An Interview with
Archbishop Charles A. Salatka
Archbishop Emeritus of Oklahoma City
By John Mallon
The occasion for this interview was the 50th Anniversary of priestly ordination of Archbishop Salatka. I interviewed him for the upcoming issue of the Sooner Catholic. It was quite an event which brought Cardinal Edmond Szoka from Rome, who, as a young priest served as Archbishop Salatka’s Secratary. Also coming was Cardinal James A. Hickey, of Washington DC, who had been Archbishop Salatka’s classmate during his studies in Rome. Archbishop Salatka was always very kind to me. He reached out to me when I was having difficulty with different people in the archdiocese, letting me know he knew what I was feeling. I have a few funny memories of him. He was very proud of his Lithuanian heritage. One day I said to him, “You know Archbishop, I think Lithuanian women are the most beautiful women in the world.” He paused looked down, didn’t change is serious expression and said thoughtfully, “I think you’re right.” Another time I said to him, “Cardinal Szoka looks like a very kind man. Archbishop Salatka snapped, “He’d better be! I brought him up!” God bless Archbishop Salatka.
John Mallon: How did you first sense that God was calling you to be a priest?
Archbishop Salatka: In retrospect I find myself feeling that God called me through the persons He put in my life in my early days. Primarily my parents, of course, who were people of deep faith, especially my mother. And the sisters who taught me in school, and the parish priest we had who always had an eye out for potential vocations. His example encouraged me and his words encouraged me. So these things led me to enter the seminary. I just can’t help but say how important my own father and mother and my brothers and sisters were, because when I was in the seminary it was during the depths of the Depression and they never once complained. They did everything they could to make sure I would have what I needed to pursue my vocation. So that’s where it started and it went on. I’d like to say another thing; I was in the seminary for 13 years. And it’s not as if everybody that enters the seminary becomes a priest. In my class when I entered there were about 25 students, 5 became priests. So in the course of your seminary years you’re reassessing your situation and your vocation and I did that too.
I remember when I was completing my MA in philosophy, I said, “Well, here’s my life all in front of me. I’m free to do what I want with it and how could I put it to the best use?” As I reflected on it and prayed on it, I thought the best thing I could do with my whole life would be to help people to fulfill the purpose for which God made them: To love and serve God on earth and to enjoy happiness with Him in heaven. I thought I could do that best by being a priest. One can do it in other vocations, but for me, I felt the best way was by being a priest. That was a major factor in my process of becoming a priest.
Was there a particular priest in your life that made the suggestion or guided you in a special way, took an interest in you?
I think the principal priest from elementary school and beyond was my pastor, Msgr. Lipkus in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was the pastor of my home parish and took an interest in the servers and others he thought were the type who could go on to the priesthood. He was a great influence. Throughout my seminary days I had professors who were important to me. In minor seminary one of the spiritual directors, Msgr. Louis Verreau was an easy person to talk with, and then when I was in theology we had Father Vieban at Catholic University in the Theological College. We all regarded him as a saint. Very holy and good and kind always. And we had fine professors too like Father Francis J. Connell, C.S.S.R., the moral theologian. But he was more than just a moralist, he was also a fine example for a priest to follow.
After ordination did you have any favorite kind of assignment? I read that you worked in the chancery, and you taught, and you worked in a parish as well, or did you just enjoy them all equally?
In my day you never thought what you might like. It was what the bishop asked you to do. No second thoughts. This was it. God’s will for you. My first assignment was teaching in St. Joseph’s Minor Seminary in Grand Rapids, from which I graduated.
I was there for almost two years and then the bishop called me one day to say he’d like to send me to do graduate work in Canon Law. So I spent two years in Rome getting my licentiate. After I got back—obviously in that time it was clear if I spent two years studying Church law I’d be doing something with it—my first assignment was in the chancery office where I worked for twenty years. I was the secretary there for awhile, and I also was the chaplain at St. John’s Orphanage for two years. Later I was appointed vice chancellor and then vicar general.
In 1950 the bishop decided he’d change some of the smaller missions into parishes. So I received a country parish as my first parish, but I still spent four and a half days at the chancery office every week, and commuted between there and the parish. It was a 25 mile ride each way. I did that for 12 years.
