Bishop Slattery: “I think something good is happening in the new generation”

The bishop of Tulsa, facing retirement age, reflects on the changes in his diocese in the last 20 years, the qualities he’d like in a successor, and the hope he sees in young Catholics.

Bishop Edward Slattery, 75, has served as bishop of Tulsa, Oklahoma, since 1994. He is originally from Chicago, having been ordained a priest by Cardinal John Cody in 1966. He served in a pastoral role in Chicago’s parishes, and was active with the Catholic Church Extension Society, which funds the American home missions.

He is known for his orthodoxy and his interest in the reform of the liturgy. He celebrates the Mass ad orientem, the traditional practice of the celebrant facing the same direction as the congregation. As is required by Church law, he submitted his resignation as diocesan bishop upon turning age 75; a replacement for him may be named later this year. 

He recently spoke with CWR.

CWR: Can you tell us a bit about the Diocese of Tulsa?

Bishop Edward Slattery: We’re the eastern portion of the State of Oklahoma, and encompass 26,000 square miles. We have 60,000 registered Catholics, and an equal number of unregistered Catholics, mostly Hispanics. We know about the unregistered Catholics because they come to church.

Out of a population of 1.2 million in the area, we’re a small percentage of the total. About 80 percent live in our metropolitan area, and another 20 percent spread in rural areas. Tulsa itself is 10 percent Catholic; the rest of the diocese about 1 or 2 percent Catholic.

Our diocese includes three groups: 1) Anglo Catholics, 2) Hispanic Catholics who speak little English, and 3) the poor rural areas outside of Tulsa. While Tulsa itself is not poor, much of the rest of the diocese is. 

We have 52 active priests and 78 parishes, 30 of which are in the Tulsa area. In the rural areas we have priests who cover three parishes. We have another 50 priests who are retired or on loan from other dioceses. We have about 10 priests from Nigeria, some Vietnamese and some Hispanic priests who belong to other dioceses. We have 22 seminarians.

CWR: How has the diocese changed since you came 22 years ago?

Bishop Slattery: One significant development is that the diocese is now home to the Monastery of Our Lady of the Annunciation of Clear Creek, a Benedictine community who came from France in 1999. They started with 13 monks, now they have over 40. The monastery has been built and it is flourishing. They’re running out of room.

CWR: How did they come to the Diocese of Tulsa?

Bishop Edward Slattery: I was on vacation in France, and I visited their community in Fontgombault, France. I got to know their abbot, and I mentioned as I was leaving, “If you ever want to start a monastery in the United States, come to Tulsa.” It was a casual conversation, after which I went home. I later received a letter from them that they wanted to come and visit Tulsa. It led to the establishment of their community. I believe the Holy Spirit was behind all this.

CWR: They use the 1962 missal?

Bishop Slattery: Yes. Pope Paul VI asked them to preserve sacred chant after the Western Church went totally vernacular. They don’t have any connection with the Fraternity of St. Peter, however. It is their charism to chant the Divine Office in a traditional way.

CWR: What impact do you believe the Clear Creek community has had on the diocese?

Bishop Slattery: Blessings of that sort cannot be measured, but they can be felt. My feeling is that the community has been noticed, and that people are inquiring about it. They’re asking, “What is a monastery? What is a monk? Why would a young man want to become a monk?”

The community shows that the Catholic Church takes prayer seriously. They are people who dedicate their lives to prayer, particularly the Mass and Divine Office. It gives people the sense of the sacred.

CWR: Has being Tulsa’s bishop been a rewarding experience to you personally?

Bishop Slattery: It was a rewarding experience to be the pastor of a parish in Chicago. It was rewarding to work with the Extension Society. It’s rewarding to have been a bishop. 

What is important for us all is that we be aware of the presence of God in the present, in this moment and nowhere else, and then accept whatever comes. Then you know that God is present. Live every day conscious of God’s love for you and His presence to you.

As far as my achievements as bishop of Tulsa, I haven’t any! Anything good I’ve been able to do is done by God. We’re merely privileged to be his instruments.

CWR: What kind of man do you hope succeeds you in Tulsa?

Bishop Slattery: To be a good bishop, just as to be a good Christian, you have to pray. If you’re a bishop or priest, the liturgy has to be a priority. We evangelize best when we celebrate Mass. We’re calling people to the Eucharist and the sacramental life of the Church. We’re being called to a greater sense of God’s presence in the liturgy; we need to make it the center of our lives from which we do acts of charity.

Our primary purpose is to preach the Gospel. And, in doing so, we’re preaching a person, Jesus Christ. The message is a Person. We find Christ in the Eucharist.

CWR: What changes have you seen since you were ordained 50 years ago?

Bishop Slattery: The first years after Vatican II brought enormous changes in the structure of the liturgy. Some were mistakes, others were implemented too fast.

