An Interview with the Most Rev. Edward J. Slattery, Bishop of Tulsa
(August 24, 2010)
Q: You have suggested that reforming the liturgy is key to revitalizing society. Could you elaborate on the connection?
A: Our Holy Father Benedict XVI said that if we want to reform the Church we have to reform the liturgy. The liturgy needs reformation. People need to know that the Mass doesn’t belong to them. It is a gift from God. It is our salvation. And you go there humbly. Moreover, if you’re going to ask people to make sacrifices— whether it is in marriage or whether it is in your community — it is going to end up being, at best, humanitarian unless Catholics are truly converted to becoming Eucharistic in their whole view of life. And they are not going to do that if they presume that the liturgy belongs to them and they can do whatever they want with it.
Q: We have Mother Teresa on our minds because her 100th birthday recently took place, and she was our Commencement Speaker in 1982 . She and her sisters spent hours before the Blessed Sacrament. That makes all the difference, doesn’t it?
A: Right, because Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity are genuinely Eucharistic in their whole mentality and their whole view of life. That affects how they relate to people in ways that they don’t even know. This Eucharistic mentality gives them a credibility and makes them attractive. Mother Teresa was very attractive to the public because she was genuine, and she was genuine because she was a Eucharistic Catholic, a Eucharistic religious.
Joy comes from being in love. When you are in love you are happy to make sacrifices for the one you love. Well, when you love everybody, like Mother Teresa did, she was always happy. Even though on another level she suffered great loneliness, she understood that love is not a feeling. In her love for the Eucharist, as well as for all the people she encountered, especially the poor, she realized that love is a commitment and that her life’s commitment was to love.
Q: It was stunning to learn that she experienced the dark night of the soul for so many years — she, someone who just emanated joy. How could that be?
A: But that’s consistent with so many of the saints, St. Ignatius of Loyola, for example. He dealt with consolation and desolation quite a bit in his spiritual exercises. Consolation and desolation come and go. God only gives consolation. He never gives desolation. Desolation comes from the devil. But Our Lord allows it for a reason — so that one’s consolation will be even greater in heaven. But even in this life, those who are serious about becoming saints must realize that it is not about consolation and desolation, it is about love, which is a commitment. It is not about feeling. Love is not in the emotions. Love is in the will.
Q: You spoke in your Matriculation Address  about wanting to reintroduce the sung introit in the Mass. Is the introit equivalent to what we call the “opening prayer,” or has it been lost entirely?
A: No. The opening prayer — or the collect — is the prayer of the whole people, which the celebrant offers to the Father, in persona Christi. We call it the “collect” because, well, in a sense the celebrant ‘collects’ all the individual prayers and unites them with the prayer which Christ Our Lord offers to the Father.
The introit is a sung prayer, usually taken directly from the Scriptures or perhaps slightly paraphrased, which is used to set the tone and the theme for the Mass. Each day’s Mass, or each week in Ordinary Time, has its own proper text, and the music would interpret the text and allow it to speak to the listener. We don’t use the word “introit” much any more because, in the ordinary form of the Mass, the word introit has been paraphrased as the “opening antiphon.” This conveys the idea that it is a sung antiphon for the beginning or opening of the Mass, but unfortunately while the texts of this opening antiphon appear in the Sacramentary, they have never been officially set to music. Several scholars worked on the project, but their efforts were never widely known or used.
I believe this was because everywhere in America parishes adopted the “four hymn structure” for Mass. In place of the opening antiphon we sing an opening hymn, and repeat the mistake at the offertory and for the communion processional. The antiphons which the Church proposes for our meditation have been dumped — an accurate if inelegant word — for hymns which are remarkable only for the banality of their sentiments.
In my Matriculation Address, I propose that we begin to recover a sense that the liturgy is a received, rather than created, worship by beginning to recover the entrance antiphon which the Church provides us.
Q: In April, to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI, you offered a Pontifical Solemn High Mass at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. — the first Mass offered in the extraordinary form at the Shrine in more than 40 years. From all reports, the majority of the people there were well under 45, not people who remember the old Mass. What is it that draws younger people to the extraordinary form?
A: I believe that the people that you are talking about — younger, married couples with children who are attracted to the extraordinary form — may have had bad experiences in their parishes with regard to the liturgy. For some reason or other they have found that it didn’t resonate with their hearts.
People instinctively understand that the worship of God is serious business which demands our highest level of spiritual effort. In place of that, people often find our parish liturgies characterized by a kind of insipid casualness. In the hands of some celebrants, the liturgy becomes an insufferable catechetical or socialaction lesson. Some parishes seem afraid to allow the people any opportunity to pray in silence. The congregation is inundated with talk: themes announced before the opening, short homilies offered before the readings, and at various, inappropriate times throughout the liturgy, plus of course a longer homily after the Gospel. There are announcements to be made, and perhaps a ferverino from the choir director about how nice it would be if more people sang.
