Catholic San Francisco

Bishop McElroy

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Interview with new auxiliary bishop: Bishop-elect McElroy: ‘Bring true discipleship to the public square’
September 1st, 2010

Bishop-elect Robert McElroy, newly named 17th auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, believes lay Catholics in the Archdiocese have an important role to play to revitalize not only the inner life of the Church but also the public life of the Bay Area.

Among the comments Bishop-elect McElroy provided to Catholic San Francisco in the weeks prior to his episcopal ordination Sept. 7 at St. Mary’s Cathedral, is an interest in an initiative “to transform the too often secularized culture of the Bay Area to bring true discipleship – public discipleship – to the center of the public square.”

Bishop-elect McElroy, a priest for 30 years, is known for his intellectual achievements. His educational background includes a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, a master’s degree from Stanford University, a master’s in Divinity from St. Patrick Seminary and University, a doctorate in political science from Stanford, and a doctorate in moral theology from North American College in Rome.

Yet, he also has a reputation for leadership and pastoral ministry. He has championed lay leadership and involvement in his 14 years as pastor at St. Gregory Parish in San Mateo. He also has been key in the design of lay training for lay leaders throughout the archdiocese.

In the following exchange, Bishop-elect McElroy shared his thoughts on discipleship and other topics in response to wide-ranging questions from Catholic San Francisco.

Among the highlights of his responses:

• Our American society has too often allowed our notion of the dignity of the human person to be warped by a market-oriented approach.

• The belief that the fundamental goods of society are socially created rather than transcendent gifts of God “poses an ominous development.”

• “A truly secular humanistic worldview is indeed incompatible with the Catholic view of the world.”

• It is important for Catholics to recognize that various teachings of the Church are taught with different levels of authority and certitude.”

Bishop McElroy also traced his spiritual development, honoring his parents and his whole family for giving him the gift of a deep faith, recalling the challenging and nurturing Catholic culture he grew up with in 1950s and 1960s Daly City and Burlingame and painting a picture of one of his first priestly mentors, Capuchin Father Gerald Barron, as a priest who exuded a transcendent, but not otherworldly, faith.


Here is the full text of the interview:


Catholic San Francisco: Are there any special guests who you would like to honor at your ordination Mass – any family, friends and mentors who came a long way to take part in the rite or who played a big role in what led up to the day?

Bishop McElroy: The two people whom I would like to honor most on the day of my ordination are my parents. They have given to me the most important gift that parents can give to their children – the experience of knowing that you have always been deeply and irrevocably loved. In addition, my parents have given to me and indeed to our whole family the gift of deep, sustained, lived Catholic faith. Finally, they gave to us the marvelous witness of six decades of married love, and celebrated their sixty-second wedding anniversary in August.

What is the larger meaning of an episcopal ordination for the community, for your brother priests and for the laity who will come together at the cathedral for this comparatively rare event?

The larger meaning of an episcopal ordination always lies in the testimony it gives to the vitality, continuity, and unity of the local Church. The Archdiocese of San Francisco is geographically small. But it is rich in its cultural diversity, its religious depth, and its contribution to the growth of the Church throughout the Western United States and across the Pacific. Each of the eight episcopal ordinations that I have participated in during my lifetime has embraced all of these elements in a dramatic way that has helped to remind the communities of our Archdiocese that although we function as particular parishes or schools or agencies on a daily basis, we are part of a much larger vision rooted in faith in Jesus Christ, a vision which ultimately encompasses the whole of our world.

Was there one moment, one experience, that inspired you to become a priest?

There was no single moment or experience that inspired me to be a priest. I have wanted to be a priest from my earliest years.

How did your family life contribute to your decision to train for the priesthood? Did you have family members who had taken religious vows?

I don’t have any members of my family who were priests or religious. But my parents and grandparents were deeply religious, and that provided the foundation for my vocational development. Sometimes the term cultural Catholicism is used to denote merely a cultural and not a faith-based Catholicism. But for me growing up in Daly City and Burlingame during the l950’s and l960’s the culture in which I lived breathed a substantive Catholicism that was alive and challenging and nurturing. I attended Catholic schools all of my life until college, and so many of the sisters and priests who were models for me in life exemplified a real world Catholic faith that rendered Catholicism far more substantial than any set of abstract notions or disembodied piety.

