Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 61, grew up in a Catholic home in the Kansas City area. His family was active in the Catholic community; his mother was a parish secretary and his aunt was a nun.
He attended the University of Kansas and studied in its Integrated Humanities (“Great Books”) Program, which, he said, “resulted in hundreds of conversions and many vocations to the priesthood and religious life.”
Coakley spent eight months in France in the Abbey of Notre Dame de Fontgombault before discerning that his vocation was to be a parish priest. He was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Wichita, Kansas in 1983. He served in a variety of capacities after his ordination, including as a pastor, college chaplain, and director of spiritual formation at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Maryland.
He was ordained a bishop in 2004, and installed as archbishop of Oklahoma City in 2011. He received international attention in 2014 for his opposition to a public Satanic “Black Mass” held at Oklahoma City’s Civic Center. He has also served as the Chairman of the Board of Catholic Relief Services, an organization founded in 1943 to aid the world’s poor.
He recently spoke with CWR.
CWR: Give us an overview of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City.
Archbishop Paul S. Coakley: We have about 105 parishes and missions which serve a Catholic population officially listed as 115,000. However, given the pace of immigration, and the number of Hispanics we know are here based on the census, we think the Catholic population actually numbers about a quarter million.
We’re a very small percentage of the overall population, however. Catholics make up about 5 percent of the people, with much of the rest of the community being Baptist.
CWR: I understand Oklahoma City was once Indian territory first evangelized by French Benedictines.
Archbishop Coakley: Yes. Oklahoma entered the Union late, in 1907. Two years before we became a Catholic diocese, encompassing the whole State of Oklahoma at the time.
CWR: Oklahoma City is at the heart of “Tornado Alley.” Has this affected your parishes and other Catholic facilities?
Archbishop Coakley: Yes. We’re at the epicenter of Tornado Alley. It’s part of life in the springtime, so we stay weather-aware. We’ve had some severe storms in recent years, which have devastated some of our communities and caused tremendous loss of life.
But actually a more recent phenomenon we’ve been experiencing is earthquakes. We just had the biggest one ever recorded [in the region] at 5.8, which caused some property damage.
CWR: How is the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City doing for vocations to the priesthood and religious life?
Archbishop Coakley: We’re moving in the right direction. We have 20 seminarians. We had one ordination to the priesthood this year, three last year, and five the year before. Those are strong numbers for us. But we can never have enough. We always want to actively promote vocations.
CWR: What do you find effective in promoting vocations?
Archbishop Coakley: I believe it is most effective to extend an invitation, particularly if it is by a priest to a young man. It also helps if it is encouraged in the home and family, which includes regularly praying for vocations. We want parents and teachers to regularly have conversations with young men and women about God’s plan for their lives. These should be ordinary conversations; otherwise, when the topic of vocations comes up, it seems like something arcane, unfamiliar, or mysterious.
In our archdiocese, we have a wonderful youth camp which has our seminarians serving on the staff. It is a great way for young people to meet and become acquainted with seminarians.
CWR: In 2014, a Satanic group wanted to hold a “Black Mass” in Oklahoma City and desecrate a Host. In 2016, it was a statue of the Blessed Mother. Any idea why Oklahoma City is a target for this activity?
Archbishop Coakley: The man behind these events lives here, so Oklahoma City is where he chooses to practice his dark craft. In 2014, he announced he would hold this event at a public facility, desecrate a Host and charge admission. It was the first time I had ever heard of such a public Black Mass, and one to which admission would be charged. (There was a proposal about the same time to hold such an event at Harvard University, but it did not happen.)
I did not know initially how to respond. We spoke to city leaders, but they claimed they could do nothing because this group was exercising its First Amendment rights. I met two California attorneys, Tim Busch and Michael Caspino, who were partners at the time, at the Napa Institute in California. I expressed my concern, and a week or two later I received a letter from Michael Caspino offering his assistance. He was successful in persuading a judge to rule in our favor and ultimately this individual returned what he claimed was a consecrated Host. The group went ahead with their Satanic event, but [without] the Host.
CWR: What do you know about what occurs at a Black Mass? Is its intent merely to mock the Catholic Mass in vulgar ways?
Archbishop Coakley: Yes. They have been around for a long time, but have been clandestine. They are obscene, sexual, and a direct attack upon the faith of Catholics. They make a mockery of the Holy Mass.
CWR: What are your personal feelings about these events?
Archbishop Coakley: I was outraged and shocked.
CWR: How did the archdiocese respond?
Archbishop Coakley: We set up a whole schedule of prayer. We knew about the 2014 event a few months beforehand, so I asked all of our parishes to begin praying the Prayer to St. Michael. I asked our priests to hold Eucharistic Holy Hours and Benedictions in honor of the Blessed Sacrament.
On the day of the event, we invited our people to a Eucharistic adoration at a nearby parish. It included a procession and other activities in honor of the Blessed Sacrament.
We had a wonderful turnout among Catholics, but not too many non-Catholics. Since non-Catholics can have difficulty in understanding what the Eucharist means to us, it was hard to communicate to them how outrageous this was to us. However, I do think people saw we were confronting the power of Satan and evil. It drew international media coverage.
The 2016 event was not as well publicized, which was by design. The particular Satanist behind these events has attempted in a variety of ways to publicly draw attention to himself. On Christmas Eve, for example, he desecrated a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary outside of one of our parishes during Mass. This is a man who craves attention, and I didn’t want to let him manipulate me or the archdiocese into giving him more attention. We did ask our parishes to pray the Rosary in honor of the Blessed Mother, as well as Holy Hours and Benediction.
