Before becoming the bishop of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Bishop Edward J. Slattery served Catholic Extension as president (1976-1994) and vice president (1971-1976). During his tenure, Extension’s annual support for campus ministries rose from $120,000 a year to over $1 million. Over the past five years, Catholic Extension has supported campus ministry at the Newman Centers of the University of Tulsa and Oklahoma State University with $75,000. This year the Diocese of Tulsa will also join Catholic Extension’s Young Adult Leadership Initiative, receiving funding for the graduate education of both the director and a program coordinator of the diocesan Office of Youth, Young Adult and Campus Ministry.
During your presidency, Catholic Extension increased its support for seminarians, religious education and campus ministry. What was the intention?
From its beginning, the purpose of the Catholic Church Extension Society has been to bring the Catholic faith into places that are either rural or struggling financially because of the poverty of the people or because of the scarcity of Catholics in a large or remote area.
One of the first things that was obvious to the founder, Bishop Francis Clement Kelley, was that in many areas Catholics didn’t have a church to worship, so Extension has distributed more than 12,000 grants for the construction or repair of church buildings. But the Catholic Church lives “not by building alone,” so as time went on, seminarian education was added, and it also became clear that a greater effort for evangelization had to occur, including on college campuses.
Bishops wrote to ask if Extension could help to fund campus ministry programs. Evangelization on college campuses has lasting effects on those who participate. So these young people in college, who are exposed to many of the secular values in our country, have that balanced by infusing Christ and His Church into their education and into their formation.
What has been the importance of campus ministries for the Diocese of Tulsa, where you have been bishop?
The most important thing is formation, and a campus ministry makes that possible. It usually involves having a priest as well as staff and a place where the sacraments are offered — Mass and confession — and also different programs of catechesis. Another important part of campus ministry is for students to get to know one another in the context of the Church, so they realize that there are others like them who are struggling to find the truth of Jesus, the truth of the Gospel.
Campus ministry is a form of evangelization, it’s reaching out and getting the support from friends who pray together and study together and enjoy themselves together. At the same time, these students then attract others into the Catholic faith because of their witness.
How crucial is the support of Catholic Extension for these campus ministries?
If we didn’t have the help of Extension, we would not be able to have these campus ministries. We might have a minimal presence, but what we really need is the kind of dynamic presence of the Church on these college campuses that Extension makes possible.
What have you loved most about being the bishop in Tulsa?
My own faith as a Catholic, as a priest and as a bishop have been strengthened here. It’s the same faith that I was brought up with in Chicago, but here it is in a different context, that of the Catholic Church being a minority. I have also found that non-Catholics here are welcoming the presence of the Catholic Church. I have never experienced any form of anti-Catholicism or bigotry in this diocese. Every year we get hundreds of people joining the Church.
What else can you tell us about the faith of Catholics in Tulsa?
Tulsa is a place that became significant because of the discovery of oil in Oklahoma back in the 1920s. That boom led to many Catholics moving here from Ohio and Pennsylvania and other parts of the East Coast. Some of them made their fortune here.
That influx strengthened the Catholic presence in Tulsa and, through the generosity of those Catholics, led to the building of our two Catholic hospitals. Today, although Catholics make up only 8 percent of the population in the city of Tulsa, our hospitals care for about 65 percent of Tulsans. Their presence is a “silent evangelizer” because they take care of the sick, including the poor.
The Tulsa diocese covers 26,000 square miles, and 80 percent of Catholics live in the Tulsa metropolitan area. When it comes to the other 20 percent who live in the rural parts of Oklahoma, Extension helped to build most of their Catholic churches. In almost any little church in our rural towns, you’ll find a plaque on the wall explaining that it was built with the help of Extension.
During my pastoral visitations to these rural parishes, when I talk to the young people there, they tell me that, in order to make a living, they will need to leave their hometown to go to the city. So when they go off to a college here in Oklahoma and make their way to the campus ministry, they find the Catholic Church is present and viable and enjoyable.
Extension has been important at both ends of that journey. In our rural towns it has helped to build the churches and pay the priests’ salaries, and then when the kids leave to go to college, they’ll run right into a campus ministry that was also made possible by the benefactors of the Catholic Church Extension Society.
What has been your experience when you talk with the young people of your diocese?
One thing I find in the present generation of young people is their openness. They are searching, and they are searching for a better world. They were born into a world that is at war, and on the news they hear about terrorism and all these terrible shootings. They are searching for happiness, peace and joy — and that’s when the Church becomes attractive to them. Many of them are beginning to see that they can’t be happy without the Church.
Is there anything else you would like to tell our readers?
I continue to be grateful for my time at Extension Society. Before becoming the bishop of Tulsa in 1994, I spent about 23 years of my priesthood at Extension and 17 years as president. That’s when I first got to know the Catholic Church beyond the borders of the Archdiocese of Chicago. It’s a great organization, and as time goes on, it is needed more and more. I applaud Father Wall, who was just a year behind me in seminary in Chicago, so I know him quite well. He is doing a tremendous job, and I wish you all well.