DENVER — Philadelphia welcomes a new Church leader this week, and if Archbishop Charles Chaput remains true to form, his distinctive managerial style and commitment to the New Evangelization will have a strong impact on the City of Brotherly Love.
During his 14 years in Denver, Archbishop Chaput oversaw a slew of striking initiatives, including a thriving new seminary, a pastoral center for Hispanics and the establishment of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (Focus).
Close collaborators say he encourages autonomy and even a measure of “risk-taking,” while maintaining a steady, probing engagement with senior staff.
“The Archdiocese of Denver has a reputation for being an incubator — a place where things happen. Archbishop Chaput exercises a lot of discretion, but if someone has a great idea, he wants to hear it. If it will further the Gospel and the ‘New Evangelization,’ he will run with it,” said Bishop James Conley, the auxiliary bishop in Denver who will take over as appointed apostolic administrator Thursday, when Archbishop Chaput is installed in Philadelphia.
During Bishop Conley’s three years in Denver, he has witnessed the archbishop’s propensity to match enthusiasm with vigilant oversight.
“He’s not a micromanager, but if there’s a glitch, you have to explain why you made the decision. And if it doesn’t make sense to him, he will block you,” he said.
That management style is unusual among Church leaders, Bishop Conley suggested. But it helps explain why “so many apostolates got their start in Denver, like Focus and Endow [Educating on the Nature and Dignity of Women].”
Curtis Martin, president and founder of Focus, met Archbishop Chaput in 1993, just before World Youth Day in Denver. In 1998, after Archbishop Chaput moved to Denver, he invited Martin to set up shop in the archdiocese.
Back then, Focus was just getting started and had a few part-time workers. Now, it manages 325 full-time staff on 60 campuses, and Martin credits the archbishop for fostering that growth.
“He provided exceptional leadership and support,” Martin recalled. “But he also encouraged independence. He told me, ‘Don’t lean on me. I won’t be here forever, and the next bishop may not be as enthusiastic.’”
During his travels across the country, Martin has encountered various “pockets of renewal. But Denver has been the most tied to the New Evangelization. I attribute this to the Holy Spirit, but the archbishop has been the instrument.”
Archbishop Chaput arrived in Denver in 1997 and quickly signaled his intention to energize the local Catholic community.
In 1999, he opened St. John Vianney Theological Seminary, an affiliate of the Pontifical Lateran University, and since then has ordained 71 priests, almost half of the active clergy in the archdiocese.
Msgr. Michael Glenn, the rector of St. John Vianney, recalled that after Archbishop Chaput arrived in Denver, and learned of his predecessor’s plans for opening a new seminary, he immediately looked for a plan to jumpstart the process.
“We came to him with a proposal to open the seminary in a year and half, and he said, “Six months.” After further discussion, we opened six months later with an initial five and half month spirituality program,” said Msgr. Glenn.
“The archbishop really does believe that ideas are raised up by God from all parts of the Church, and values creativity,” said Msgr. Glenn, who noted that Archbishop Chaput approved a proposal from seminarians, who wanted to start an association of common life for priests in Denver.
Staff report that in any encounter with young people,the archbishop rarely failed to invite them to consider a priestly or religious vocation. And on Wednesdays — technically his “day off” — he routinely provided spiritual direction for local Catholics, another opportunity to nurture vocations.
In close collaboration with his then-auxiliary Bishop José Gomez — now archbishop of Los Angeles — Archbishop Chaput also reached out to the growing number of Hispanics in the archdiocese, helping to overcome lingering tensions between Anglo and Hispanic Catholics.
In 2002, he opened the Centro San Juan Diego, a pastoral and educational outreach program, and later co-founded the national Catholic Association of Latino Leaders, designed to foster religious formation and social engagement.
Today, about 52% of Denver Catholics are Hispanic. In late August, the archbishop held a farewell Mass for Spanish-speaking Catholics at the Denver stadium that hosts the National Western Stock Show, and thousands waited in line to wish him well.
“He has done more for the needs of the Latino community in northern Colorado than any other bishop we have had. Under his tutelage, the Centro San Juan Diego helps new immigrants and other Spanish speakers with social services, language and business assistance,” said Polly Baca, the first Hispanic woman to be elected senator to the Colorado state Legislature and a longtime activist on Hispanic issues.
Over the years, the archbishop launched a number of initiatives that received the benefit of his leadership but remained apart from the chain of command and were encourage to manage their own fundraising.
In 2003, the archbishop helped a group of faithful Catholic women led by Terry Polakovic to found Endow, a dynamic apostolate that uses the encyclicals of Pope John Paul II as a framework for a series of study guides for Catholic women.
“It took time to convince the archbishop that Endow could work. But once he agreed, he was in with two feet. We will miss him,” said Polakovic, now the organization’s executive director.
Endow serves women who want to raise their children in the faith but are not properly catechized. Now an international apostolate, Endow has worked with about 4,000 women, branching out into programs for middle- and high-school girls. It has remained under the archbishop’s direction, with offices in the chancery. But it has a separate canonical status and is responsible for its own fundraising.
The archbishop guided the creation of the Augustine Institute, an independent, lay-run graduate program that forms lay Catholic leaders, catechists and evangelizers.
But the appointment to Philadelphia prevented him from moving forward on other issues that have drawn his concern.
For example, he had begun to explore ways to assist Catholic Charities in the integration of social services within local parishes, with the goal of deepening the engagement between the faithful and people in need.
“Archbishop Chaput has wanted to invigorate the charity arm of the local Church. At our last senior staff lunch, he expressed regret that he wouldn’t be here to help provide services more directly in and through the parishes. The idea was in its infancy, and he had just begun to put people in place who could make that vision concrete,” said Jeanette DeMelo, director of communications for the archdiocese.
DeMelo will stay behind in Denver and help Bishop Conley navigate a smooth transition. However, Francis X. Maier, a layman who served as the chancellor of the Denver Archdiocese and has been a trusted collaborator, will make the move east, with a new appointment as “special assistant” to Archbishop Chaput.
The youngest member of the archbishop’s senior staff, DeMelo expressed gratitude for his management style. “I was 29 when I started my job. He asked my opinion, and if I was not forthcoming, he would ask again. His approach empowers and helps you understand your role in the Church. He delegates, but he asks questions — and he always knows what is going on.”
Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.