Monday, February 25, 2008

There's Something About Mickey

In mid-January, 2008's first US bishop to mark his 75th birthday was Wilmington's Michael Saltarelli, who's served the 230,000-and-growing fold of Delaware and Maryland's Eastern Shore since 1996.

Despite the milestone, there was no trip to the post office for Saltarelli on the day his "walking papers" were due -- his letter had already been in for close to a year.

Much could be said about "Bishop Mickey," but one story without words seems to say more than any other.

Shortly before being transferred down I-95 from his native Newark, the bishop -- then also rector of the Jersey archdiocese's Cathedral of the Sacred Heart -- received Pope John Paul II at its doors (at which time the late pontiff spontaneously declared the Gothic masterpiece a basilica).

It was only the most historic night in the archdiocese's century-long history (and the crowning event of the Reign of Ted) -- for the first time, a Pope had come to the Garden State, with the then-President and First Lady in the cathedral's front pew for Vespers. Yet for all the fuss and spotlight, clearly visible beneath Saltarelli's choir robes wasn't the standard prelate's collar, but the thick black rim of a humble tab shirt.

The mix-n-match might've sent the more vesturally-minded into vapors, but its unconscious message was even more worthwhile: the "gloria mundi" might've dropped in for the night, but the host of Pope and POTUS was still just a simple parish priest.

In his adopted home, the locals have come to realize the same... and Wilmington's paper of record recently paid a birthday tribute to the prelate it dubbed "the people's priest":
He doesn't know when he'll get a call saying that it's time to step aside as shepherd of the largest faith on the Delmarva Peninsula.

It might be at 7:30 a.m. on a Monday as Bishop Michael Saltarelli arrives at his gray-walled office west of Wilmington's Trolley Square to get a start on the day, opening mail before the phones ring.

It might be one evening two years from now as he tucks into a take-out Boston Market dinner in the aging, no-frills brick bishop's manse on Bancroft Parkway.

After turning 75 on Jan. 17, Saltarelli must retire, according to Roman Catholic Church rules. He will leave office when Pope Benedict XVI names a new bishop to the Diocese of Wilmington. The process has begun.

Whenever the end comes, Saltarelli said, he is ready to step aside after 12 years.

He will miss the direct contact with people and parishioners. He will not miss the paperwork that punctuates his daily life as administrator of a $50 million budget.

"Believe me, no one becomes a priest because they want to balance a budget," Saltarelli said Wednesday in an interview that ranged over talk of his tenure, the coming election and pop-culture messages the faithful face....

"My strength," Saltarelli said, "is that I love being with people."

A trim, smallish man, he wears a black clerical outfit and a silver chain pulled diagonally across his chest. At the end of the chain is a cross tucked into a pocket to keep it from dangling as he talks with his hands.

Mostly bald, he has a strong Roman profile and a throaty Jersey City accent that's not as broad as the cast of "The Sopranos," but still there.

He's quick-witted, thoughtful in replies, and every so often shows a flash of impatience.

The bishop, says a close friend, has a strong personality that's softened by prayer.

Saltarelli often visits the parishes as part of his mission to teach, sanctify and govern, driving himself. He enjoys the trees and fields he didn't see as a child growing up amid the tenements and "hot-tar streets" of Jersey City.

He jokes that people should "talk to my car," a gray Mercury Grand Marquis, if they don't think he gets around.

Even with all the church and clergy bashing he has faced, "I never regret becoming a priest," Saltarelli said.

In his Jersey City childhood, the church was a haven and teen hangout. One of seven children from a working-class family, Saltarelli said his mother and father had a deep faith. They attended weekly Mass, saved to send the kids to Catholic school and kept a crucifix and holy water next to statues of St. Theresa, St. Joseph and the Virgin Mary.

At 19, he knew he wanted to be a parish priest and also knew he didn't have to be perfect -- only willing to do his best.

Assigned to a Nutley, N.J., parish, he stayed for 17 years, honing his gifts as a parish priest.

It's in his pastoral role that he still worries about the messages the faithful are bombarded with by pop culture and the decisions they face in the next election.

Saltarelli was on his way back from Washington, D.C., and the March For Life when he was asked about the death last week of actor Heath Ledger, who was found dead in a New York apartment surrounded by prescription drugs.

It's sad, Saltarelli said, that the world promises so much, but people resort to drugs and pills to deaden what's supposed to feel like success.

Flash and glitter catches people's eyes, but often there's no substance there, he said.