The Black Mass in 2016 was scheduled to occur on the Feast of the Assumption, August 15. We asked people to go to Mass, and in the evening we invited them to an event involving the broader Christian community at the Oklahoma City National Memorial, the site of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. We invited other Christian leaders to join us in prayer, but we made a point of not mentioning the name of the person behind the Black Mass. We did not want to give him the attention. We instead made reference to the evil which is at the root of so many of our social ills.
We had over 1,000 people come out and pray. Most were Catholic, but we had some non-Catholics as well. In Oklahoma this does not happen a lot, especially in an event organized by Catholics. It was a powerful event.
CWR: What would you like local civic officials to do?
Archbishop Coakley: In 2014 and ’16, their attorneys told me that they could not restrict public access to public facilities. I’ve challenged them on this point, arguing that the city does not have an obligation to let anyone use public facilities. I think they need to revisit the policy that allows Satanic worship to take place in the Civic Center, especially when it is so directly and blatantly anti-Catholic.
CWR: If a group wanted to burn the Koran in a ceremony in the Civic Center, would they be allowed?
Archbishop Coakley: That is an example I used. They didn’t have a response to me. They merely said the public had the right to use public facilities.
CWR: You became Chairman of the Board of Catholic Relief Services in 2013. Some have criticized CRS, saying it has lost its Catholic identity. Do you believe it is an organization worthy of support from Catholics?
Archbishop Coakley: Absolutely. It is the international aid and relief organization of the Catholic Church in the United States, responding to disasters whenever they occur. I’ve traveled extensively with CRS. I’m proud to serve as its chairman.
CWR: What issues do you think are important to consider when voting for candidates for public office this election year?
Archbishop Coakley: The life issues are important. They have a certain weight that we cannot disregard. I’m concerned about religious liberty, which is under assault not just in our nation but throughout the world. And, we can’t ignore economic challenges, and the harm an unstable economy will cause.
In addition to the issues, I think trust is important, too. A candidate can say one thing, but who knows if he or she will deliver on promises made.
CWR: The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City is behind the cause for canonization of Father Stanley Rother (1935-81). Who was Father Rother?
Archbishop Coakley: Father Stanley Rother was a priest of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. He was a devoted pastor and shepherd. He has a remarkable story. As a young seminarian, because of his inability to master Latin, he was asked to leave the seminary. He was ultimately able to gain the proficiency needed and was ordained a priest.
In 1968, he responded to the call of the missions and went to Guatemala. By the grace of God he became fluent in both Spanish and a Mayan dialect. In fact, he was able to take the Mayan dialect, which had only been a spoken language, and help make it a written language. He was then able to use it to translate Scripture passages and liturgical materials for use by the people.
Civil war broke out in [the region], however, and his little village got caught up in the unrest. He learned that his name appeared on the death list of militia groups. He was faced with the question: should I stay or should I leave?
His bishop told him to come home because it was unsafe. So he returned at Christmas 1980 and spent a few months in Oklahoma. But, he was unsettled and conflicted about coming home. He believed he had left his people to face danger alone. In 1980, he famously wrote that a shepherd should not run at the first sign of danger. So he returned. In 1981, he was murdered—or martyred—in his rectory.
My predecessor, Archbishop Beltran, initiated his cause for canonization. We are confident and hopeful that he’ll one day be the first US priest beatified and declared a martyr.
CWR: You’ve been a pastor, chaplain and director of spiritual formation. How would you advise the ordinary Catholic to develop a good prayer life?
It starts with making time for prayer. We have to show up on a regular schedule; it can’t be haphazard. We create an opening to God by consistently spending time with Him, and the Lord will respond to our free cooperation by giving us grace.
We also need to listen in prayer. It should be a conversation with God and not a monologue.
And, our prayer must nourish both the head and the heart. I advise people to pray with the Scriptures and before the Eucharist.
I also believe we should have a strong Marian dimension. Years ago, my first commitment I made to prayer was to pray the Rosary every day.
CWR: Who are some Catholics you particularly admire?
Archbishop Coakley: Pope John Paul II was elected my first year in the seminary. He inspired me as a seminarian and priest, and appointed me to be a bishop. I met him as a bishop-elect on an ad limina visit and received a pectoral cross from him which I still wear.
We’ve just had the canonization of St. Teresa of Calcutta. She inspired and moved me.
And, as we have discussed, Father Stanley Rother. He was an alumnus of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, where I studied. I consider it a gift of Providence that I was appointed to Oklahoma City, and have had the chance to study his life and oversee the canonical cause for his canonization.
Father Rother had many good qualities. He was a farm boy, close to the Earth. He was comfortable working with his hands in the dirt. He did not put on airs; he was a hard-working, dedicated pastor. I think he is a wonderful example for parish priests. He was dedicated to his people, even when his life was in danger. He put aside his own needs to attend to his parishioners. Although he was not a brilliant student, he overcame challenges to become an effective, heroic priest.
CWR: What initiatives are underway in the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City?
Archbishop Coakley: Our big focus is looking at the call for us to be missionary disciples. It’s been part of a planning process for us over the past few years; an attempt to respond to the Lord’s call to go and make disciples.
When I became a bishop, I took as my motto “Duc In Altum”—“Put Out into the Deep,” which was a comment made by Pope John Paul II about evangelization. We want to embrace that transformation which makes us into missionary disciples.
We’re exploring what that means for the archdiocese—our priorities, structure, ways of collaborating—and how we might be better focused on the mission to share the Gospel with others. We want to help people to come to an intimate relationship with Jesus, putting on the person of Jesus Christ, which shouldn’t be foreign to us as Catholics.
CWR: Is it hard when Catholics make up only 5 percent of the population?
Archbishop Coakley: Yes, it’s a challenge. But people are receptive. Many of our priests are converts to the Catholic faith. For being a small minority, we have a big footprint in our community.