Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City during the 2015 fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore in November 2015. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)
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
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
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.
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
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.
City is at the heart of “Tornado Alley.” Has this affected your parishes and
other Catholic facilities?
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
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
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?
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?
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?
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?
Coakley: I was outraged and shocked.
CWR: How did the
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.
More than 2,000 Catholics process through the streets of Oklahoma City Sept. 21, 2014 as part of a Eucharistic Holy Hour led by Archbishop Paul S. Coakley at St. Francis of Assisi Church. (CNS photo/Steve Sisney, Archdiocese of Oklahoma City)
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
CWR: What would
you like local civic officials to do?
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
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?
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?
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?
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 murderedor
martyredin 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
I also believe we should have a strong Marian
dimension. Years ago, my first commitment I made to prayer was to pray the Rosary
CWR: Who are
some Catholics you particularly admire?
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.
initiatives are underway in the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City?
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 archdioceseour
priorities, structure, ways of collaboratingand 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?
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.