A Bishop of the People
The Rev. Michael Saltarelli can look back on 12 years of accomplishment—not that retirement will break his stride.
Bishop Michael Saltarelli has presided over the growth of the local diocese to 233,000 Catholics—a 40 percent increase during his 12 years.
Photograph by Pat Crowe II
All those who have come to know and admire Bishop Michael Saltarelli—and they are legion—should pause a moment to remember Father Sylvester Livolsi.
“A hound of heaven,” is how Saltarelli lovingly characterizes Livolsi, a parish priest in the bishop’s native Jersey City, New Jersey, who died in February. “He insisted that I had a vocation [as a priest],” Saltarelli says.
So he saw potential?
Saltarelli smiles and says, “Well, I don’t know about that. He just insisted, and I said no, but he just kept insisting. He literally pushed me, kicking and screaming, into the seminary when I was 19.”
Saltarelli bears a resemblance to actor Alan Arkin, except for the near-constant smile, a smile that underscores the joy he derives from that calling he so vigorously resisted back in 1952. Now, after 48 years of priesthood—the past 12 as bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington—he has reached the mandatory retirement age of 75.
For Saltarelli, overseeing the diocese (all of Delaware and the nine counties of Maryland’s Eastern Shore) has been challenging and rewarding, almost in equal measure. Church membership has increased by more than 40 percent to 233,000, he has ordained 23 new priests, and three new schools and several churches have been built. On the downside, five schools closed, including Claymont’s 45-year-old Holy Rosary in April and Saint Thomas the Apostle in Wilmington in May.
But the overarching issue of the past decade is the priest sexual-abuse scandals that have rocked many dioceses—and the Roman Catholic church itself—to their foundations. The scandals and the resulting lawsuits are the reasons why Saltarelli answers with an unequivocal “no” when asked if the priesthood has been everything he thought it would be.
“No, I didn’t think we’d be in some of the quagmires we find ourselves in from time to time,” he says. “I didn’t think we would be dealing with the crisis the church is currently experiencing, sadly, because when I was young, our priests were fantastic and wonderful. There was no hint, ever, of anything untoward. And we just presumed that that’s the way it was going to be.”
Saltarelli does not shrink from the consequences of the scandals. “We condemn what happened. There are no excuses for what happened,” he says. “And we thank God that we’re in a position to right the wrongs as best we can, to reach out to those who have been victimized and offer comfort and healing.”
Most of that comfort and healing has come in the form of court-ordered financial awards to those who were abused. The bishop admits that, “Sadly, the church will be dealing with this for some time to come.”
Monsignor John Barres, chancellor for the diocese, says Saltarelli has handled the scandals “consultively, collaboratively” through a 10-member Diocesan Review Board that was established to oversee implementation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which was developed by the U.S. Bishops of the United States in 2002. Says Barres, “He really relied on that kind of pooled expertise, which I think expanded the bishop’s vision in handling these very sensitive issues.”
Saltarelli and the diocese even get kudos from a plaintiffs’ attorney. Thomas S. Neuberger, a Wilmington lawyer who has represented many of the plaintiffs, has contrasted Saltarelli’s approach to “most of the dioceses across the country, where they proceed with a scorched-earth policy when victims seek redress.”
Neuberger has said there will be 20 more sex-abuse suits. Though Saltarelli hopes they can be settled through mediation, the Wilmington Diocese has taken steps to see that the problems don’t recur.
“We have what is probably the best screening [of applicants for the priesthood] in the country,” says Father Joseph Cocucci, diocesan director for the Office of Priestly and Religious Vocation.
It starts with applicants completing a 20-page questionnaire “with very, very intimate questions,” Cocucci says. “In light of the sexual abuse scandal, we put in very direct questions about that: ‘Have you ever been involved in the sexual abuse of a minor, either as a victim or a perpetrator?’ We know now that frequently someone who is a victim of sexual abuse will grow up into an abuser.”
The candidate then provides a dozen references, which must include parents, present and past employers, a teacher, a priest and a couple of peers. Each of them fills out three pages of questions about the applicant’s character and behavior. Then the applicant undergoes a two-day psycho-diagnostic evaluation, which covers, among other things, intelligence, behavior, relationship patterns, self-awareness and sexual identity. Finally, the applicant appears before the Diocesan Vocation Board, five priests who grill the candidate for an hour or two.
“What I need to know when I’m presenting a guy to the bishop,” says Cocucci, “is that, one, I’m giving him somebody who we really believe has the vocation, and, two, has the emotional maturity and all of the other capacities to live out the vocation.”
Barres says Saltarelli “is touched by the young men who consider the priesthood. He holds them in awe.”
The decision was much easier in his day, Saltarelli says. “When I said my ‘yes’ to the seminary, the whole world around me applauded and affirmed that goal. Today a young man who gives an indication that he wants to respond to the call that he feels from the Lord, he is looked upon with question. The world does not applaud that. They wonder what’s wrong with him.”