It sounded like a difficult situation because I was almost full-time at the chancery, four and a half days, and I had the parish. But the more I lived it the more I saw that it was really very good for me; because in the chancery I was often dealing with impersonal matters, but in the parish I was dealing with people and their personal needs. So I could see that what I was doing in the office also applied to the lives of the people I served. It was a great blessing.
Bishop Francis Haas, who had given me this assignment, was very interested in promoting Catholic schools. Believe it or not, even though I had this small parish he kept bringing up the idea of getting a school started there. By the time I left, twelve years later we were building a school there. There was a school, a convent, and a temporary church to replace the old one.
Were you surprised to be made a bishop? What was your first reaction?
Of course I was surprised! It was totally unexpected. I said to the bishop, “This is a bolt out of the blue—totally expected.” And he said, “If I thought you expected it you’d never have gotten it!” That’s the way he put it. Nobody was gunning to become a bishop. You don’t become a priest in order to be a bishop. You become a priest to serve as needed, and then if it works out that way, you might be recommended for the office of bishop. That’s the way it was. I was the first auxiliary bishop of the diocese.
The appointment came from the bishop? Or from Rome?
It came from the Holy Father, Pope John XXIII by way of the Apostolic Delegate. As auxiliary bishop I was still pastor of a parish, and I was an assistant to the bishop of the diocese. I did only what he asked me to do. I had confirmations and kept working in the chancery office. It was my job to help ease the load for him. After six years as auxiliary bishop in Grand Rapids I was appointed Bishop of Marquette.
So you went from having one parish to suddenly being in charge of all the parishes in a diocese.
Yes, I had just come from a parish in Grand Rapids, where we had a grammar school with 700 children in it. When I was transferred to Marquette I didn’t have a parish or school that I personally pastored. I really missed that personal contact with people. A bishop has the whole diocese to serve and he can’t possibly get as close to the people as he would like. So that was the hardest thing, and the thing that I missed the most through the years.
That sounds like a cross for bishops to carry. They’re made bishops because they’re such good pastors, and they love the people, and the close contact with them. Then, all of a sudden, they’re further away from it than they would like to be.
Yes, that’s right. But because they have been pastors they have a good sense of what is needed in a bishop in order for him to look after the diocese in a pastoral way with concern for the people. You have to consider these things in the assignment of priests, for example. Those assignments must be made in a pastoral way. So you never forget about the people. The people are why I became a priest and they’re why I became anything afterwards.
What are your memories of Pope John XXIII and being a bishop at the time of the Second Vatican Council? You were right in there when it was happening.
I was. Pope John XXIII is the person who appointed me bishop. I remember the picture of myself and my ordinary, Bishop Babcock, with Pope John XXIII. He was very friendly—an easy person to meet and converse with. I enjoyed him. Of course when he called the first session of the Second Vatican Council many people thought it was going to be over with one session, that would be all there was to it. It lasted 1962 to 1965!
That must have been quite an experience to live through the council as a bishop, and see it from that perspective. What was that like?
Well, to me it was great. I wasn’t unfamiliar with Rome because I’d been there two years as a student priest. The council enabled many bishops to get to know each other. Certainly it was a great way to meet the American bishops on closer terms. Normally, at that time, we would only meet once a year, but during the council, we had daily contact in one way or another. So it was very helpful. It was a great opportunity to see the universality and the unity of the Church and the variety of cultures and situations. We saw the diversity of the Church represented by the different countries, and how their needs were different, and situations were different. That was an eye-opener.
You’ve been a bishop through four pontificates. What are your memories of the different popes that you served under? You mentioned John XXIII...
John XXIII was very warm and kind. Paul VI succeeded him, and I always viewed Paul VI as a very astute person, very intelligent, but a little reserved. That was my impression of him. He certainly had a difficult time because he was carrying on the Council and then trying to implement it afterwards, and that was a tough job. But I certainly give him a lot of credit. He was the Secretary of State under Pius XII. Many expected him to be the next pope, but Pius XII appointed him to Milan as archbishop. I think that was a very good thing for him because as I recall it he had never been in diocesan work. So it gave him that pastoral insight. He was a very good and holy person, no question about that.
I didn’t meet John Paul I at all, because he was pope only a month and I was not in Rome at the time. And then came John Paul II. To my mind, he was like a combination between John XXIII and Paul VI. He is very intelligent and he has a warmth to him. He’s very easy to meet and talk with. I think he’s easier to talk with than any other pope that I have known. As far as I know, in my time, he’s the only pope who, as a rule, invites the bishops who are there for their ad limina visit to have lunch with him. That is really a pleasant time because you can talk about anything you want to talk about with him. He’s very open to questions and he seems to enjoy it, and so do the bishops.
