Hearts to Open: Remembering Fr. Virgil

I think I know a great man when I see one.

LOVE YOU BACK: I think I know a great man when I see one. I haven’t seen that many, but Father Virgil Cordano was one, and I say this even though I’m not a Catholic or member of any organized-or disorganized-religion.

I can see him now, standing there before his beloved Santa Barbara Mission with a warm smile on his face and arms outstretched to all. His message: Accept others regardless of religious, cultural, ethnic, or other differences. “Religion is being true to yourself. Don’t discriminate against anyone.”

On the Beat

I can see him at La Fiesta Peque±a festivities, wearing his brown Franciscan friar robes and wide-brimmed Father Serra hat, introducing dancers and singers with his trademark occasional mispronunciations, jovial and happy, proud to have so many guests in his front yard. It was his thrill of the year.

He blessed the hundreds of bikers who roared up every year, befriended atheists, believed that no religion owned God, and, though he loved being a Franciscan, felt the Catholic faith could use a little reform.

He felt that marriage should be optional for priests, and was disappointed that Pope Paul VI didn’t adopt his own commission’s recommendation to allow artificial birth control. He was against capital punishment. Against church rules, he offered communion to divorced Catholics. He felt that the church has the historical authority to ordain women priests.

“I accepted the church’s requirement of celibacy for priests,” he said in his memoir, Padre: The Spiritual Journey of Father Virgil Cordano. “However, if celibacy were optional when I decided to study for the priesthood, I probably would have chosen to be a married priest.”

He was always ready with a joke. Asked why he never married, he said, “Why marry one and disappoint 50?” In 1989, while blessing Los Rancheros Visitadores riders at Mission Santa Ines, two male streakers ran past him. After the crowd stopped laughing, he cracked: “I have a word from the Lord for those two gentlemen: ‘Repent, for your end is in sight.'”

Many have wondered what he knew about the molestations years ago while they were happening at St. Anthony’s Seminary. “I was not personally aware of any of these incidents,” he said in Padre. He said he lived at the Mission complex and not at the adjacent seminary and that he did not teach there. The St. Anthony scandal was his “most painful experience” as a priest, and the church’s more recent sexual scandals around the nation “the lowest point in my clerical life.” The answer, he said, is reform within the church.

When I asked him once about heaven and hell, he replied, patting his heart, “They’re here.” God, he said, “doesn’t punish us, we punish ourselves.”

Fr. Virgil, born George, came from a poor immigrant Italian family in Sacramento. His father went from job to job and died young, and his mother worked in a cannery to support the kids. Young George, who later took the religious name of Virgil-taken from a book of suggested baby names-felt the calling to priesthood and left home at 15, against his mother’s will. She wanted him to get a good job, marry a good Italian girl, and give her grandchildren. He felt a strong religious calling, but once told me, “I dreamed about being a big league ballplayer. When I was a kid I knew more about baseball than religion, and maybe that’s still true.”

Fr. Virgil, who earned a doctorate in theology, didn’t believe in Adam and Eve Sunday school stories and had little use for rigid fundamentalists who feel that anyone who doesn’t follow their path is headed straight to hell. “There is nothing worse than an uneducated religious fanatic,” he told me last year, after he nearly died from an infection.

As for those who blame God for allowing tragedies in the world, he said, “He’s not up there pulling strings. He puts the world in our hands. The world depends on what we do with it.” The idea that God is controlling the world is “baloney,” he said.

I visited Fr. Virgil on his deathbed at Mission Terrace Convalescent Hospital last week hours before he slipped into a coma. “Everybody loves you,” I told him. He was very weak. “I love everybody,” he whispered back.

I told him that I’d heard from heaven and that they didn’t have room for him up there yet and he’d have to be with us for a lot longer. Apparently space opened up.

He said he wanted to “go back to the Mission to die.” He didn’t make it, but he will be lying in state there today, Thursday, May 29, and honored by the town on Friday with a funeral mass on the Mission steps. He didn’t die at the Mission, but he’ll live there forever in our hearts.

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