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The Register speaks with Archbishop Charles Chaput as he prepares to become archbishop of Philadelphia.
BY Joan Frawley DesmondRegister Senior Editor
Archbishop Charles Chaput was installed as the ninth archbishop of Philadelphia Sept. 8. Succeeding Cardinal Justin Rigali, he leaves behind a rich legacy as the fourth archbishop of Denver, a post he held since 1997.
Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond interviewed Archbishop Chaput as he was about to take up his new post.
In recent decades, episcopal authority has been challenged by many Catholics within the Church and in the public square. One bishop told me, "We're just one more voice in the debate." If you agree with this observation, what are the reasons for this development, and how have you tried to restore or strengthen respect for that authority?
Actually, I think faithful Catholics listen to their bishops pretty carefully. But the key word there is "faithful." Baptism brings us into the Christian community, but our fidelity is determined by how we live our lives after baptism.
If we don't give ourselves to the Lord at Mass every Sunday, if we don't seek out the sacrament of penance, if we don't follow the teachings of the Church, if we rarely read the Bible or pray or support our parish and the wider Church with our time, talent and financial resources — then we should stop imagining ourselves as "faithful," because we're not.
We need to prove what we claim to believe by our actions. It's a simple matter of integrity.
Obviously, bishops can make it harder or easier for their people to be faithful by the way they lead. The priesthood, and especially the ministry of bishop, is a call to service, not privilege.
The really great bishops I've known have all had the same qualities: simplicity, humility, zeal, courage and a prudent understanding of the particular needs of their people. They've had one other quality as well: They've really loved their people, not as an abstraction or a matter of theology, but as a father loves his family. That means the bishop must give himself to his people where they live — in the parishes. I certainly want to do that in Philadelphia.
A married friend once told me that when children know their father loves them, they'll forgive him almost anything; when they sense that he doesn't love them or isn't paying attention or doesn't really care, they will forgive him nothing. I've never forgotten that. Obviously, mature Catholic adults are not at all "children," but life in the Church is still very similar to life in a family. Bishops need to know and love their people by being present to them. When a bishop does that, then his voice begins to matter.
Some of your supporters and detractors call you a "conservative." What's your response to that label?
People use those labels as shortcuts to help them avoid thinking. Thinking hurts, but more people should try it.
Denver and Philadelphia are two very different cities — one possesses a more deeply rooted cultural faith; the other less so. The sizes and history of the respective archdioceses are very different. What lessons did you learn in Denver that you hope to bring with you — successes and mistakes?
Colorado has never been a Catholic environment, and the local culture is increasingly, and sometimes aggressively, secular. So, the "New Evangelization" is not just an attractive slogan in Denver. It's practical and urgent. The lesson of Denver is that living our faith in the coming decades will require a much more serious commitment from Catholics than in the past. And by "serious" I don't mean heavy or morose. I mean that we need to live with our hearts sealed to Jesus Christ.
Augustine has a famous line in his Confessions: "My weight is my love; by it am I borne wherever I am borne. By your gift [of love], we are inflamed and are borne upwards; we wax hot inwardly, and go forward."
The love of God should break us open; it should push us outward and forward from ourselves; it should make us missionaries. We need to beg God for the courage, the enthusiasm and the joy to make the Gospel compelling to others through our witness.
You are heading to a new appointment at the age of 66, older and wiser, but maybe less energetic. How will you leverage your experience to play to your strengths at this point in your life?
I sometimes wonder if Catholics across the United States realize how "unchurched" this country has become — even in their own back yards. But my first priority, my overriding focus, is serving the people and priests of the Church in Philadelphia.
I never worry about age. When God gives a task, he also gives the resources and good people to accomplish it.
Tell us about the increase in priestly vocations and the opening of a seminary during your time in Denver. Describe your approach for encouraging vocations. Do you plan to be as involved in the promotion of vocations in Philadelphia?
Denver has two seminaries — St. John Vianney Theological Seminary and Redemptoris Mater Missionary Seminary — and both are excellent. There's no secret to their success.
All men, somewhere in their hearts, have a hunger to give themselves to something greater than themselves. For most men, this gets expressed in a family and work. But God calls plenty of men to the priesthood. They just need to be asked — and they need to be asked by other men who witness the joy, the energy and the fruitfulness of the priesthood with the example of their own lives. That witness needs to begin with the bishop himself.
Philadelphia's St. Charles Borromeo Seminary is one of this country's truly great seminaries. God knows that even better than I do. Hundreds of great priests have been formed by St. Charles Borromeo; the priesthood is the cornerstone of the Church, and I look forward to working hard — and enthusiastically — to help the seminary flourish.
What hope can you give to Philadelphia Catholics reeling from the sex-abuse scandal? How would you distill your guiding principles for addressing this issue?
I have a great admiration for Cardinal Rigali. He's had the burden of leading the local Church in a very difficult period. I can't specifically address the issues in Philadelphia because I'm not there yet. Every situation is unique and will likely require steps that apply to the specific issues in the local community, so I'm going in with an open mind and heart to listen and learn.
Even after I arrive, understanding the circumstances will take time. There's no magic "quick fix" to serious problems, and it would be very unwise for anyone to expect that. But my attention will obviously be on the abuse issue, and I intend to make sure I care for the entire community.
Several principles have guided us in Colorado that are obvious, and they'll remain important in Philadelphia:
— respect and sincerely seek to assist victims,
— comply with the law and cooperate with law enforcement authorities,
— enforce the kind of policies and procedures that will protect children and families,
— reaffirm that the vast majority of priests are good and hurting men, and they need our respect and support,
— and protect the wider Catholic community from paying for sins and crimes they did not commit and for which they are not responsible.
Has your Native-American ancestry given you any distinctive perspective? Or, more generally, what do you think about the need for further integration of various ethnic and racial groups into the mainstream of the Church? What should happen that isn't happening? What's the Philadelphia context?
I think a healthy respect for our ethnic roots is important. I'm proud of my Native-American heritage. And I do smile at the irony of an Indian ending up as archbishop of America's birthplace. But what binds us together as a Church is faith in Jesus Christ, not ethnicity.
Where we come from is much less important than what we believe. Otherwise, faith becomes a prop for culture, instead of culture being an expression of faith.
Joan Frawley Desmond is based in Chevy Chase, Maryland.