I read recently that someone asked the pope, “With the burdens of office, do you find it lonely?” And he said, “No, I really don’t. I have friends around me, and I meet with my brother bishops when we have lunch.” So he’s happy.
He’s so busy. I don’t see how he could be lonely.
That brings us up to the time when you came to Oklahoma City. Was that another surprise?
Yes, it was a surprise, a big surprise. And I think it was probably the most difficult decision I ever had to make. The invitation came and I didn’t know anything about Oklahoma. I didn’t know even a single person here. But that was the way it was in those days. You didn’t know what you’re getting into, and the people didn’t know who they’re getting.
In The Sooner Catholic of that period there was a picture of you just stepping off the plane. It looks like you walked right into a flash bulb. What was that experience like? This brand new place...
First of all, I didn’t know who would be meeting me, whether anybody would be meeting me, but there were a good number of people at the airport. So that was very gratifying, since it was my first meeting with any of the people in Oklahoma. Father Bryce, Father Monahan, and Father Eichhoff had come to Marquette to meet me after I’d been appointed, but that was all the contact I had with this area until I got here.
So it was a leap in faith. How did you land?
It took time to adjust because it was a somewhat different culture from where I had been. Wherever I have been as a pastor or as a bishop, I have always found the people to be very good. The people here have always been very friendly, and the priests and religious have always been very supportive, even up to this day. And I thank God very much for that. I’m grateful for that.
I guess a bishop has to be more diplomatic nowadays. He doesn’t just order people around as in your day when you just did what the bishop said, without question. So here you had to step into a new place and deal with all these new personalities in a pastoral way. I imagine it would be quite a challenge.
It was quite a challenge. But in meeting it I think we accomplished many good things.
I heard you mention recently that one of the most important things you realized as a bishop was that you could not do it by yourself, you had to depend on God, that prayer was absolutely essential. Can you talk about that?
Yes, I certainly can, because I began to realize how essential prayer was more and more as I grew a bit older and assumed different responsibilities. As a young priest you figure you are capable doing everything. But as you grow older and assume larger responsibilities, you’re suddenly faced with situations that you know are more difficult, and beyond you, really.
When I came here I remember I met with groups of priests, and my topic was prayer, the necessity of prayer in the life of a priest. That’s how strongly I felt about it. It is so essential. You cannot be a good priest without praying. And not just praying formally, but really sincerely praying with your whole heart. Even to this day, I can’t be a good priest without praying. I can’t be a good bishop without praying. It’s an essential part of my life. That’s true of a priest, but it’s true of anybody else. I’ve always felt the need to pray, and certainly not less now.
Was there any special form of prayer that you found more helpful, or did it change over time?
Yes, I think it depended on what the circumstances were. There were some things that required you to pray more earnestly because of the intensity of the matter at hand. There are other things you pray for personally — like your own growth in holiness and goodness. And you pray for the people committed to your care in the diocese and the parishes. I think you pray a little bit differently when you’re praying for your own growth. For example, I’ve never quite succeeded as much as I wanted to in having a holy hour each day before the Blessed Sacrament, but I keep trying. And I know that it’s the right direction for me to go in. And of course I always try my best to say Mass every day, and I say the rosary and the divine office. These are forms of prayer to keep me close to God. Another thing about prayer, I try to grow in making my prayer a personal relationship with God—because I do it with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit—who are persons. It’s important to grow close to them as persons, knowing them as persons, in a personal exchange.
Obviously you feel that prayer is an indispensable element in a priest’s life or in any Christian’s life.
Of course it is. Prayer is indispensable. Prayer also helps you be what you should be in terms of being a bishop or being a priest or being whatever you are. Prayer points out your needs and gives you direction. For example, if you are prayerful, if you are in love with Jesus Christ, then you do what He expects of you. For example, He expects you to love other people. Prayer is also a source of your vitality when it comes to serving people. The way in which you serve people is also determined by your prayer life too.
As you say, it goes for priests and every Christian, but I would imagine that its necessity becomes even more clear to a bishop. As the responsibility grew did you see the need for God all the more?
Yes, I think as a priest and bishop you become more aware that there’s no way you can do it without God’s help. Without praying.