Was there one priest who inspired you most when you were in formation, and if so, how did he inspire you?

There were four priests who inspired me during my vocational formation.

The first was Monsignor Richard Power, the founding pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Westlake, where I lived until I was ten. Monsignor Power was a charismatic figure who knew his people well, was a tremendous organizer, conveyed real depth in Catholic faith, and made the development of vocations to the priesthood and religious life a real priority. More than anyone else, it was he who formed my earliest notions of what it meant to be a priest.

The second figure who inspired me in my youth was Father Gerald Barron. Father Gerald arrived as a newly ordained priest at Our Lady of Angels Parish in Burlingame when I was in sixth grade. I served his first Mass. What struck me most about Father Gerald was the example of lived holiness which he provided. He exuded a sense of faith which was transcendent, but not otherworldly, and he mixed kindness, compassion, gentleness and humor. He represents the best of the Franciscan tradition.

The third priest who had a particularly large role in my vocation was Father John Ward, the Sulpician principal of Saint Joseph High School Seminary. Father Ward exemplified two central priestly virtues for me. The first was the ability to deal with conflict and challenge with graciousness and equanimity. The period from 1968 to 1972 was a difficult one for seminaries, filled with turmoil and discord. Saint Joseph’s was no exception, although I found my own experience there as a student in those years to be tremendously enriching. Father Ward had to deal with many complex and troubling issues in his leadership of the high school, and he consistently did so in a way that testified to his identity as a truly Christian gentleman, even when provoked. The second quality that remained with me about Father Ward was his love for the life of the mind and learning. He was a classics scholar who taught me Latin and Greek, and class with him was a daily reminder of the Catholic commitment to knowledge seen in the light of faith.

The final priest who helped shape my priestly vocation was Father Howard Rasmussen, the pastor of Saint Elizabeth Parish, where I spent my diaconate year. Father Rasmussen had a truly fatherly relationship with the members of his parish – rooted in faith, deeply empathetic, unafraid to lead, quick to console, adept at nurturing, willing to admit mistakes, eager to grow. Spending the diaconate year at Saint Elizabeth’s was a deeply positive experience for so many of us in those years not merely because that parish was a wonderful, diverse community of faith, but also because its pastor embodied what it means to be father as a priest.

Other than scale, what do you see as the differences between your role as pastor of a large parish and your role as Auxiliary Bishop?

There are enormous differences between being pastor of a parish and being an auxiliary bishop. In one way, the role of the pastor is more defined and includes a direct responsibility for the pastoral well-being of a particular parish. An auxiliary bishop does not have any such direct responsibility for the leadership of his diocese but instead assists the diocesan bishop (or Archbishop in our case) in his direct responsibility to lead the Archdiocese. At the same time, an auxiliary bishop is part of the universal college of bishops and thus is called to exercise a collaborative teaching role in the Church throughout the world, in concert with the leadership of the Holy Father.

On the topic of parish life, what can the chancery do to help parishes, which are hard-put financially these days, to increase their income?

I believe that Monsignor (James) Tarantino (archdiocesan Vicar for Administration and Moderator of the Curia) is actively analyzing ways in which the pastoral center could help parishes to increase their income and raise new funds in these difficult times. Since he has headed the Stewardship Committee of the Archdiocese for many years and has himself been immensely successful as a parish fundraiser at Saint Hilary’s, I am eagerly looking forward to the ideas which he will identify and suggest to the Archbishop.

You have been a leader in two inter-parish initiatives that I know of: the training of parish administrators to take on more operational responsibility, and the job support network in the central San Mateo County deanery. Do you have any other ideas in mind that would, like these, involve parishes joining forces or challenge the laity to a higher level of discipleship?

The program for the formation of lay parish managers and the job support network for those seeking employment during the current recession were both very exciting for me to participate in, since they constituted two very concrete ways in which talented lay leaders in our parishes took novel steps to serve the Church and our parish communities in a creative way. I think that the thrust of both of these initiatives – lay discipleship revitalizing both the inner life of the Church and the world in which we live –will continue to be a hallmark of the life of this Archdiocese in the coming years. I would be particularly interested in an initiative to transform the too often secularized culture of the Bay Area to bring true discipleship – public discipleship –- to the center of the public square.

