to the diocese. I finished it off and promulgated the guidelines. There were other issues I was about to launch, most seriously a capital campaign. The diocese has very serious financial challenges. We've taken a long time to analyze it. I'm going to have a meeting with the priests so we can discern which way to go.
Q. Philadelphia (archdiocese) just went through a gigantic reorganization when a new archbishop came in. Are you talking about a debt overhaul that that's severe, calling for major reorganization?
A. I don't think it calls for reorganization. It calls for coordinating our efforts to engage people with the stewardship of treasure. If we did, the problem would be resolved.
Q. Through new funds?
A. Creating a culture of stewardship was another priority item for me, and stewardship of treasure was part of that. It kind of ties in with what I was saying to the reporters earlier about how God calls us to live a life of sacrifice of giving of ourselves. That includes our treasure. But when you give you always learn that lesson that you receive more in return. If we could engage more people in living that way we would have more resources to draw on. Not just financial; we also have human resources from stewardship of time and talent.
Q. What went through your mind when you got the call from the nuncio?
A. Stunned silence (laughs).
Q. So, you didn't see it coming?
A. No. I'd only been in Oakland three years. I thought they were going to leave me there for a while. … That was the first thought. Then I started thinking about coming here. It's exciting to be coming here.
Q. You discerned a calling for the priesthood when you were in college, 1974, which was kind of a low point for vocations in the U.S. Can you describe what inspired you?
A. My faith was always very important to me. I started getting a little more involved with the parish toward the end of my high school years. And there was a young priest in my parish I looked up to, always gave great homilies, so I started thinking about emulating him. There was a seminarian from the parish and another seminarian who was helping out in the parish. So, I finally got up the nerve to speak to the priest and he recommended that I go to the vocations retreat at the local seminary.
Q. There were other career ideas that you had in mind?
A. I had my life charted out. Naval officer. I really wanted to be a naval aviator, but I'm colorblind, so that pretty much ruled it out. Then, my first year in college, I thought I could be a staff officer. I grew up in San Diego, it's a Navy town, my father served in the Navy in World War II. He was a commercial fisherman, so I was down at the docks a lot with all that Navy around there. I had a sense of wanting to do something great with my life, not just have a lot of fun and make a lot of money but serve a greater cause, serve my country. I think that spirit kind of got transitioned into serving the cause of God and the Church.
Q. Did you have that horizon, that ambition, from your mom or from your dad?
A. I don't know. Maybe it was just what the culture was back then. There was the space race. There was a real sense of national purpose.
Q. Did you work on the boat with (your father)?
A. When I got old enough he took me out, but the weather was really rough and I got really sick and he had to come back. That was the last season he fished, so I ended up not going out. But I used to hang out on his boat when he would get his boat ready for fishing season.
Q. How does all that experience with working men, working people – how do you see your ministry as addressing the needs of the middle class, lower middle class, the immigrant?
A. I think it's given me a certain sensitivity to it. It's the world that I came from. My grandparents were immigrants. They lived next door to us, so I saw them all the time. Those were my father's parents. My maternal grandparents lived nearby as well. When I was a young child there was still a strong sense of connection to the old country. There's a sensitivity to that, and a sensitivity to working families, and they instilled in me a sense of hard work as well.
Q. The country is polarized and the Church is too. How do you experience that in Oakland, in your ministry in the Bay Area here, and how have you managed it?
A. I try to teach what the Church teaches, and try to promote that teaching, helping people deepen our tradition so it's not just a matter of hooking yourself on to one ideology that you want to prevail but understanding what's deep in our tradition in the context of today. I think that the spirituality of stewardship is a very good example of that. ... The idea of being a steward goes back to the creation of Adam and Eve, so that's something that goes deep in our tradition, but we've thought it through more and have developed this teaching about the spirituality of stewardship. That's a good example of how we teach our people. That breaks through these ideological divides.
Q. One of the weekly papers ran a cover story when you first came to Oakland about your leadership on Proposition 8 – not all negative, but fairly negative. Has it been difficult for you to communicate what the Church demands on marriage and family in such a diverse diocese? Have you made progress since that time?
A. That's a good question. It's hard for me to gauge that but I know there's a lot of support for the Church's teaching in this area, and people who are trying to teach it have felt supported. That article was a good example of what I was talking about earlier. He (the writer) talked about how I was a pastor of that parish on the border, helping immigrants. How could I be someone who is on the side of the poor and the immigrants in a Spanish-speaking parish like that and then be someone who's working on Prop. 8? It seemed like a contradiction in terms to him. We have to break through on our understanding of human dignity, affirming human dignity at every stage from conception to natural death, in every condition. Children are the most vulnerable: They need the support of a mother and father. Immigrants are the most marginalized: We need to reach out and incorporate them into society. … So, teaching the core truths of our faith is what will bring us through these divides.
Q. How about more progressive Catholics? Have you found it difficult to communicate the teaching to them? Are they receptive?
A. I think some people are. I think other people are more influenced by the forces of the dominant culture and see the Church as having to change to conform to the culture. But Christ didn't found the United States of America. Christ didn't found San Francisco. Christ founded the Church to keep us in the truth. So if we take him at his word we have to trust that what the Church teaches is true. What we need to do is what the Church has always done in every first evangelization anywhere: recognize what's in the culture, and affirm what's good in the culture, recognize what needs to be corrected, and understand how the culture thinks and what its values are so it can engage the culture, but not just adapt itself wholesale because there are things in cultures that need to be fixed. No culture is perfect.
Q. Can you say a word about your prayer life?
A. I dedicate the first hour of the day to prayer. I pray my divine office and pray the rosary. I'll sometimes do a novena, meditate on the readings for the Sunday, do some spiritual reading. Sometimes I'll do centering prayer as well, just being present to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.
Q. Is there a saint you revere above all?
A. There are a number of them. I grew up with a family devotion to St. Joseph. We did the traditional St. Joseph's Day table every year. At the seminary I learned of St. Peter Claver, whose story always inspired me.