PHILADELPHIA — Pope Francis has tapped Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput to join his council for the laity, the Vatican office responsible not only for the Church’s World Youth Day celebration, but also for promoting lay movements.
Church observers familiar with the archbishop’s legacy say Pope Francis is calling upon a bishop with a second-to-none reputation when it comes to putting the laity on the front lines of the Church.
Now, Archbishop Chaput will have the opportunity to bring his expertise to a global level.
Pope Francis named the archbishop to the Pontifical Council for the Laity on Feb. 6, making him part of a team that will advise Pope Francis on how the lay faithful can more effectively contribute to the life and mission of the Church.
Archbishop Chaput explained to the Register that getting laymen and women — who are the "overwhelming majority of Catholics" — actively engaged as leaders in the Church’s evangelistic effort is a priority he shares with Pope Francis.
"One of the passions of Pope Francis is evangelization," he said. "In today’s world, that requires a committed, faithful laity. So I think I share his concern in encouraging laymen and women to see themselves in a new way: not as passive consumers of the Gospel, but as active agents and disciples."
Pope Francis laid out his evangelism agenda for the Church in his recent apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), which draws heavily from the writings of Benedict XVI, Blessed John Paul II and the Second Vatican Council, to make the case for all the baptized faithful to take on the work of being "missionary disciples" in the modern world.
Archbishop Chaput said the Church is "a family of vocations that depend on each other’s service," but added that the Church "can’t afford to overlook the skills of laypeople and their experience of the world in pursuing the Church’s mission."
"We need a new spirit of energy and mutual support in the Church," he added. "I hope the council, in a small way, can help promote that."
Rocco Palmo, a Philadelphia-based Vatican watcher who blogs at Whispers in the Loggia, said Archbishop Chaput is a "visionary" with a "deep commitment" to energizing and empowering the laity.
He pointed out how the archbishop served on the organizing group that transformed World Youth Day into the Church’s "Olympic event" at its 1993 edition in Denver — before which, Palmo said, "many people at the Vatican" thought that bringing the gathering to the U.S. was "a major boondoggle."
Serving at the time as head of South Dakota’s Rapid City Diocese, then-Bishop Chaput was named archbishop of Denver four years later, after Blessed John Paul II brought then-Archbishop J. Francis Stafford to Rome as president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity.
Before his appointment as bishop in 1988, Archbishop Chaput worked as a seminary professor, college chaplain and parish priest — an experience that, associates say, continues to influence his pastoral style and personal outreach.
While Pope Francis is still in the midst of his reform of the Vatican Curia, Palmo said it is key to understand that the Holy Father has been methodically reshaping the Curia "from a very technocratic place," evaluating who is best for each position and who should be there.
"He wants people with the best experiences of the challenges and situations facing the Church in each topic area to have a voice in the relevant offices and memberships," Palmo said.
He said the Pontifical Council for the Laity could end up becoming more than just a Vatican "think tank" and have some real authority (beyond its current role in approving and supervising the Church’s lay apostolates), if it turns into a proposed Congregation for the Laity, much like the existing congregations for bishops, clergy and religious.
Palmo added that Pope Francis’ decision to bring Archbishop Chaput on board the "global A-list" of persons on the laity council also refutes the "fictional" narrative of an ideological rift between the Pope and more so-called "conservative" Catholic prelates, which was trumpeted by some in the wake of Cardinal Raymond Burke being passed over for reconfirmation to several congregations.
"Obviously, naming Archbishop Chaput to a dicastery flies in the face of that narrative," Palmo said.
Among the 34 members, Archbishop Chaput is expected to have limited influence on the laity council and its deliberations. But Father Roger Landry, a chaplain for Catholic Voices USA, who has followed Archbishop Chaput’s career closely, said the archbishop is a man after Pope Francis’ heart and should be a driving, persuasive force on the laity council.