St. Gregory has been particularly generous in raising funds for victims of the Southeast Asian tsunami, for example, and in raising funds to help the poor globally. What has been your role, as pastor, in these efforts, and what do you see as your possible archdiocesan role in supporting parishes’ social justice work?

Five years ago forty members of Saint Gregory Parish attended the Archbishop John R. Quinn Colloquium on Catholic Social Teaching that focused on dire global poverty and our Christian obligation to eradicate it. This two-day conference electrified the leadership of our parish and led our parish council to resolve that each Lent we as a parish should learn more about fighting global poverty and take concrete steps to help those most in need in our world. In 2007 we raised $40,000 for bed nets to fight malaria in Africa. In each subsequent year we raised a similar amount for wells in poor villages (2008), food for children in refugee camps in the Congo (2009) and micro lending in Haiti and the Philippines (2010.)

As part of each of these initiatives, we undertook educational programs directed at our adults, children and young adults designed to provide a fuller understanding of the particular dimension of global poverty that was the focus for that year.

This experience has convinced me that the people of our Archdiocese, when brought face to face with the realities of global poverty in a manner that invites education and action to alleviate that poverty, can and will move dramatically to embrace Christ’s suffering brothers and sisters.

How do you think everyday Catholics should view different interpretations of a question by various theologians?

On the question of differing perspectives among Catholic theologians, I think it is important for Catholics to recognize that various teachings of the Church are taught with different levels of authority and certitude. There are some teachings which constitute central dogmas put forth with certitude and with the highest teaching authority by the Church, for example the divinity of Jesus, the Resurrection, the divine nature of the Church. There are others which are much more contingent, because they proceed not from Revealed Truths or central elements of our faith, but constitute the application of principles of faith to the concrete elements of social or economic or political life. It is an error to believe that all Church teachings demand equal assent from Catholics. Regarding these more contingent questions, it is particularly appropriate to recognize that differing views of theologians can and should be entertained by Catholics precisely as part of the process of identifying the truth by which we as followers of Christ are to live.

In your scholarly writings, including your writings on Jesuit theologian and Second Vatican Council adviser John Courtney Murray, you have been concerned with the consequences of polarization in our civic life and in our Church life. Murray contributed to the Second Vatican Council text on religious liberty, “Dignitatis Humanae,” which states: “Men are to deal with their fellows in justice and civility.” What can Catholics do to elevate our dialogue with each other, to find common ground on shared beliefs, and to elevate our dialogue with the mainstream culture?

One of the most distressing elements of our national dialogue in the present moment is that our society is increasingly polarized, not merely in how we approach important social, political or economic questions, but more importantly in how we view the fundamental realities that make us a society. The emergence of social media and television networks at both ends of the spectrum that systematically interpret the major events of the day through a sharply ideological lens really does pose a threat to our ability to endure as a national community dedicated to common discourse and mutual respect. Civility is only the first casualty of this distorted dialogue. A second and more important casualty is the recognition that consensus on important social questions must proceed from an ethically substantive conversation that is the opposite of polarization, categorization and judgmentalism.

One of Murray’s concerns, expressed 50 years ago, was state imposition on religious freedom. Murray was convinced, you have written (paraphrasing your Feb. 7, 2005 “America” article), that unchecked state growth at the expense of religious freedom would rob American society of a vital “transcendent perspective” and rob Americans of their ability to express their beliefs publicly. What do you think Murray would say if he were with us today?

John Courtney Murray, and the Founders of our nation, shared a belief that the most sacred realities of our society and our humanity – the sanctity of human life, the dignity of the human person, peace, marriage, freedom itself – were rooted in their transcendent nature as gifts of God. Our society increasingly has come to believe that society creates these realities and that society alone has the legitimate authority to decide what each of these realities constitutes. This poses an ominous development, because in such a world there are no anchors to appeal to against distortions of these fundamental human goods by society itself. Our own American society, which has accomplished so much good in the world, has all too often allowed our notion of the dignity of the human person to be warped by a market-oriented approach to social solidarity, and has also let our notion of protected human life fall victim to the ideologies of the left and right that exclude the unborn, victims of war, those on the edge of death, and those whom our society puts to death as punishment.

