Archbishop Coakley of Oklahoma City on Papal Visit, Immigration, Religious Liberty

US Region X Bishops Come to Rome For Ad Limina Visit

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By Ann Schneible

ROME, MARCH 22, 2012 (Zenit.org).- United States bishops and archbishops of Region X were in Rome this past week for their Ad Limina pilgrimage. Included among them were those from the province of Oklahoma City.

Archbishop Paul S. Coakley was among those who met with the Holy Father this past week. A native of Kansas, he has served as Archbishop of Oklahoma City since Feb. 11, 2011.

The archbishop recently spoke with ZENIT about his Ad Limina visit to Rome, the pastoral concerns of the Oklahoma City Archdiocese, and the issue of religious freedom in the United States.

ZENIT: Could you speak about your meeting with the Holy Father, and some of the issues that were discussed?

Archbishop Coakley: I was privileged on the second day of the Ad Limina visit to have an audience with the Holy Father. We met as the province of Oklahoma City, so I met with Bishop Anthony Taylor of Little Rock, and Bishop Edward Slattery, the Bishop of Tulsa, the Suffragan Sees of the province of Oklahoma City. It was very nice; since we're a small province it was simply the three of us sitting comfortably across the table from the Holy Father, and very personal, very warm exchange, very fraternal.

I provided an overview for the Holy Father; just some general comments on the pastoral life within the province, and I spoke particularly about our clergy, I spoke about vocations, I spoke about trends within the province of Oklahoma City. Then the other two bishops each addressed different pastoral perspectives, including immigration -- which is a very real concern and challenge in our province, as it is in much of the United States. And one of the bishops spoke about Catholic Charities. So we tried to give the Holy Father a perspective on the uniqueness of our situation in the province of Oklahoma City. And he was very interested; he acknowledged points, and probed a little bit more deeply in some areas. He was very interested in things pertaining to the liturgy and Catholic Charities, and very sensitive to the challenge which migrants are facing all over the world, but in particular in the United States.

ZENIT: You mentioned speaking to the Holy Father about the clergy and the state of vocations. Could you comment on the state of vocations in Oklahoma City?

Archbishop Coakley: We're very fortunate, very blessed in the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. The number of seminarians is increasing. The number of young men expressing interest in seminary and applying for seminary has been increasing steadily. That's very encouraging to all of us. It's very encouraging to our priestly morale within the Archdiocese. That's one of the things that I find most consoling and encouraging myself (I'm still relatively new to the Archdiocese) to see that is a very positive trend within the Church in Oklahoma.

ZENIT: You also spoke about the issue of immigration. What do you think that the Holy Father's Apostolic Journey to Mexico and Cuba will mean for the immigrant population in Oklahoma?

Archbishop Coakley: Many of our immigrants in Oklahoma come from Mexico and Central America, so I am certain that they will be following with great interest the Holy Father's pastoral visit to Mexico and Cuba. I'm certain that they will find it a source of consolation and encouragement. I'm sure, too, they will be awaiting the messages that he will deliver.

There are so many challenges that the Holy Father is going to have to address. Obviously, one of the things that is of most concern to many of our immigrants from Mexico is the violence in Mexico that has unfortunately driven so many of them to seek safety, security, a better life in the United States. I'm sure they will be very hopeful, and praying that the Holy Father's visit will be that of an ambassador of peace to help bring some stability and quelling of the violence to that beautiful Catholic country.

ZENIT: What is the role of Catholic Charities in Oklahoma City?

Archbishop Coakley: We have a very strong Catholic Charities agencies in our province, but also in Tulsa and in Little Rock. We try to develop our approach in Catholic Charities based upon the principles that the Holy Father laid out in his first Encyclical and subsequent encyclicals, particularly in Deus Caritas Est, seeing the work of Catholic Charities as a work of evangelization, and bringing the love of Christ to bear upon all whom we serve and remembering that it is not because those who may come to us are Catholic that we serve them but because we are Catholic, and that we have a duty to serve, to allow the love of Christ to be expressed in our care, concern, for the needy, for the marginalized, for the poor, for the least of our brothers and sisters.

ZENIT: Religious liberty has become a very significant concern throughout the United States. What are the concerns of the American Bishops, and what actions are being considered for the future?

Archbishop Coakley: I can speak for myself certainly, and I think to a great extent to the mind of many of the bishops that we're very concerned about the prospects that this HHS Mandate proposes. It is truly a grave threat and intrusion on the rights of conscience and religious liberty in the United States. We are committed to resisting it, to taking every possible approach to see that it is rescinded to limit the harm that can possibly be done through it. Obviously, through the bishops’ conference, we have been continuing to seek avenues of recourse through the administration at the highest levels, but also in the legislature, and ultimately I think in the courts. There are possible ways of approaching this situation. We will not leave any of them untested and untried.

One of the things that we have been trying to do is inform our Catholic people, and build consensus and coalitions among all peoples of faith, and all people of good will. This is not a Catholic issue, and this is not merely about contraception. Contraception is widely available already -- not saying that is a good thing, of course. This is really about the government's imposing an obligation that is in violation of the religious freedom of Catholics at this point, and if the government is willing to trample the conscience rights and religious liberty rights of Catholics in this instance, that's a very dangerous precedent for other Churches, other believers, other peoples of conscience. Whereas we are very concerned that the Church continues to teach about the dignity of life and the transmission of life, and the illicitness of artificial birth control, that's really not the focus of our concern at this particular moment -- that's an ongoing concern, an ongoing pastoral challenge that we face. But this is a particular kind of threat that we have to deal with.

ZENIT: What should the faithful be considering as they approach the upcoming presidential elections?

Archbishop Coakley: I hope that Catholics will really take time to study the issues, and perhaps even prior to studying the issues to really form their consciences well. I'm afraid very often Catholics have simply voted a party line. Neither of our major political parties adequately express our Catholic social teaching, and our Catholic concerns.

There are some very important issues that we are facing in the upcoming election: the religious liberty issues are very important; the defense of marriage and promotion of marriage; the protection of human life from conception to its natural end, particularly the most vulnerable, the unborn. We have a rich history of social teaching and moral teaching that touches on all of these areas. We have something to offer to our society. Those are among the very important issues. Obviously issues of poverty in our country, the economy, migration, immigration: these are all very important issues.

It's going to be a telling campaign season and election cycle, and there's a lot at stake.