People in the pews can be talked to death! So perhaps when they went to the extraordinary form they were able to pray because in the extraordinary form there’s silence, there’s space to allow the word of God to penetrate the heart.
Q: And yet it is sometimes claimed that the extraordinary form allows for no participation.
A: Nonsense. No one who understands the meaning of the Mass could rightly claim that the extraordinary form of the Mass precludes the participation of the people. Of course it doesn’t! The Church presumes that the congregation is aware of the meaning of the Mass, and that each person who participates is actively and consciously offering himself or herself to the Father in union with Christ. That’s the same whether one talks about the ordinary or the extraordinary form of the Mass.
The difficulty is that since the mid-1960s our participation in Mass has been taken to mean simply and exclusively external activity, to be busy doing something, singing, reciting, offering a sign of peace, reading, distributing Holy Communion, welcoming people at the door.
These are all very laudable and in some ways necessary tasks, but the one necessary thing — as our Lord reminded poor Martha — is not to be busy but to be attentive. That attentiveness requires the higher part of man — the mind and the heart — and hence is of greater dignity than our actions, than our busy-ness. Perhaps this is a kind of reflection as to where we are in the United States. People are just busy all the time. Even when they pray, they’re busy.
Q: You have written lately about offering Mass ad orientem (i.e., priest faces the tabernacle, not the congregation). Would you discuss your thinking on that?
A: Well, first of all I would like to say that both orientations are acceptable. The advantage of ad orientem is that it is more capable of expressing how the Church understands the meaning of the liturgy She offers. In celebrating the Mass “to the east,” the priest and the people face the same direction. It becomes clear that the priest is at the head of the people, as Christ is the head of the Church. United as the whole Christ, we offer together the Sacrifice of our redemption. It is easier to grasp this when the priest is facing the same direction as the people and not facing them. When the priest faces the people, it makes it seem that the priest and the people are in a constant conversation about God rather than engaged in a prayer to God.
I think celebrating Mass ad orientem also relieves the priest of the burden of having to be creative and inventive in his celebration, that is, of having to “play up to” the congregation. In the same way, Masses celebrated ad orientem can free the congregation from having to put up with the theatrical improvisations of the celebrant. That keeps everyone focused on what Christ is doing at Mass.
Finally, I think that Masses celebrated ad orientem also make better use of the biblical symbolism of the east as the source of the rising sun and the quarter from which Christ will return, shining like lightning from the east to the west.
Q: The original bond between you and Thomas Aquinas College would seem to be Clear Creek Abbey, the Benedictine monastery in your diocese where 10 of our alumni are monks . What is the monks’ influence in the Diocese, and what good are they doing there?
A: It is often very difficult to measure God’s actions in the world, but over a period of time the monks and their presence in the Diocese have had a tremendous influence. I detect among our priests a greater reverence, a great openness to the mystery of God’s presence, and I attribute that to the presence of the monks. The monks pray for me every day and for the Diocese of Tulsa. When they first came into the Diocese that was the only request I had — that they would pray for me, or whoever the bishop is, and for the Diocese. They agreed to do that, so it is right in the contract.
The priests and the people know that the monastery is there and they know where it is and how they can get there. People do go there. Anyone who goes there is affected by the monks and their prayerfulness.
Q: The connection with the Abbey marked the beginning of your relationship with the College, but how has that relationship developed, such that you have traveled here to be this year’s Convocation speaker?
A: Well, I’m fascinated by the dream of the College’s founders, who were very Catholic in their understanding of faith and reason. If anything is needed today in our society, it is a greater understanding of faith and reason as complementary to one another because both come from God. The fact that the College has a great books program shows that you see the necessity of a connection between those of us who live in the modern age and all of our parents and forefathers, going all the way back over the centuries in conversation with one another, with the talented ones writing all of this out and passing it on.
Then you begin to see that there is a different paradigm than the modern paradigm of science, which is really technology. We’re a Cartesian culture where things are mathematical and measurable, but the dignity of man needs more than that. We are not simply parts of a machine. We are not a conglomeration of parts. Each person is one thing, and there’s a certain integrity that each one of us has. In order to have any kind of selfesteem you have to see yourself as you really are and as God sees you, and that is as someone made in His image and likeness.
Q: How does Catholic liberal education aid the common good?
A: What we need in our society today is conversation. We don’t even know how to converse any more because we don’t have the wherewithal, we don’t have the background, or the skill even to have a conversation that is enriching both to listen to and to receive from one another. So what this college is doing is the best in the Catholic tradition in which we see that virtue, intelligence, moral life, and prayer are all interrelated because God is the only creator and we are all creatures. Put these together with studying how other men and women over the centuries have contemplated these profound truths, and now you’ve got people together who are able to converse in a human way, and in a way that is enriching to everyone.