Interview with Bishop Michael A. Saltarelli, Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware | September 28, 2005

Interview with Bishop Michael A. Saltarelli, Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware | Valerie Schmalz | September 28, 2005

Bishop Michael Saltarelli is outspoken in witnessing to the Gospel of Life to his diocese and to the politicians in the Diocese of Wilmington–particularly those who call themselves pro-choice and Catholic. In Delaware, that includes two nationally prominent figures, U.S. Senator Joseph Biden, a Democrat, and U.S. Representative Michael Castle, a Republican.

Bishop Saltarelli believes in the power of prayer. During the month of October–which is Respect Life Month–he is asking Catholics in his diocese to pray for a conversion of all politicians, statesmen, and lawyers to an respect for life. He has composed a Litany to St. Thomas More, which will be distributed to all the churches in the Diocese of Wilmington for the first weekend in October. The Litany was first distributed to the diocese in October 2004. The diocese comprises 57 parishes, 19 missions, and 40 schools in the State of Delaware and the nine counties of Maryland’s Eastern Shore. There are over 220,000 Catholics in the diocese.

In June 2005, Bishop Saltarelli led several dozen Catholics in praying the Rosary outside the Delaware State House while state House lawmakers inside debated the merits of the Delaware Regenerative Medicine Act, SB 80, which had already passed the state Senate. The embryonic stem cell bill was postponed until January 2006.

Born in Jersey City, New Jersey in 1933, Bishop Saltarelli was ordained to the priesthood in 1960. He served as a pastor in New Jersey for many years, and was appointed auxiliary bishop to the Archbishop of Newark in 1992 and bishop of Wilmington in 1995.

Bishop Saltarelli's pastoral letters, the diocesan newspaper, and newspaper accounts of the bishop’s work make it clear that the bishop is first and foremost a pastor–an impression reinforced throughout my interview with him. The Diocese of Wilmington is sponsoring a Eucharistic Congress in Ocean City, Md. in October and the bishop is delighted that the speaker will be able to address the group in Spanish and English so there will be no segregation. And a glance at the diocesan website shows his schedule for confessions and Masses.

Now 72 years of age, Bishop Saltarelli told Ignatius Insight how much he enjoys being out and about. Few of his siblings are still alive–he was the fifth of seven children born in Jersey City, New Jersey–but he has 39 nephews and nieces and countless grands. Talking to the bishop, despite his exalted office, I felt as though he would be a relaxed, almost grandfatherly guy to have a cup of coffee with–"an old shoe" as the old expression goes. What do you see as your role as bishop of Wilmington?

Bishop Saltarelli:
The thing I try to do is to follow the job description that was given to Peter two thousand years ago. I’m not being flippant–two thousand years ago, Jesus told Peter and his Apostles to go out into the world and proclaim the Good News, to teach what he taught them, and basically, that’s what I try to do. To proclaim to our corner of the world here–that which is our diocese–the Good News, which is that we have a God who loves, who cares, a God who has sent his Son to be Our Redeemer, to deliver us from our sinfulness, and to have us follow a prescribed way of life.

I hope in my teaching that it is the teaching entrusted to us from on high. The sacred deposit of faith given first to the Apostles and handed down to us two thousand years later that we might entrust it to the hearts of the faithful whom we are privileged to serve. How do you see yourself as a priest? How did you come to discern a vocation?

Bishop Saltarelli:
I think my vocation was forced. A parish priest kept insisting that I had a vocation and I fought it every step of the way. I told him finally in frustration–because he kept dogging me–that I wasn’t worthy to be a priest.

And he said to me, "Of course you’re not worthy; that has nothing to do it. Are you willing to serve God’s people?" That little magic word there transformed my life. I think it was the idea–the awesomeness of the priesthood, an awesomeness I still take with me. The reverence for the priesthood, the sacred calling that it was. Certainly, I was not worthy–nobody’s worthy. But the Lord calls us and He calls us to be willing participants in proclaiming the Good News and sharing in His powerful ministry. Did you enter after high school, or college?

