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
Saltarelli is outspoken in witnessing to the Gospel of Life to his
diocese and to the politicians in the Diocese
of Wilmingtonparticularly 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
Octoberwhich is Respect Life Monthhe 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
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 Marylands 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 bishops work make it clear that the bishop is first
and foremost a pastoran 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 alivehe
was the fifth of seven children born in Jersey City, New Jerseybut
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.
IgnatiusInsight.com: 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. Im not being flippanttwo
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,
thats what I try to do. To proclaim to our corner of the world herethat
which is our diocesethe 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.
IgnatiusInsight.com: 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 frustrationbecause he kept dogging methat
I wasnt worthy to be a priest.
And he said to me, "Of course youre not worthy; that has nothing
to do it. Are you willing to serve Gods people?" That little
magic word there transformed my life. I think it was the ideathe
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 worthynobodys 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.
IgnatiusInsight.com: 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 Ive done that ever since. I have dogged other
young people. You look around and you say, "This young man certainly
has the qualifications that were 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 its 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.
IgnatiusInsight.com: 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 surroundedusing
the words of the late Holy Father, John Paul IIwe 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 doesnt 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;
its easier. When you try to proclaim life and its dignity and its
sacredness, that doesnt fall on too receptive an audience these
IgnatiusInsight.com: Last year, you wrote a statement on Catholics in
public life. [http://www.cdow.org/political.html]
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. Its such an excuse;
to me its a cop out: "Im personally opposed, but
If someone would say Im personally opposed to slavery but its okay,
people would laugh at the ridiculousness of that statement. And yet we
tolerate, dont we"Im personally opposed to abortion,
"? That "but" is translated into the destruction,
the massacre, the holocaust of millions of innocent lives in our time.
IgnatiusInsight.com: 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, youve seen them on television,
Im sure. Thats what were dealing with.
IgnatiusInsight.com: 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 its
painful for them. It really is, theyre 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 ourwhat
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 dissuadeyou 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 wont give
up on that. We pray.
Were 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."
IgnatiusInsight.com: 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 were
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, thats okay; that doesnt stop us. Were
still going to do it. Were still going to ask our people to pray
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 rightit
is wrong, it is sinful"and somebody at least has to say it.
Not that Im 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.
IgnatiusInsight.com: 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, tha nks 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 didnt. Ive
been blamed for it. Thats a feather in my cap, I love itI
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 Ive sometimes kept quiet and gloated in it. I did
come out and affirm the schools action and applaud it, but it was
not I who did it.
IgnatiusInsight.com: 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 Gods 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 didI accompanied themwas
just gathered outside the steps and very peacefully, prayerfully recited
the Rosary. I think some people were just touched by that. Some of the
lawmakersone or two of themsaid that they changed their vote
The power of prayer, againthis is why thats going to be the
key to any effort we do. We certainly can picket, we can demonstrate.
Thats necessary sometimes. But we dont discount the magnificent
power that prayer can have in transforming the hearts.
This is my whole thing with congressmen and senatorsthat were
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 didnt 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.
IgnatiusInsight.com 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
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. Its
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. IgnatiusInsight.com
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 its 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
Thats a challenge for us. I think we are addressing it best we can.
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 solveits
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,
arent these shots in the arm that we do need in our church today?
Youthfulness, focus on Our Lady, family lifethe 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 SpanishI
love it, I love it, I love it. Theyre tolerant, theyre really
tolerant of my poor Spanish, from the gringo, but theyre tolerant.
Theyre a blessing, let me tell you.
IgnatiusInsight.com: 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 migrantsdriving 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. Its exciting; its exciting.
Im 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.
IgnatiusInsight.com: One of the first things you wrote after becoming
bishop, was a pastoral
statement on outreach to inactive Catholics. Hows that
Good. The effort is being made. Hopefully were not perpetrating
the reasons why people have left us. Lets 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 thats not the Church. But nevertheless we have to take responsibility
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
WelcomeAlienated 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 Churchs, of course), but we have a ministry to the
separated and the divorced. I celebrate Mass with them and again let them
know that theyre very important and a critical part of the Church,
and they belong.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Bishop Saltarelli then discussed a new pastoral statement
that was published in September on catechetics.
We spent a couple of years studying the catechetical problems weve
hadlets face it, not only in our own diocese, but certainly
nationally. We studied it, weve had roundtables on it, weve
had reach outsand weve 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, its been
discovered that some are not, and we want to make sure we are not among
IgnatiusInsight.com: 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 dont think
any sensationalism has occurred because of that. I havent 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 thats realitythats more of a reality that
we have to deal with.
IgnatiusInsight.com: 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.
IgnatiusInsight.com: How did you deal with the sexual abuse crisis in
I would never in a billion years have imagined thatnever mind as
a bishopas a priest Id 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 dont 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 usyoung ladies came,
young girlswe 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 weve 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 weve
maintained that open relationship. If we get any accusations, her office
is the first to know what the accusation is and whos involved.
Weve tried to handle it as transparently as humanly possible. Weve
had our difficulties; weve had our few cases. Weve had to
remove three of our priests from ministrybut everything was open
and above board. What was in our diocesan paper was also in the secular
Weve cooperated every way possible. Weve 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.
Ive met with people who have made the allegations, some definitely
victims. Ive met with their parents. Weve 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.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Whats 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 questionsone of them has to deal with homosexuality.
So, again, we dont 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. Theres a gamut
there and one of those questions has to do withis there an obvious
homosexual culture in the seminary? Certainly that could not be tolerated
and I agree with [asking the question] but I dont think theres
going to be a headhunting thing now. Its 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 theyre acknowledging is that its a lot more difficult
for a person who is oriented to the same sex to be in that particular
ministry. Theyre acknowledging thissaying this going to have
to be some hero to withstand the pressures of that particular orientation.
I think its a reality check up.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What advice would you give to Catholics trying to
live a moral and happy life?
It is possible. And thats not a cliché. The world tells us
that we are crazy, ridiculous. The worldand not all the worldbut
some groups in the world tell us that were just fanciful people.
But we knowbecause of the glorious history that is oursthat
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 thered be no scandal; Jesus never
promised thered be no suffering; He never promised thered
be no persecutionswitness the two thousand years where there have
been enough of those, all of them.
But He promised one thing: He promised that Hed 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
dont need a year to tell us about that, we have Jesus words
that "Ill be with you" and here it is, His own flesh and
His own blood that remains with us and abides with us forever.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com links:
Drawing A Line:
An Interview with Bishop Michael J. Sheridan
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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