"Both men are very much straight shooters and problem solvers: They prefer to act, rather than just cogitate, on what needs to be done," Father Landry said. "So I think that would be one of the reasons why Archbishop Chaput would be able to help: by bringing a practicality to the deliberations of the members of the council of the laity."
Father Landry added that Archbishop Chaput has the "the smell of the sheep" Pope Francis wants in the Church’s clergy, bishops and religious, because of his active engagement with the laity.
"Archbishop Chaput is second to none, not only in the United States, but also across the globe, in terms of forming laypeople with the mission that the Second Vatican Council calls the laypeople to fulfill: to be salt of the earth and light of the world and the leaven for all society," said Father Landry.
"Most of [Archbishop Chaput’s] collaborators have been laypeople," he said, pointing out that most bishops tend to have the majority of their working relationships with priests. "But both in Denver as well as [Philadelphia], his right-hand man is the father of a family."
Archbishop Chaput’s history of close collaboration with laypeople dates back to his very first assignment as bishop of Rapid City, S.D.
The legacy of success in promoting lay leadership is most clearly seen during his time as archbishop of Denver, where he helped found the laity-forming Augustine Institute and encouraged both the ENDOW Catholic Women’s Studies program and the Fellowship of Catholic University Students missionaries.
Tim Gray, president of the Augustine Institute, told the Register that his firsthand experience working with Archbishop Chaput proved that the cleric was "an entrepreneurial apostle" who was "always recruiting and inviting people" and was unafraid to take risks in handing power and influence over to "entrepreneurial and creative" lay leaders he judged to be of good character.
Gray’s relationship with Archbishop Chaput reaches all the way back to Rapid City, when the then-bishop recruited Gray to be director of religious education for Catholic schools. Years later, Archbishop Chaput asked Gray to come to Denver and lead his biblical school.
While many people with Archbishop Chaput’s talents "try to do this as a soloist," Gray said the archbishop acts more like a conductor, who sees his role as primarily raising up the orchestra. In Denver, Gray said, the archbishop created "a great environment" for laypeople to come and try new initiatives, knowing each apostolate would rise or fall on its own merits.
"It didn’t have to be directly under the archdiocese," Gray said. "He would influence them and encourage them, but he wasn’t afraid of letting these other things arise. That is why there are a lot of apostolates [in Denver]."
But when Archbishop Chaput comes to Rome, his new task will be not only promoting the laity, but also helping the Holy Father tear down the spirit of clericalism in the Church, which has been identified by Pope Francis as a major wall to evangelization.
Palmo said the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is "exhibit A" for the damage of what "fatal dependence on clericalism" can do. The once-great Catholic diocese, he said, was in a "total free fall" on Archbishop Chaput’s 2011 arrival. Since the archbishop’s first weeks in Philadelphia, he has had to make a steady stream of tough decisions on closing scores of schools and churches, selling properties, freezing pensions and laying off staff, all while grappling with a 2011 grand-jury report that fingered Philadelphia’s past prelates and clerical leadership as being morally responsible for facilitating the sex-abuse crisis.
"It was the fault of a diocesean culture which had become addicted to a clericalism which completely warped and rotted out the life of the local Church, because laypeople were taught to think that Father is the only one who has to do, or who was able to do, anything," he said.
But with Archbishop Chaput at the helm now, things are improving.
In one example of constructive change there, Archbishop Chaput’s cooperation with the laity in Philadelphia has succeeded in saving 16 inner-city Catholic elementary schools slated for closure by partnering with a group of Catholic investors who are operating them under a new professional management business model.
Gray said that he is excited that Pope Francis wants the archbishop’s "wealth of experience" to become part of the global game plan for the Church. "I think the fact that Pope Francis and the Holy Spirit appointed him validates his entrustment and the risks he took in empowering the laity," Gray said. "It was such a successful experiment in Rapid City and Denver — and that’s a powerful witness to the rest of the country and the world."