Bishop Saltarelli:
College. I delayed, I resisted, but the Lord, through a wonderful hound of Heaven, through a wonderful holy priest, just kept after me. Finally I relented and I praise God and thank God for the persistence of that priest. And I’ve done that ever since. I have dogged other young people. You look around and you say, "This young man certainly has the qualifications that we’re looking for." So you continue and you reach out. I share that story over and over again. I think, sometimes, some of us can be so caught up with the sacred calling that we forget that it’s a calling to do some good, hard work. Are we willing to do it for the sake of the kingdom? And I think most people find that a little easier to respond to. What are your biggest challenges n Delaware and in Eastern Shore Maryland?

Bishop Saltarelli:
The challenges are maybe universal challenges in trying to proclaim the Gospel of Life and when we are surrounded–using the words of the late Holy Father, John Paul II–we are surrounded and seriously mired in a Culture of Death. We find ourselves sometimes submerged and mired and the challenge is to be able to lift up and proclaim the dignity, the sacredness of life from its conception to natural death. And that doesn’t find easy ears, or ready ears.

Tragically, even some people who call themselves Catholic Christians, I think, in some areas, have compromised themselves. And they have taken on for themselves the ways of the world in which they find themselves; it’s easier. When you try to proclaim life and its dignity and its sacredness, that doesn’t fall on too receptive an audience these days. Last year, you wrote a statement on Catholics in public life. [] You said: "No one today would accept this statement from any public servant: ‘I am personally opposed to human slavery and racism but will not impose my personal conviction in the legislative arena.’ Likewise, none of us should accept this statement from any public servant: ‘I am personally opposed to abortion but will not impose my personal conviction in the legislative arena.’"

Bishop Saltarelli:
We hear that so often. It’s such an excuse; to me it’s a cop out: "I’m personally opposed, but…" If someone would say I’m personally opposed to slavery but its okay, people would laugh at the ridiculousness of that statement. And yet we tolerate, don’t we–"I’m personally opposed to abortion, but…"? That "but" is translated into the destruction, the massacre, the holocaust of millions of innocent lives in our time. You have lot of politicians in your neck of the woods. [Among the pro-choice politicians who say they are Catholic in Delaware are Sen. Joseph Biden (D) and U.S. Rep. Michael Castle (R)–the bishop did not want to discuss any politicians by name. Rep. Castle is the main sponsor of a bill that passed the House and is now before the U.S. Senate to expand the use of frozen in-vitro embryos for embryonic stem cell research.]

Bishop Saltarelli:
Tell me about it, you’ve seen them on television, I’m sure. That’s what we’re dealing with. How do you engage them?

Bishop Saltarelli:
We do, again, without mentioning names. I have been in conversation with them. I have invited them to dialogue and it’s painful for them. It really is, they’re caught betwixt and between. They somehow have bought the package: "You can be personally opposed." And tragically, maybe some people who should not have been advising, have advised, that it is alright to hold that opinion, even as a Catholic.

And I think some of these people are products of some of our–what should I say?–our theologians of the past who got away with proclaiming this kind of stuff and they were their teachers. Tragically. And so, when you get so caught up in that and convinced of the righteousness and the rightness of your position, it is hard to dissuade–you know–"Who are you, bishop, against this teacher of mine who said it was okay?"

Respectfully, as I said. And I will continue to engage. I won’t give up on that. We pray.

We’re issuing once again on October 1st for Right to Life month the Litany of St. Thomas More that we composed ourselves. It is a litany for politicians, statesmen, and lawyers. And we hope by getting this prayer into the hands of all of the people of our diocese that they will pray that litany. More is wrought by prayer than by armies and battleships.

[The Litany to St. Thomas More that Bishop Saltarelli composed for the conversion of pro-abortion "Catholic" politicians was first distributed to parishes last October 2004. The litany asks St. Thomas More for his intercession to make politicians "courageous and effective in their defense and promotion of the sanctity of human life." If you send the Litany to your parishes, do the parishes automatically distribute it and talk about it?

Bishop Saltarelli:
Oh yes, it is distributed. There is no doubt about that. Now, some will cast it aside, some will see (this is what we’re dealing with) it as a violation of Church and state, the fact we even dare pray for politicians. Because they get what they say is a hidden message. But, that’s okay; that doesn’t stop us. We’re still going to do it. We’re still going to ask our people to pray the Litany.

