Peter Jesserer Smith is a staff reporter for the National Catholic Register. He covered Pope Francis’s historic visit to the United States in 2015, and to Jerusalem and the Holy Land in 2014. He has reported on the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis, including from Jordan and Lebanon on an Egan Fellowship from Catholic Relief Services. Before coming on board the Register in 2013, he was a freelance writer, reporting for Catholic media outlets as the Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He is a graduate of the National Journalism Center and earned a B.A. in Philosophy at Christendom College, where he co-founded the student newspaper, The Rambler, and served as its editor. He comes originally from the Finger Lakes region of New York State.
Pope Francis set out his agenda for a Church of “missionary disciples” in Evangelii Gaudium; now he’s assembling his team at the Vatican who will help him get the laity fully in the game of sharing the joy of the Gospel. His latest recruit is none other than Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who has proven himself second-to-none in activating lay people to embrace the Church’s missionary mandate with enthusiasm and vigor.
Archbishop Chaput now joins the Pontifical Council for the Laity, which could end up as a Congregation for the Laity when the Curia reform is all said and done. But the Pope’s laity council has the job of helping Pope Francis promote lay action in the Church. Pope Francis has made clear that he wants to break what he calls a spirit of clericalism in the Church, where bishops and priests do too much, and lay people do too little (and pray it stays that way).
The archbishop has a great deal of expertise in how the Church should unleash the laity’s creative missionary potential: he has always forged close relationships with the laity, and unleashed a boom of lay evangelism when he was archbishop of Denver, fostering the Augustine Institute, FOCUS, ENDOW, the Catholic Association of Latino Leaders, and others. His new duties mean more responsbility for a prelate that already has the monumental task of bringing back to health the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
I had the privilege of getting a short-interview with Archbishop Chaput this week about this appointment. Here, in his own words, he also shares with the Register his thoughts on the laity, clericalism, and evangelization:
Pope Francis clearly wants your input: what do you hope to contribute or bring to the discussion at the Pope's laity council? What would you say are you and Pope Francis's shared concerns?
I’ve seen the fruitfulness of lay ecclesial movements throughout my ministry as a bishop. I also served for many years in Rapid City and Denver. These are big dioceses with few priests, and working closely with laypeople is essential. Even in Philadelphia, where we have a large and wonderful presbyterate, the Church needs more lay leadership. One of the passions of Pope Francis is evangelization. In today’s world that requires a committed, faithful laity. So I think I share his concern in encouraging lay men and women to see themselves in a new way – not as passive consumers of the Gospel, but as active agents and disciples.
Why is this pontifical council so important? I know things may change with the Curia reform, but substance-wise, why is this council's work a priority for the Pope? Why is the laity such a priority for the Church and evangelization?
It’s important to remember that we need many more good priests, deacons and religious as well as laypeople. The Church is a family of vocations that depend on each other’s service. But whatever happens in the process of curial reform, the overwhelming majority of Catholics are laypeople. That alone makes the council’s work valuable. We can’t afford to overlook the skills of laypeople and their experience of the world in pursuing the Church’s mission.
Have clericalist attitudes among the laity been a drag on the New Evangelization? If so, what needs to change, and where do you see the laity council playing a role?
We all look for excuses in avoiding the hard work of repentance, conversion and discipleship. Complaining is easier than cooperating. I’ve seen many priests over the years who’ve misunderstood and inflated their role of leadership in the Church. But I’ve also seen that many laypeople – too many – allow that to happen, or even secretly welcome it, because it licenses them to ignore their own responsibility as evangelizers. We need a new spirit of energy and mutual support in the Church. I hope the council in a small way can help promote that.
Note: Check out my full story, "Archbishop Chaput's Laity Expertise Is Set to Go Global," and find out why some say Archbishop Chaput’s addition to the Pope’s laity council could be a much needed game-changer for the universal Church’s missionary effort.