But what I see today is that my generation is on the way out. The new generation of high school and college students gives me great hope. In my diocese, we have two Catholic high schools. One is diocesan, the other is run by the Augustinians. I visit regularly to say Mass. In the past five or six years I’ve seen the students become closer to their priests. Students go into the chapel to pray before the Blessed Sacrament and they go to confession regularly.

There are three priests involved in the spiritual direction of our high school. They’re very busy. You really sense a difference there. I talk to other priests and bishops, and they tell me the same thing is happening in their dioceses. I think something good is happening in the new generation, and I have great hope for them.

These young people are sensing that they have a great need for prayer, and have many questions about the Church. All priests who take the time to enter into a conversation with them are performing a valuable service. I’m very optimistic.

CWR: How has the United States changed over the past 50 years?

Bishop Slattery: When you read the newspaper, you hear about all kinds of sins: abortion, murder, and rape…you hear the same things going on overseas. Again I look to our young people. They are saying, “We don’t want that.” They’re seeking holiness, being in union with God and sharing His life.

CWR: You regularly share your thoughts on religious life. To what do you attribute its dramatic decline over the past 50 years?

Bishop Slattery: We’ve become very secular, that’s why our numbers of religious are so few. But the Church desperately needs holy men and women; without them, the rest of us don’t have the example of people dedicated to prayer and good works.

But I am optimistic about the priesthood; we have 22 seminarians in this small diocese. We have some young women entering convents. It is happening, but too slowly for me!

CWR: Last year you ended a partnership with the Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice because of its sponsorship of a Gay Pride parade and the support of same-sex marriage by its board members. What sort of reaction did you get from people in the community regarding your decision?

Bishop Slattery: It wasn’t much of a news story. It died away quickly. I think people understand that we have a traditional understanding of marriage, and are tolerant of our Church’s viewpoint. We’re a peaceful community, and the people want it to remain peaceful. 

CWR: A Satanic Black Mass was held in Oklahoma City’s Civic Center in 2014. You asked Catholics to participate in prayer and penance to stop it. What results have you observed from these efforts?

Bishop Slattery: We received a good response. However, my goal was to stay out of the public eye. We don’t want to give the devil any notoriety, but instead want to invite people to prayer.

Fortunately, the people behind this evil gradually disappeared. This event actually occurred in the neighboring Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. Archbishop Paul Coakley dealt with it well with prayer and a procession. I prayed with the archbishop and his people.

We’ve had other problems of this nature. We received a call in five of our parishes, including our cathedral, about someone wanting to steal the Eucharist for use in devil worship. We had the police come and maintain a visible presence. I celebrated the 10 am Mass at the cathedral, and we did see one man there we didn’t know. He left, and that was the end of it. 

We didn’t tell the press. That’s my way of dealing with it, to give it as little attention as possible. But, if someone is going to do something sacrilegious, then you have to act. These people want to be noticed; they want to promote their evil.

CWR: Do you think there will be more of these Black Masses in the future?

Bishop Slattery: I hope not. The important thing is for people to be aware that the devil is real. There are legions of demons trying to conquer what has already been won by Christ. The Kingdom of God is here, and it is impossible to prevent it from growing and reaching its fulfillment. 

I don’t worry about the devil. I do worry, however, about some people who do not have strong faith. They are on the verge of despair, and they could go either way: to Christ or the devil. The devil is active, he’s smart, and he’s always trying to defeat the Kingdom, even though he can’t be successful. And, he wants people to help him.

So, I want people to be aware that the devil is real, and he’s trying to promote a religion of hate. But the devil shouldn’t be the visible one; Christ and His message should be.

CWR: The Church has held two synods on the family in the past couple of years. What do you think the results of these synods will be?

Bishop Slattery: I hope that more will be able to develop the attitude that we must be merciful and look at every human being with love, but be steadfast in the Faith regarding the dictates of the Gospel. We must hate the sin and love the sinner.

The sinner is our first priority. To judge someone else is to take God’s place, and that itself is a sin. But we do judge whether or not a particular act is sinful.

Sin is invisible. It is in the heart. It is a decision you make, and then it plays itself out in what you do. We must be like Christ, who in the agony in the garden submitted Himself to His Father’s will and allowed Himself to be crucified. Hence, when I look at the crucifix, I’m looking at the Man who the night before prayed in the garden, sweat blood, and made the decision to be obedient to the Father.

CWR: What are your plans for retirement?

Bishop Slattery: I don’t want to do anything in regards to administration. I plan to stay in Tulsa, and spend a couple days a week offering spiritual direction. I miss hearing confessions. A priest in the confessional can do an enormous amount of good.

I also hope to play golf once a week, as I used to do during my summers in Chicago. I’ve only played three times this year. I was never that good, but now that I’m out of practice I’m afraid I won’t be good at all!

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About Jim Graves 230 Articles
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.