I think for too long we have been silent and our people have taken that silence as part of an acquiescence of the status quo. We are complicit in this. So we have to step forward and say, "No, this is not right–it is wrong, it is sinful"–and somebody at least has to say it. Not that I’m being the brave man. I have a magnificent team here with me and wonderful people committed to the cause of life and the Gospel of Life and we push forward together. In 2003, an English and Religion teacher at a girls’ high school in Wilmington filed a suit against the Ursuline Academy and you after being dismissed for signing a full page newspaper ad
in The Wilmington News Journal supporting abortion rights. The lawsuit itself is now on appeal, after an initial ruling in favor of the girls high school.] How did that come about?

Bishop Saltarelli:
She was one of the signatories to this ad in favor of pro-choice, declaring herself pro-choice. It was picked up by the administration of the school, thanks be to God, and it was they who took action. And I certainly support the action.

I would love to claim the credit for doing that, but I didn’t. I’ve been blamed for it. That’s a feather in my cap, I love it–I love that accusation, the bishop did this. I wish I did. But Ursuline is a private, independent Catholic school sponsored by the Ursuline Sisters. And it was the administration of the school that took action.

I was at the school the day she was fired. It was the opening day of school, and I take turns in going to different schools and I celebrate Mass with the student body and the faculty. So the day she was fired is the day the bishop was there. So people would naturally put one and one together and get three. I have been credited with this thing and people have been overly kind, but I’ve sometimes kept quiet and gloated in it. I did come out and affirm the school’s action and applaud it, but it was not I who did it. The Delaware Legislature has postponed until January 2006 consideration of Senate Bill 80, the Delaware Regenerative Medicine Act, which would allow scientific research on cells obtained from killing human embryos. You made news when you led a group in a Rosary outside the state house in Dover against the Delaware embryonic stem cell bill in June 2005. How did you come to make that public statement?

Bishop Saltarelli:
Somehow God’s worked through our group. We have wonderful pro-life people. Certainly I made several statements, we certainly put it in our diocesan newspaper, in which I have publicly urged all Delaware Catholics to voice opposition to the embryonic stem cell bill that was before us.

Just to complement that effort, a couple busloads of people went to the State Capitol, which is Dover, and what we did–I accompanied them–was just gathered outside the steps and very peacefully, prayerfully recited the Rosary. I think some people were just touched by that. Some of the lawmakers–one or two of them–said that they changed their vote that day.

The power of prayer, again–this is why that’s going to be the key to any effort we do. We certainly can picket, we can demonstrate. That’s necessary sometimes. But we don’t discount the magnificent power that prayer can have in transforming the hearts.

This is my whole thing with congressmen and senators–that we’re going to pray for these people whether they like it or not. And somehow God is going to work through them. But the bill has been postponed and we saw that as a slight victory. We didn’t gloat over it. We just thanked God for it. What we found fascinating was in the state of the foremost proponent of embryonic stem cell research (U.S. Rep. Michael Castle) we were able to achieve even that, which is fantastic. asked Bishop Saltarelli about many of the other concerns of a bishop and a diocese, including Catholic education, migrant workers, inactive Catholics, the seminary visitations, and how to live as a life as Catholic.

Bishop Saltarelli said the diocese has opened three schools in the past four years, including two elementary schools and one high school, but had to close two schools in Wilmington (those students were absorbed into nearby Catholic schools).
The elementary schools, in the suburbs, are thriving but the high school is struggling, he said.

Bishop Saltarelli:
The high school is coming along slowly. It’s doing well but can do better. Nevertheless, people are still struggling. Tuition is high. We try to keep it as low as possible. What we have just initiated is a tuition assistance fund that will make some assistance available to those parents who want their children in Catholic schools but are not able to pay the whole tuition. We have initiated this new endowment which will spin off the necessary funds to assist parents in that particular endeavor.

Delaware and Eastern Shore Maryland are part of the Delmarva Peninsula, a still largely agricultural area with watermelon, corn, and soybean (among other crops) farms and poultry processing plants. Migrant workers travel to the state and stay on to work in various areas or keep moving on. asked Bishop Saltarelli about those workers and the poverty that they often face in doing the low-paid, temporary work.

Bishop Saltarelli:
Sometimes these are people without papers, maybe undocumented. But we also have documented aliens and they are working side by side. And sometimes that causes a little tension. Periodically, they have these roundups and it’s horrible to see families destroyed. A father is just shipped out, without being able to say "so long" to the kids who are born here and who are citizens here and going to school here.

That’s a challenge for us. I think we are addressing it best we can. We have agencies in place here. We have certainly gotten ourselves involved in a wonderful ministry to the Spanish-speaking people who grace our diocese.

