Going contemplative in the city

In 2006, Father Vito Perrone, a parish priest of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, was praying alone inside the majestic St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal. There was a blizzard outside, and while alone in the church for an hour and a half, he had a powerful “sense” or “intuition” that he should found a new contemplative community within his archdiocese, the Contemplatives of St. Joseph (COSJ). The community would be dedicated to prayer and the interior life, but also to the active apostolate.

He began a discussion with his archbishop, George Niederauer (1936-2017), and his successor, Salvatore Cordileone, about founding the community. “Both totally supported the idea, and got 100 percent behind it,” Father Perrone said.

A fledgling monastery

So, in 2013, Archbishop Cordileone designated the Contemplatives as a Public Clerical Association of the Christian Faithful, as the community took up residence on the grounds of Mater Dolorosa Parish in South San Francisco. When the COSJs began, Father Perrone was the sole member; today, nine men are in residence — four priests, two aspirants and three brothers. Additionally, three women living off-site hope to found a counterpart community for women once a monastery site has been located.

“Our ideal size we’d like to grow to in one monastery is 12,” Father Perrone said. “If we grow larger than that, some of our community will leave and found another monastery somewhere else in the archdiocese.”

The community is very much in a growth mode, he continued, and young men in search of a deep prayer life connected to the active apostolate are encouraged to visit. But whomever joins should be prepared to spend long hours in prayer; Monday through Friday, community members spend eight hours in prayer and spiritual reading daily.

The community’s weekday starts before 7 a.m., when members rise and spend two hours or more in private prayer. There is then a community Holy Hour followed by Mass, a work period and lunch. The community then has afternoon prayer, work or spiritual reading and another Holy Hour and evening prayer. At 8 p.m., the community has Grand Silence, which includes additional prayer and spiritual reading. On weekends, community members engage in the active apostolate, which includes assisting at parishes and offering spiritual direction and retreats.

Godsend to the community

One of the unique aspects of the community is that it is tri-ritual, celebrating the English/Novus Ordo Mass, the Latin/Extraordinary Form Mass and the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in the Byzantine Rite. But whichever rite the COSJs offer, said Sister Mary Jacinta of the Daughters of Carmel in Menlo Park, California, a community that works with the Contemplatives of St. Joseph, participants can expect it to be said with great devotion.

“When Father Vito or one of their other priests say Mass, they say each word slowly and reverently and in a way that helps me realize that Jesus is truly present,” Sister Mary Jacinta said.

The Daughters of Carmel help the new community coordinate retreats and present First Friday healing Masses that have helped many overcome “physical, psychological and emotional wounds,” according to Father Perrone. The COSJs address a critical need in the community, Sister Mary Jacinta believes, because “San Francisco is very secular. People are looking for a contemplative life with Christian spirituality.”

Betty Magoolaghan of San Bruno, California, has known Father Perrone since 2001, and she has had three of her four children baptized by him. She volunteers with the COSJs as a cantor and participates in its Catholic Spiritual Life Academy, in which she learns how to incorporate the contemplative spirituality of the community into her life. Going to the Contemplatives of St. Joseph monastery, she said, “gives me a sense of peace. My search for God has not ended, but goes deeper and deeper. Going to the monastery has enhanced my desire to know him.”

Members of the public are welcome to visit the COSJ monastery for daily Masses as well as for special events, including the healing Mass and apostolates like the academy. While some visitors may find the rigors of maintaining a prayer life and the long periods of accompanying silence difficult, Magoolaghan said, for her it has been most rewarding.

“We’re a group of lay people searching for God, learning to become contemplatives and to develop a spirituality we can incorporate in our active lives,” she said. “The contemplative life is not just for monks and nuns in monasteries, but for everyone, including us laypeople. It benefits us as we interact with our families, our co-workers and people we meet on the street.”

Father Perrone has been a godsend to the community, she believes, and an ideal leader for the COSJs.

“If I had to sum him up in one word, it would be ‘holy.’ He is a holy man who is a magnet for anyone looking for God.”

His chief interest, she said, is the salvation of souls, and “he’s not afraid to proclaim the truth when he needs to.”

Father Vito Perrone celebrates the Byzantine liturgy. Courtesy photo

Aspiring to grow

The Contemplatives of St. Joseph are funded through their ministries and through benefactors. Donations are welcome; currently, Father Perrone is looking for donors to hire professionals to augment the community’s choir that sings at Masses and special events. “One of our goals is to elevate the sacred, making the Mass more reverent and beautiful through the use of sacred music,” he said.

The choir presently has 24 members, four of whom are paid. The choir is currently creating its first musical CD, which will be given away to friends of the community. The COSJs hope to create more CDs in the future as well as hire a “composer in residence” to create more sacred music.

In the long run, the community would like to purchase its own land and build its own monastery. Considering that real estate in San Francisco is among the priciest in the nation, Father Perrone realizes this will be a challenge. “Like monasteries throughout Church history, the only way this would occur is if it were a gift to us,” he said.

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Despite the challenges in establishing a religious community, Father Perrone is excited about the COSJs’ steady growth. He invites men interested in religious vocations to inquire; he also welcomes prayer requests and visitors to the community’s Masses, retreats and special events.

“We’re excited about the growth we’ve had, and we are looking forward to more,” Father Perrone said. “It is our hope that we’re well on our way to making the Contemplatives of St. Joseph a center of contemplative prayer in the archdiocese.”

Jim Graves writes from California.