Former St. Gregory pastor Cardinal McElroy celebrates parish’s anniversary

By Christina Gray

On September 18, Less than a month after receiving the cardinal’s biretta from Pope Francis in Rome, Cardinal Robert W. McElroy celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving for the 80th anniversary of St. Gregory Parish in San Mateo where he served as pastor from 1997 to 2010.

Cardinal McElroy was one of 20 bishops and archbishops from five continents elevated to the College of Cardinals during an August 27 consistory at St. Peter’s Basilica. He is the only new cardinal from North America.

St. Gregory pastor Father Mark Ruburiano welcomed Cardinal McElroy back to the parish on behalf of generations of families from St. Gregory, as well as those from St. Cecilia and St. Pius, where Cardinal McElroy served earlier in his priesthood for the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

The parish’s Filipino Choir filled the sanctuary with songs of celebration and thanksgiving.

“Welcome back my dear friend on behalf of a grateful parish,” said Father Ruburiano. “Thank you for coming back here to St. Gregory, your home parish. “We thank you for the 14-plus years that you ministered here.”

Father Rubriano, who said he was mentored by Cardinal McElroy as a young priest, recognized the Cardinal’s pastoral legacy in support of the poor and underprivileged, “with particularly attention to the care of migrants.”  The parish still gets thank-you notes from Africa, he said, more than 10 years after the former pastor oversaw a Lenten project to send mosquito nets to help curb malaria infections there.

“Thank you for living in your principal and the motto in your coat of arms, ‘Dignitatis humanae,’ which means, caring for the dignity of human beings.”

Cardinal McElroy, 68, was born in San Francisco and ordained to the priesthood in 1980. He served pastoral assignments at St. Cecilia Parish in San Francisco and St. Pius Parish in Redwood City prior to his 14-year term at St. Gregory.  In 2010 he was consecrated Auxiliary Bishop for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, and became Bishop of the Diocese of San Diego in 2015. As cardinal, he will continue in his role as Bishop of the Diocese of San Diego.

Retired Auxiliary Bishop William P. Justice, who served with Cardinal McElroy as one of the archdiocese’s two auxiliary bishops, concelebrated the Mass at St. Gregory.

Cardinal McElroy, one of five children of Walter and Roberta McElroy, greeted the packed church and his own family, including his 97-year-old mother.

“I want to begin by thanking my mother,” he said to applause. “Being here in this church and looking out at the faces, I have great gratitude for all of the people and communities of faith that have enriched my life and priesthood.”

Cardinal McElroy, whose title is now preceded by “His Eminence,” is known for eschewing formal or fanciful designations. He described the few minutes he had with Pope Francis in a characteristically humble — and humorous way.

He said that the consistory has a kneeler with no side rail to help someone rise again after receiving the cardinal’s hat and ring from the pope.

“I’ll tell you a secret, I have bad knees,” Cardinal McElroy told the congregation. He can’t easily kneel down and get up. “In my line of work, that’s not a good thing.”

He said “he didn’t want to shame my country,” so he went to Home Depot and bought contractor’s knee pads for under his red robes.

As he was getting up, the pope asked how he was after heart surgery in 2021. “My heart is great, but my knees aren’t so good,” he said. “Neither are mine,” said the pope.

In his homily, Cardinal McElroy spoke about the transformative power of love and kindness.

“In the Gospel reading, (Luke 16:1-13) Jesus speaks to us of those simple realities. In love and kindness God transforms us, and with love and kindness we can transform the lives of others.”

He noted “the great graces that have been showered upon me all the days of my life,” beginning with his baptism and his own family.

“I give thanks for all of you who I have known in my life as a priest,” he said. “Those who formed me, the priests, the women religious who formed me, my brother priests who are here today who helped teach me what it means to be a priest.”

St. Gregory Church community has grown over eight decades. It was built in 1942 on former dairy land, purchased by Archbishop John J. Mitty in 1941 for the construction of a new parish, according to the parish website. A school and convent soon followed.

The site noted that during his terms as pastor, Cardinal McElroy had a revitalizing effect on the parish, renewing sacred and social traditions, including the annual parish “festival.”

In his closing remarks for the Mass, which were followed by a reception in the school gymnasium, Cardinal McElroy recalled dutifully dressing up as a pirate, a cowboy and even a clown, according to the theme of the festival throughout the years.

“Today, I’ll be over in the gymnasium not in a costume, but in the red robe the church has given me,” he said.

NOTE: An additional in-depth feature on the elevation of Cardinal Robert W. McElroy will be included in the December issue of Catholic San Francisco.

Christina Gray is the lead writer for Catholic San Francisco.
Picture by Michael Collopy, Michael Collopy Photography