And he still agrees with a statement he made in a 1998 News Journal interview:

"My concern is this: Is the Gospel being practiced? Are we tending to the needs of the poor, the lonely, the outcast, the needy?"

The nation faces another test of that this year when it elects a new president.

Saltarelli, who prefers to pray for a politician who votes for abortion rather than judge the person's conscience, has not yet found a presidential candidate he likes.

"I have a concern for life issues, not because it's the Catholic thing, but because it's the natural thing," he said. "Life is precious."

But he also says religion can't be the only thing you ask a candidate about.

"How he lives his life is more important," Saltarelli said....

Not everyone is thrilled with Saltarelli and his decisions, especially as it relates to the priest abuse scandal or the closing of schools.

At times, his "fan mail" has been angry and harsh.

"I understand -- these are places where people have placed their hearts and souls," Saltarelli said.

But he also drew praise last week for the way the diocese settled a priest abuse lawsuit.

The diocese paid a $450,000 settlement to Navy Cmdr. Kenneth J. Whitwell. He had sued the diocese, Archmere Academy, the Norbertine religious order and its priest, the Rev. Edward Smith, alleging that Whitwell was the victim of almost three years of rape by Smith while he was working at Archmere in Claymont in the 1980s.

The diocese expressed sorrow for the abuse and apologized.

"The experiences are very, very painful for the victims," Saltarelli said. "I condemn what's been done to victims with all my heart."

While some say he has not apologized enough, Thomas S. Neuberger, Whitwell's attorney, said, "I'm optimistic to see the bishop taking a different approach from most of the dioceses across the country, where they proceed with a scorched-earth policy when victims seek redress."

Saltarelli said a hard-line policy does not help victims heal.

"Our whole posture is not to subject someone who has been hurt so badly to a lengthy trial," he said. "We want to exercise all of the compassion and reconciliation that's possible."

He said he hopes people will see that, as a church family, "We're not on different sides, but that we're on the same side."...

When he seeks inspiration, Saltarelli often walks down to the basement of the bishop's residence, where there is a chapel. He rests in a comfy chair surrounded by the stations of the cross. The Scriptures are nearby.

At the chapel's opposite end are a tabernacle and statues of three saints. Saltarelli comes here for prayer and, for him, prayer is real.

"Even in the darkest days, and there have been dark days, what you feel is the people who are praying for you," he said. "They sustain you."

Saltarelli doesn't know exactly what he will do upon retirement, except that he will stay in the diocese.

He'll lend a hand where needed, probably with confirmations.

He has been invited to live in many rectories, but he doesn't want to impose.

He's considering a renovated suite in what was once a convent at St. John the Beloved on Milltown Road, where other priests live.

While he has been praised for the churches and schools that have been built under his watch, he doesn't believe in monuments.

"When you die, the Lord wants to know were you good, were you kind, were you compassionate," he said, "not whether you were a bishop."
It might only be a half-hour's drive from the River City of the Pharaohs -- and still in our media market -- but in the ecclesiastical sense, Wilmington is more like a universe away. A suffragan of the Premier See of Baltimore, the Delaware church has long maintained the warmth and comfort of Southern Catholicism, to say nothing of a distaste for the pomp and triumphalist tendencies oft-prevalent in Northeast.

Case in point: in 1956, the rector of the Philadelphia cathedral was named coadjutor there... only to be dead within months, cathedra still beyond his grasp.

It was the culture shock.

History aside, another Southern trait of the Delaware church is its intense growth in recent years. From the "bedroom suburbs" and renewed waterfront of its see city to the beach communities along routes 17 and 1, the Diamond State's Catholic population has boomed by 75% -- a net gain of 94,000 -- over the last decade.

To better serve the influx, building's gone into overdrive, with five new churches opening their doors in the last six months alone.

If word on the street's to be believed, its investment in better serving its newcomers has stretched the diocese's resources to the point that, whenever it comes, the installation of Wilmington's ninth bishop will be a relatively low-frills affair.

Not the best news for the traveling circuit, sure... but especially these days, a parish priest couldn't get a better tribute.

Ready though he is to hand over the desk at a moment's notice, Saltarelli hasn't slowed down, recently releasing one of the first pastoral letters on the Pauline Year from a US hierarch... and given the day's earlier news, his 2000 Pastoral on reaching out to inactive Catholics is sure worth another look.

PHOTO: Jennifer Corbett/Wilmington News-Journal