SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) — A Bay Area Catholic priest is stirring up controversy about politics, the coronavirus and the media.

Star of the Sea Church in San Francisco’s Richmond District is following city and county orders by holding mass outside and limiting the number of attendants.

But Fr. Joseph Illo says many Catholics have stopped going to church to avoid the “slightest chance” of getting sick because they are more concerned about “safety than sanctity.”

These days, Star of the Sea doesn’t hold “mass gatherings” but, rather, mass is celebrated with face coverings and social distancing in the church parking lot for no more than 12 people with overflow parishioners moved back to the sidewalk.

In a newsletter sent to parishioners this week, Fr. Illo wrote, “During the pandemic we have chosen safety above sacraments. Fear has replaced faith.”

Fr. Illo went on to say, “Covid is real but please know that news reports on Covid are largely unreal.”

City officials say “individual choices have a direct impact on how fast the virus will spread.”

“If you go outside, you see many people really mixing. Right here, in the church, they’re not,” said one parishioner who did not want to identify herself.

Many are standing up for their priest.

Josephine Smith walks about a mile every day to attend mass. “I really applaud him for what he’s doing. No other church around here is doing what he’s doing,” Smith said.

“It is scary but we do obey and wear masks,” said Bebe Verja.

Illo also got political by referring to the president, saying “A proven means of unseating an elected official is to induce fear among the incumbent’s constituents.”

We reached out to Illo but have not yet heard back.

We contacted the archdiocese of San Francisco, which shared with KPIX a lengthy memo sent to its priests this afternoon.

The memo to the priests reads in part, “…absolutely do not give (parishioners) the impression that the coronavirus is not a serious threat to the physical health of our community.”

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