We see their arrival as a blessing, not a problem that we have to solve–it’s a blessing. I personally have told our priests over and over again, and our people: "This is a gift from God." They bring an energy, they bring vitality, they bring a youthfulness to the church, they bring a love for the Blessed Mother, they bring a love for family and, so maybe, aren’t these shots in the arm that we do need in our church today? Youthfulness, focus on Our Lady, family life–the bonds are very strong and they excite our parishes. We say, "Thank you Lord for this transfusion of new life."

Yours truly has even had to learn how to celebrate Mass in Spanish–I love it, I love it, I love it. They’re tolerant, they’re really tolerant of my poor Spanish, from the gringo, but they’re tolerant. They’re a blessing, let me tell you. There are pockets of poverty in Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland, both in the rural and urban areas. How is the diocese addressing that?

We have rural poverty more than anything else. And again we have ministries out there. Our parishes are alerted to it. Catholic Charities is establishing outposts where they are needed the most. We have magnificent women religious in the farthest outposts doing heroic work. Just magnificent. These are sisters from New Jersey; we also have sisters from Spain, God bless them. They have left the comforts of another life and have come here and work with, and amidst, and for, in, and through the poor. The Sisters of Charity of Convent Station and also the Carmelite Sisters of Charity from Vedruna, Spain. These sisters are highly professional, highly skilled, and here they are working with migrants–driving pregnant women to far away clinics for prenatal care, helping to deliver their babies. These are ladies who could be lawyers in their own country, or professors in university. They have left everything to come here to work with the poorest of the poor. It’s exciting; it’s exciting.

I’m looking forward to retirement, then I can be a priest again. I do visit, get out as much as I can and just leave the desk, go where the real action is, as the kids say. One of the first things you wrote after becoming bishop, was a pastoral statement on outreach to inactive Catholics.
How’s that going?

Good. The effort is being made. Hopefully we’re not perpetrating the reasons why people have left us. Let’s face it, a kind word from a pastor makes all the difference in the world.

A grouchy guy will disturb the work of ten good heroic priests. We hear the stories: "Father was rotten" or "Sister was bad" or "Somebody hurt me." You always try to lift people up, and say that’s not the Church. But nevertheless we have to take responsibility here.

I think we have made a special effort in that area. To reach out a little more, to welcome people home. Some of our parishes have a "Come Home This Christmas" program or even billboards on the front lawns, "Everybody Welcome–Alienated Catholics Especially." We have let them know that we are aware of them, and we love them, and we still continue to reach out to them. The divorced, who feel themselves alienated (through no fault of the Church’s, of course), but we have a ministry to the separated and the divorced. I celebrate Mass with them and again let them know that they’re very important and a critical part of the Church, and they belong. Bishop Saltarelli then discussed a new pastoral statement (PDF file) that was published in September on catechetics.

We spent a couple of years studying the catechetical problems we’ve had–let’s face it, not only in our own diocese, but certainly nationally. We studied it, we’ve had roundtables on it, we’ve had reach outs–and we’ve come up with a pastoral and from that pastoral will emanate a plan we hope to embark on. Something as simple as beginning with 2006, all religion texts must be in conformity with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Nationally, it’s been discovered that some are not, and we want to make sure we are not among those culprits. How do the Delaware Catholic schools deal with gay couples with children?

I think there is one situation in our entire school system. I was made aware of it after the fact. I think they are just dealing with it normally. A child is a gift, a child of God, before all else and that child is given the respect that we give to all our other children. I don’t think any sensationalism has occurred because of that. I haven’t received any nasty letters pro or con from any parents. I do not see that in this part of the country as an immediate issue. But who would of thought that such a large portion of our school children are children in one parent families? But that’s reality–that’s more of a reality that we have to deal with. And how do you deal with it?

We try to be as sensitive as we can. Certainly tolerant, more than tolerant, and afford that single parent all of the help that we can to assure that the child is raised lovingly and respectfully and is aware that we are people of faith. How did you deal with the sexual abuse crisis in your diocese?

I would never in a billion years have imagined that–never mind as a bishop–as a priest I’d be dealing with this crisis. When I grew up, we loved our priests and we waited for our priests and we went with our priests everywhere. They took us to the beaches, to Washington to the monuments. And we waited for that; we loved it. Never, never a telltale of anything, of impropriety, we just knew these as holy men and they were indeed holy men.

