On Bended Knee

The liturgical vision and views of Tulsa’s Bishop Edward Slattery

Bishop Edward Slattery, 70, was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. He was the second of seven children; his father was a fireman. He attended Catholic schools, and at a young age discerned a vocation to the priesthood. After attending the archdiocese’s Mundelein Seminary, Slattery was ordained a priest in 1966. He served in Chicago parishes, and was active with the Catholic Church Extension Society, which funds the American home missions.

In 1994, Slattery was ordained a bishop by Pope John Paul II and installed as the third bishop of the Diocese of Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is noted for his orthodoxy and piety, and has publicly advocated for reform of the liturgy. He recently spoke to CWR.

CWR: You obviously have quite a love for the priesthood. What first made you want to be a priest?

Bishop Slattery: I can’t trace it to any one thing. My mother and father were good Catholics, and the neighborhood in which I lived had many good Catholics. So I grew up in a positive environment.

I do recall one instance, however, when I was very young. I woke up in the middle of the night and made my first adult prayer. By this, I mean I was conscious of God’s presence and moved by it. I was filled by a profound and unexplainable gratitude for his presence and love.

From that time I changed. I became interested in things of the Church: Mass, sacraments, religion classes, priests, and nuns. Anything that was religious was attractive to me from that time on.

I announced to my parents when I was in the fifth or sixth grade that I would like to go to Quigley [Preparatory Seminary] and become a priest. They were happy, but I was a little disappointed that they were as not as excited about it as I was. They were in favor of it, but I thought they would be thrilled. Looking back on it, I think they were thinking, “Oh, this is just a child’s dream.” But I was serious. My father went to Quigley himself, and my brother, too, but they both left and got married.

You were ordination as a bishop by Pope John Paul II 17 years ago. Can you describe the experience?

Bishop Slattery: It was an unforgettable experience. To this day, I feel grateful and unworthy.

I had met Pope John Paul II several times before. Because I was president of the Extension Society I traveled frequently and came to places where he was visiting. I remember meeting him in Arizona and Alaska, and in Guam, where I met him the first time.

Like everyone else, I was in awe in his presence. I felt privileged that I could shake hands with him and see him face to face.

How has your Diocese of Tulsa, Oklahoma, changed since you first arrived 17 years ago?

Bishop Slattery: We’ve had a large influx of Hispanic Catholics, most of whom have come since I arrived. The diocese officially has 60,000 Catholics, but twice as many if you include Hispanics. Often they won’t register in our parishes, however. Because of our immigration laws, they are hesitant to sign their name on anything.

We’ve also gone from having one of the older clergy populations in the country to one of the youngest. In the last 17 years, most of our priests who were on active duty have died or retired. I’ve ordained about 30 since I’ve arrived, and we have about 50 active priests total. Our average age now is about 45 or 46.

We have 17 seminarians now, and we usually ordain about two priests a year. They serve a Catholic population in this state that is a minority, but a strong and faithful minority.

You’ve made public statements about problems with the liturgy. What changes would you like to see?

Bishop Slattery: I would like to see the liturgy become what Vatican II intended it to be. That’s not something that can happen overnight. The bishops who were the fathers of the Council from the United States came home and made changes too quickly. They shouldn’t have viewed the old liturgy, what we call the Tridentine Mass or Missal of Pope John XXIII, as something that needed to be fixed. Nothing was broken. There was an attitude that we had to implement Vatican II in a way that radically affects the liturgy.

What we lost in a short period of time was continuity. The new liturgy should be clearly identifiable as the liturgy of the pre-Vatican II Church. Changes, like turning the altar around, were too sudden and too radical. There is nothing in the Vatican II documents that justifies such changes. We’ve always had Mass facing the people as well as Mass ad orientem [“to the east,” with priest and people facing the same direction]. However, Mass ad orientem was the norm. These changes did not come from Vatican II.

Also, it was not a wise decision to do away with Latin in the Mass. How that happened, I don’t know, but the fathers of the Council never intended us to drop Latin. They wanted us to hold on to it, and at the same time to make room for the vernacular, primarily so that the people could understand the Scriptures.

You yourself have begun celebrating Mass ad orientem.

Bishop Slattery: Yes, in our cathedral and a few parishes where the priests ask me to. Most of the time, I say Mass facing the people when I travel around the diocese or when I have a large number of priests concelebrating, because it works better that way.

A few priests have followed my example and celebrate ad orientem as well. I have not requested they change. I prefer to lead by example, and let the priests think about it, pray about it, study it, and then look at their churches and see if it’s feasible to do.

And it’s a positive thing when people are thinking and talking about the liturgy.

Bishop Slattery: When people make the liturgy part of their conversation it is a good thing. As priests and lay people discuss the liturgy, they’ll see how important it is and how it is a work of God, and not our own.

But we must approach the liturgy on bended knee with tremendous humility, recognizing that it doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to God. It is a gift. We worship God not by creating our own liturgies, but by receiving the liturgy as it comes to us from the Church. The liturgy should be formed and shaped by the Church itself to help people pray better. And, we all pray better when we are disposed to receive what God has offered, rather than creating something of our own.

Last April, to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI, you celebrated a Tridentine Mass at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC. Why did you celebrate this Mass, and how did it go?

