DO IT OUR WAY: Father Virgil Cordano, pastor emeritus at the Santa Barbara Mission and often called Mr. Santa Barbara for his decades of community work, is seriously ill.
In an interview earlier this year, Fr. Virgil offered a simple formula: Accepting others regardless of religious, cultural, ethnic, or other differences.
The road to world peace, Fr. Virgil believes, involves “a universal acceptance of all people. Unless you have a philosophy of life that is inclusive of all people, there will never be peace.
“All problems come down to our inability to deal with the differences of others and to accept the differences.” And that can’t happen if we’re caught up in our “own small world,” he told me. “There won’t be peace until we learn to love others. Love is to promote the good of those other than yourself. The purpose of life is personal growth and moving from ‘me, me, me,’ aided or unaided by religion.
“It’s often been said that if you’re not at peace with yourself and if you don’t respect your own dignity and worth and that of others, it makes it very difficult for you to be at peace with others,” he said. “All religions say, ‘Love others as you love yourself.’
“What principles guide you? Are you giving of yourself and open to all? A number of people do not have principles guiding them and don’t accept someone being different from them. God meets us where we are. God delights in differences. I’m radically opposed to fundamentalists who state that God favors just one religion and not all, and that a person outside their belief has no chance of being saved.
“In my life, I try to be open to everyone I encounter. I may politically disagree, but I respect them. I have to promote their true good. All love is sacrificial. What counts is the kind of person you are becoming. If you move from self-centeredness and grow to other-centeredness, you are becoming the kind of person God wants you to be.
“There is a tendency toward self-centeredness. The tendency of forming convictions without entering into a dialogue with others is one of the burdens of the world. People are too sure of themselves.”
Rather than echoing the song “My Way,” it’s better to be able to join with others and “do it our way,” Fr. Virgil said.
“You have to get beyond intellectual convictions and learn to accept people who are different from you. When we get to heaven, it won’t be a question of who was right and who was wrong but who was less wrong.”
Fr. Virgil is a humble man and well aware that organized religions don’t have a monopoly on spirituality. “I’m very ecumenical. There are a number of people who can’t belong to an institutional religion who are spiritually better than I am.”
Fr. Virgil grew up in a poor Italian family in Sacramento. He likes to tell about how his brother became a businessman and built “the first shopping center in Northern California.” If fate played a different hand, “I’d have been a multimillionaire in Sacramento in business with my brother.” But Fr. Virgil voiced no regrets. He knew which way his path of life led.
After joining the Franciscan priesthood, he began studies that led to a doctorate degree in theology. “I’ve been blessed with a good education, and that has helped me immensely,” he said.
“One day I got a letter: ‘You’re in charge of public relations at the Santa Barbara Mission,'” he remembered. Soon he was deeply involved in the Old Spanish Days celebration and has been active ever since. He has long been master of ceremonies at the Mission’s Fiesta Peque±a, which kicks off Fiesta every year, but relinquished the role last year for health reasons. A year ago, he had a close brush with the angel of death. He was found with a 107 degree temperature in his room at the Mission and rushed to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital with a severe urinary infection and blood pressure of 62.
“The doctor said, ‘You’re dying.’ Then he said ‘There is a risky treatment. Do you want to try it?’ I said yes. They poured medication into me. The next morning the doctor said, ‘You are well again. It’s a miracle.'”
He loves baseball. “When I was a kid,” he said, “I knew more about baseball than religion.” In the memoir, Padre: The Spiritual Journey of Father Virgil Cordano, by Mario T. Garc-a, there are photos of the young priest lining up with the St. Anthony’s Seminary football team in 1938 and also playing ball, batting lefty, and no doubt praying for a home run.