Sometimes the opposition comes from family. “I was one of seven children,” Saltarelli says. “Today families are limited, smaller in number, and you always hear a mother say, ‘I want grandchildren.’ And that’s legitimate and understandable and part of the difficulties we face in trying to help people.
“I tell the men that they are the heroes of today. They know the crisis, they know the difficulties that those before them have experienced, and yet they’re willing to say yes. And what I see coming from the seminaries these days are good, solid, dedicated young priests—and some not so young.”
Those who enter the seminary might do well to use Saltarelli as a role model. He has been called “the people’s priest.” Saltarelli himself says, “My strength is that I love being with people.”
Says Richelle Vible, executive director of Catholic Charities, “What struck me about him right away is his ability to relate to his audience, whether it’s kids or adults.”
Eleven-year-old Dana Carmack remembers the bishop’s visit to her fifth grade class at St. John’s Elementary School. “He was really funny,” Carmack says. “And he knew who Hannah Montana is.”
The bishop’s give-and-take sense of humor was evident as soon as he arrived in Wilmington. “I liked him from the moment I met him,” says Michael Kelly, a Wilmington attorney.
Like his father, the late John D. Kelly III, a former New Castle County sheriff and long-time owner of Kelly’s Logan House in Wilmington, Kelly’s wit makes him a popular speaker and master of ceremonies. Though a devout Catholic, he is not above gently ribbing members of the church hierarchy, including bishops. To one unsuspecting audience, Kelly introduced Saltarelli as “a devil worshipper.” (Kelly broke the ensuing shocked silence by explaining the bishop’s passion for the NHL’s New Jersey Devils.) He also has described a couple of the bishop’s innovations: bingo in Latin “so Protestants and Jews can’t win,” and express lines for confession, “eight sins or fewer.”
“He can take a joke,” says Kelly, “and when he follows me at the podium, he usually outdoes me.”
Saltarelli appeared at Kelly’s 50th birthday party at the Logan House. “He absolutely roasted me—off the top of his head,” Kelly says. “He made some cracks about my age, that I looked a lot older than 50, and he said he felt sorry for my mother and father, who had to endure me all those years, and why couldn’t I be more like my twin [John D. Kelly IV, an orthopedic surgeon at Temple University Hospital].”
But Saltarelli sees little humor in certain issues. He has let it be known that he is unhappy with the pro-choice stances of U.S. Senator Joseph Biden and U.S. Representative Michael Castle, both Catholics. In 2005 he led several dozen Catholics in praying the Rosary outside the Delaware State House while lawmakers inside debated the merits of the Delaware Regenerative Medicine Act, which involved stem cell research. The bill was finally defeated last year, primarily through the efforts of A Rose and A Prayer, a Delaware group opposed to such legislation.
“Some people don’t like his black-and-white style,” Kelly says. Another friend, Brother Ronald Giannone, executive director of Wilmington’s Ministry of Caring, puts it this way: “You don’t have to guess what he’s thinking.”
Saltarelli makes no apologies. “I vote the issues, not parties,” he says. “I’m an Independent from my early voting days. I felt it good not to have to conform to the dictates of a party, but to be able to be free to vote my conscience.”
Trim and energetic, Saltarelli is a spiritual Zelig, appearing at christenings, schools and funerals, and conducting masses throughout the 5,000-square-mile diocese. He drives himself, putting about 25,000 miles a year on his car (currently a 2007 Mercury Marquis), which he trades in every three years.
The product of a melting pot neighborhood in Jersey City, Saltarelli has been especially attentive to the Hispanic population of about 100,000 on the Delmarva Peninsula. He conducts services for them in Spanish, and though he says he reads it well, he’s not yet comfortable conversing in the language. “I have to continue to grow in that, and I will,” he says, “even after I retire.”
His will not be a leisurely retirement. “I’ll be able to assist the new bishop, if he wants, with ceremonies, confirmations, anything,” Saltarelli says. “This diocese is growing, thanks be to God. When I came here 12 years ago, the census indicated we had 156,000 Catholics. I think we’re listing now 233,000 and growing. And so however the bishop wants to use me, I’m there. I’m not a rocking chair person.”
After his successor is named by Pope Benedict XVI, Saltarelli has two months to move out of the bishop’s residence on Bancroft Parkway. He has had offers to live in several rectories, or he could choose to live in the retirement house for priests at St. John the Beloved on Milltown Road.
Few leaders in the secular or religious worlds have earned the legacy of nearly universal affection and respect that Saltarelli has.
“He reaches out to people of all faiths,” says Harvey Rubenstein, a Wilmington lawyer who is one of the non-Catholic members of the Diocesan Review Board. “He’s a wonderful and very warm person.”
“He is a priest who became a bishop,” says Dan Barr of Greenville, who serves on the National Advisory Council for the U.S. Conference of Bishops. “I think he would have been very happy and very content to have spent his priestly life working parish settings. Our diocese has truly benefited from his leadership. He’ll be missed.”