Your motto is “Come Holy Spirit.” Could you tell us how the Holy Spirit has worked in your life and how you came to choose that motto?
When you’re appointed a bishop you have the right to choose a motto. As I was looking for one I was conscious of my need for God’s help. So after some searching I decided on “Come Holy Spirit” because I really felt I needed the courage, the strength, the understanding, the light of the Holy Spirit in my life. Certainly as a bishop, I would need it. So I chose that motto. But I have always been aware of the working of the Spirit in the Church and in my own life. So yes, I have a great devotion to the Holy Spirit, and I pray to the Holy Spirit often.
Oftentimes when I have confirmation I ask the students if they know what my motto is. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. But the Holy Spirit is a person that I rely on heavily. The Father and the Son send their graces to us through the Holy Spirit. He is the Sanctifier, He makes us holy, He wants us to be holy. He does that. When I come across passages in the Scripture referring to the Holy Spirit, I take note of them. Like St. Paul telling us he had a thorn in the flesh and how he asked God to relieve him from it, and God said, “My grace is sufficient for you.” What does St. Paul say there? St. Paul says “When I came among you” (this fits with what we’ve been saying), “it was in weakness and in fear, and with much trepidation” (that’s exactly right) “my message and my preaching had none of the persuasive force of ‘wise’ argumentation, but the convincing power of the Spirit.” That’s from First Corinthians, Chapter 2, verses 3-4. That describes it pretty well. Coming here and not knowing anybody, I knew very well I wasn’t going to make it on my own, but on the power of the Holy Spirit which was at work in my life. And so, graces came at times of different need in my life. I was very much aware of that. Sacred Scripture says, The Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. And even when we don’t know exactly what to pray for, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with the Father. Scriptures like that always meant a lot to me.
I like to begin praying the Scriptures, with Isaiah in the Old Testament where he says the Lord cares about us, He knows us by name, He calls us by name and we are precious in His sight. He says that “even if a mother should forget her child, I will not forget you.” That’s obviously God caring for us. And from there I go on to Jesus Christ, the greatest evidence of God’s care and love for us. How could you have greater evidence than Jesus Christ? The Father sending His Son to show His love for us, by becoming one of us. From there I go on to the Holy Spirit as an expression of the love, the goodness of the Father and the Son for us.
So God has led you on a path through priesthood to being a bishop, and then an archbishop. Through it all there seems to be a theme of dependence upon Him. You keep growing in that knowledge of being depending on God.
Yes, and on my need to cooperate with his Grace.
Now that you’ve been in retirement for about two years or so, what are you doing now? Keeping yourself busy and active? You obviously appear to be active.
Yes, that’s right. I’m still amazed at the amount of correspondence that comes in. I’ve never felt, thank God, like I have time to be idle. When I retired I hoped that I’d have more time to pray—and I do have more time to pray—but it has to be an effort on my part to do it. It doesn’t come automatically. You have to do it. I’d hoped for more time to read, and I have been reading more. More time to travel. I did some traveling last year. I went to Lithuania and to Rome and then I went home to Grand Rapids for a vacation.
There are so many other places that I haven’t seen. I still want to go to see the Grand Canyon, and other places in the western part of these United States. I have bishops as friends wherever I go and that’s a wonderful thing. I’d be welcome, but I haven’t seen many of those places I still want to see. I’d love to see Lourdes one more time in my life.
So you’re enjoying life?
Pretty much. I think I’m adjusted to retirement. It doesn’t mean I’m inactive. I do help out at times when somebody needs me.
Looking back over a wonderful life in the Church is there any single thing you are most grateful for or a series of things?
Well, the grace of God, for me. The grace of God and his continuing support. I pray always for perseverance. Oh, there are memories of things that were not easy. Some grief involved, but we all have crosses. Then there are many happy things that have happened and those are a comfort in my retirement when I think back on them.
In my retirement—not just in my retirement, but before too—I’m more and more aware of the providence of God. I’m aware of God’s hand at work in whatever is happening in my life. Something happens and I’ll say to myself, well, God knows about this, He’s involved. Why does God want this particular thing to be happening right now? Often there’s a reason that I can perceive, and I say “thank God,” because He is the one who helped this to happen. So I’m more and more aware of the presence of God, especially the caring, loving providence of God for me. He has always blessed me.
Thanks be to God!