Bishop Slattery: I did it because I didn’t want a lot of people to be disappointed.Archbishop [Donald] Wuerl [of Washington], now Cardinal Wuerl, called me to say they could not find a bishop to celebrate the Mass because the bishop who was originally scheduled withdrew. It was only a few days before the event, and they needed a replacement. Since bishops’ schedules are so tight, even Archbishop Wuerl could not do it on such short notice. So I was thrilled to have the opportunity.

I was impressed by the large crowd, but found it easy to pray despite all the people. There was a sense of prayer, a silence, and an involvement that made it easy for all of us to pray together.

You preached on suffering that day, and your homily was well received.

Bishop Slattery: We were there to thank God for the Holy Father’s five years of service as the Successor of Peter. I realized that during those five years he has suffered enormously and the Church has been the target of much persecution. It makes you more conscious of suffering itself. Suffering has always been with us; it’s something we all have to endure.

I wanted to remind the congregation that our sufferings need not be wasted; suffering in union with Christ is redemptive. However, if we suffer with resentment or with a sense of merely feeling the pain of suffering, it is wasted.

I thought that would be a good theme. I didn’t want to talk about the divisions that exist between conservatives and liberals, or those who attend the Tridentine Mass and the rest of the Catholic world.

Suffering is universal. Everyone suffers as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve and our own sins. But what Christ in his great love for us has done is taken that which is our great enemy, suffering and death, and put it at our service. Suffering and death can be the cause of our redemption.

You’ve expressed your concern about the decline of religious communities in the past 40 years. What do you think caused it?

Bishop Slattery: Sometimes Vatican II is blamed for it, but I think it has to do with a change in our culture and the West. We have become secular, self reliant, and independent.

In the 1960s, we had the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement, and a society that was increasingly disillusioned with people in authority. Protests arose, emphasizing that people were being denied their rights—and sometimes they were—and the themes of responsibility, obedience, loyalty, and fidelity were forgotten. We lost an important balance we needed.

Also, as technology improves, people become more and more comfortable and expect to be comfortable. We take for granted the gifts God has given us, and think we’re entitled to them.

These prevailing attitudes then affect all of us, whether we’re a religious, bishop, priest, married or single person. It’s just a matter of time before some religious say, “I’m going to change the way I’m living and re-interpret the meaning of poverty, chastity, and obedience.”

But for us to have a conversion of heart, we need examples. We need religious. We need reformation of the religious and consecrated life because the Catholic Church is searching for men and women who can lead us by example. That is what has been lacking in the past 40 years, as many religious left the religious life or changed to a lifestyle that is, unfortunately, even more comfortable than that of the average person. Sometimes I think some religious havelost their identity.

The charisms of poverty, chastity, and obedience are things that all of us need to embrace, but the religious are the ones that lead us in this. They help us to stay focused on Christ in another world, another kingdom, and not the kingdom of this world.

How should we respond to these spiritual declines?

Bishop Slattery: We should start with prayer. That’s where everything starts. We don’t start by talking about ourselves or even examining our consciences. We start by prayer, on our knees. We come to the Lord and ask him to let us see ourselves as he sees us. He’s the only one who can. God knows each one of us perfectly, and if we’re seeking selfknowledge, we must go to him.

Once we do that, we receive his help and a certain joy because we open our hearts to being honest. We allow ourselves to see and accept what is true about ourselves and about others in light of the Gospel. But without prayer, that can’t happen.

Once we become men and women of prayer, everything else will fall into place. But you have to put in the time. You have to schedule prayer. You have to make sure that you pray every day, and as often as you can. Become a man or woman of prayer. When we do this, we will begin to discover ourselves, perhaps for the first time.

You also frequently recommend Eucharistic adoration.

Bishop Slattery: The Eucharist is the center of our lives. The reason for Eucharistic adoration is so that we might find ourselves better participants when we celebrate the Mass. Everything centers around our Lord in the Eucharist. Once we begin to see this and experiencethis, we’ll find ourselves going to Mass more often.

Are there other spiritual practices you recommend?

Bishop Slattery: We have to return to the Rosary. Pope John Paul II said that when we pray the Rosary, we see the life of Christ through the eyes of his mother, Mary. And there’s no better way to look at Christ than through the eyes of Mary. The Rosary is a tried and true means of doing that. I encourage every Catholic to pray the Rosary every day. Praying the Rosary takes us through the major mysteries of our faith, especially now since John Paul has given us the five Luminous Mysteries.

I also advise a return to confession. When I say this, I don’t mean to do this in some sort of laborious, burdensome way, but rather as a form of prayer. Pray before you examine your conscience, and allow the Lord to tell you what your sins are. He loves you and he will tell you a lot about yourself. He will help you see yourself in contrast with his infinite love for you. You will begin to see the gap between his love for you, and your love for him. And when you experience that gap, it will help you become more generous and more apt to recognize and admit your sins in confession.

Who are your heroes in the spiritual life?

Bishop Slattery: St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower. I have a picture of her in my chapel and I talk to her every day. Since I became a bishop, she has become my hero. She has such enormous humility, and her love for Christ is so genuine.

What impresses me most about her is that she found great peace in her life because she wanted the approval of Jesus alone for anything she thought or did. She never wanted anyone else’s approval, only his. Now that’s really love. We often seek approval and praise from others, whether it be from our parents, co-workers, or friends.

But she did not. All she wanted was that approval from Christ himself. So she was always trying to please him. That’s all that mattered to her. That simplified her life and made her a saint.


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About Jim Graves 223 Articles
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.