You have written that imposing Eucharistic sanctions solely on candidates who support abortion could harm the societal role of the Church “in advocating a moral agenda that transcends the political divide.” What can we in the Church do to be more effective in this role today?

I believe that the principal challenge for the Church in the United States on the issue of abortion today is to convey to our society the recognition that the humanity of the unborn child necessarily demands protection in civil law. Polling data indicates clearly that most Americans have an intuitive understanding that life within the womb is indeed human life, and for that reason most Americans view abortion as morally problematic. But this same data shows that most Americans resist the clear implication of this insight: namely that this human life in the womb deserves legal protection. It is essential that the Church witness in particularly creative and effective ways to this legal dimension of the rights of the unborn child, while doing so in a manner that is emblazoned with compassion and sympathy for the enormously difficult dilemmas that pregnant women often face.

In your “A Pastor’s Homily on the Church’s Failure,” which ran in the Archbishop’s Journal in the April 21, 2010, issue of Catholic San Francisco, you wrote that shame over the existence of abuse “led to a culture of secrecy and concealment that massively compounded this failure.” In your new role, how do you feel you could bring added transparency to help the Church and survivors heal from the crisis?

I believe that the major breakthrough in the drive for transparency took place at the bishops’ meeting in Dallas [2002] with the adoption of the Charter for the Protection of Children. But as with any breakthrough, it is essential that every diocese and religious order be vigilant in its openness to victims, its investigation and evaluation of allegations, and its dedication in following the protective provisions of the Charter.

You may have heard that novelist Anne Rice announced she is leaving Christianity after having been publicly Christian for five years. On her Facebook page July 28, she wrote, “I’m out. In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life.” If you were Anne Rice’s pastor, what would you say?

If I were Anne Rice’s pastor, I would attempt to have a conversation with her which went beyond the surface level of sloganeering that her initial statement reflects and instead sought to deal in turn with the substance of each of the issues that she is raising. Part of that conversation would recognize the reality that all too many Christians bring the judgmentalism that Christ rejected so vehemently to their efforts to articulate Christian beliefs. Part of it would point out that neither political party in America today can begin to claim the mantel of Catholic truth on the central issues that confront us as a nation today. Part of it would explore the many dimensions of being pro-life or anti-life in our world. But part of it would also point to my conviction that a truly secular humanistic worldview is indeed incompatible with the Catholic view of the world, and that a transcendent notion of truth rooted in God is the truest anchor for an individual or a society wishing to better our world.

Bishop McElroy as communicator: excerpts, notes from his academic writings, articles and homilies

“The Search for an American Public Theology: The Contribution of John Courtney Murray,” Paulist Press 1989

John Courtney Murray, Jesuit priest and theologian, had a profound influence on the notion of Religious Liberty found in Dignitatis Humanae and other documents of Vatican II. The author gives a broad and clear review of Murray’s social philosophy.

“Morality and American Foreign Policy: The Role of Ethics in International Affairs,” Princeton University Press, 1992

“The role of morality in international relations dominated foreign policy in the first 60 years of the 20th century “has been banished to the periphery of the field” in the last 25. The culprits: the rise of value-free science and realism.

“He held these truths,” America magazine, Feb. 7, 2005

The author looks at American theologian John Courtney Murray’s views on religious freedom in light of contemporary problems. “Only if America takes a religiously informed look at the dominance of technology and materialism in our culture will the core of our national identity be founded on spiritualizing rather than instrumentalizing impulses.”

“Foundations for a national ethical discussion about Iraq,” Lane Center for Catholic Studies and Social Thought, University of San Francisco, Spring Lecture Series 2008

The author reviews the war in Iraq in light of Catholic social teaching. “A just cause alone is not sufficient for a decision to wage war.”

“Archbishop’s Journal: A pastor’s homily on the Church’s failure, Catholic San Francisco,” April 21, 2010

“Forgiveness is a magnificent quality. But forgiveness can become a distortion when it is separated from justice.”

From September 3, 2010 issue of Catholic San Francisco.



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