I learned that and so in my early priesthood I certainly took the kids to Washington, and we went down to the beaches and all that kind of stuff. Certainly we don’t do that anymore, unfortunately. It was not a bad thing and I think a lot of vocations emanated from that kind of relationship. And the priests also did not just segregate us–young ladies came, young girls–we were always mixed company. So there was no discrimination.

Here in our diocese, I think we were particularly blessed. Certainly, we have had our cases and we’ve acknowledged them. What we did early on is establish a rapport of respect and professionalism with the attorney general. We met with the attorney general (Jane Brady) and her assistant. We gave her what was lawful to give to her, what she asked for. She respected the confidentiality of some situations. But she did not publicize them or air them. She said it was good enough that her office has this and if there were any situation that she would be able to handle it. And we’ve maintained that open relationship. If we get any accusations, her office is the first to know what the accusation is and who’s involved.

We’ve tried to handle it as transparently as humanly possible. We’ve had our difficulties; we‘ve had our few cases. We’ve had to remove three of our priests from ministry–but everything was open and above board. What was in our diocesan paper was also in the secular paper.

We’ve cooperated every way possible. We’ve kept our own priests informed of this thing. My concern was always for our priests, the good guys, the heroic guys, the guys who were being smeared with the same ugly stories. Dealing with that is another special challenge because our priests were victimized also, the good guys, those who continued to do the good things that most of our priests do.

I’ve met with people who have made the allegations, some definitely victims. I’ve met with their parents. We’ve tried to reach out as much as we can. We have counseling readily available for any people who feel they were victimized in this way. Again, it is not yours truly doing this [outreach], I have a magnificent staff and they do all the good, good, holy work. What’s your take on the seminary visitations and the reports that homosexuals will be screened from entering the seminary to become priests?

My take is that in the work sheet, the Instrumentum Laboris, that was just made available, there are 56 questions–one of them has to deal with homosexuality. So, again, we don’t want to take this out of proportion.

That whole visitation process has to do with the caliber of people who are coming into the seminary, the admissions process, our psychological tests, evaluations being made before admissions. There’s a gamut there and one of those questions has to do with–is there an obvious homosexual culture in the seminary? Certainly that could not be tolerated and I agree with [asking the question] but I don’t think there’s going to be a headhunting thing now. It’s a concern simply because of what has happened in the past but I would not blow that up out of proportion. To me, one of 56 questions puts it in proper perspective.

I think what they’re acknowledging is that it’s a lot more difficult for a person who is oriented to the same sex to be in that particular ministry. They’re acknowledging this–saying this going to have to be some hero to withstand the pressures of that particular orientation. I think it’s a reality check up. What advice would you give to Catholics trying to live a moral and happy life?

It is possible. And that’s not a cliché. The world tells us that we are crazy, ridiculous. The world–and not all the world–but some groups in the world tell us that we’re just fanciful people.

But we know–because of the glorious history that is ours–that in spite of crisis, the scandals, the persecutions, that the Army of Heroes (we call them saints) was there all the way. And the Lord continues. Even in the most critical of times, He sends these heroes in our midst, to announce the Good News, to proclaim the Good News.

We have a God who loves us and invites us to a special way of life and that way for us Catholics, is to follow in the footsteps of the Master who invites us to live a life that is destined to take us to the Father. You know, Jesus never promised there’d be no scandal; Jesus never promised there’d be no suffering; He never promised there’d be no persecutions–witness the two thousand years where there have been enough of those, all of them.

But He promised one thing: He promised that He’d be with us always. We hold onto that promise and we live that promise. Here in this Eucharistic year we experience that promise magnificently, in the Eucharist. And we don’t need a year to tell us about that, we have Jesus’ words that "I’ll be with you" and here it is, His own flesh and His own blood that remains with us and abides with us forever.

Related links:

Drawing A Line: An Interview with Bishop Michael J. Sheridan
Bishop in the Desert: An Interview with Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted

Valerie Schmalz is a writer for IgnatiusInsight. She worked as a reporter and editor for The Associated Press, and in print and broadcast media for ten years. She holds a BA in Government from University of San Francisco and a Master of Science from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She is the former director of Birthright of San Francisco. Valerie and her wonderful husband have four children.

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