THE APPOINTMENT Feb. 18 of Bishop Charles Chaput of Rapid City, S.D., as archbishop of Denver continues a papal trend of appointing theologically conservative, socially conscious prelates to American Sees. But the 52-year-old Kansan—the nation's youngest archbishop—is no cookie-cutter prelate.
Archbishop Chaput, a Capuchin priest, is one of only two Native American bishops in the country. Though Rapid City is a rural diocese with only 35,000 Catholics, he has managed to develop a national reputation largely because of his outspokenness in the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. The new Denver archbishop has fought hard against inclusive language and what are viewed as “progressive” liturgical trends.
“One of the things I feel is important to say about myself is I love the Second Vatican Council; I was formed by it,” he told the Register in a telephone interview three days after the announcement.
“People sometimes perceive me as conservative because I' not always going the same way we've been going for the last 10 or 15 years,” he said. “But in some ways, I think that's quite liberal because it's going in another direction. It's trying to be creative.
“If you see that going in one direction doesn't work, why not try some others. I don't think I' so tied to the immediate past…I' willing to try new kinds of strategies to accomplish that same goal. So I don't think I' conservative. I just don't know that we should put all of our eggs in the same basket if something's not working.”
Archbishop Chaput said, for example, that the national decline in vocations should be a more pressing concern to the Church, and not something to be written off as “the will of God.” It's an area he has addressed successfully in Rapid City, where there are only 26 active diocesan priests but 16 seminarians are preparing for ordination.
“I think lay involvement is certainly the will of God and that one of the great fruits of the Second Vatican Council is that lay people know that it's baptism that gives them a call to holiness and a call to service in the Church and in the world,” he said. “That's a great gift, but along with that, I' sure God wills many vocations to religious life and to the ordained ministry, and we've seen a diminishment of that.”
Archbishop Chaput will succeed Archbishop J. Francis Stafford, who last year was appointed president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity in Rome. Archbishop Chaput's installation is set for April 7 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Denver.
According to Bishop James McHugh of Camden, N.J., the new archbishop cannot be neatly categorized and is sensitive to all tendencies in the Church. “He has this enormous friendliness about him and a tremendously engaging smile that gets people to be kind and friendly and diminishes apprehension and concern.”
Bishop McHugh, who continually stressed Archbishop Chaput's warm manner, said that his friend is up to the challenge of the appointment, noting that the new archbishop was a pastor in Denver and also served there as provincial of his Capuchin province. “He has a history in Denver, he understands the area. Denver is going to be a piece of cake for him,” he said.
Bishop McHugh doesn't see the appointment as part of any larger Vatican trend, but as a natural choice based on Archbishop Chaput's experience in the West and in the Archdiocese of Denver. “He was sort of made for it,” Bishop McHugh said. “I don't think there's any agenda to it.”
Archbishop Chaput has been critical of some of the work of the bishops'conference, especially in the area of liturgy and the translation of liturgical texts. His proposed amendments have often been overruled, but his new stature as archbishp are bound to give his opinions more clout…
Bishop McHugh praised the new archbishop's outspokenness and commitment. “He does his homework, speaks to many issues and speaks intelligently,” Bishop McHugh said. “Like anybody, he doesn't win them all, but he's well-liked by the bishops. The bishops strongly respect him and have a fondness for him.”
Archbishop Chaput was born in 1944 in Concordia, Kan., a town of 7,000 people. Though he is a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi tribe, he did not grow up on a reservation or within the Native American culture. Yet, he still looks to his roots. “There's a great convergence between my Franciscan vocation and Native American spirituality,” Archbishop Chaput said, explaining that both traditions have a great reverence and natural humility before God and creation, a willingness to sacrifice for the community and respect for elders and others.
Native Americans make up 40 percent of the Catholic population of Rapid City. Having a bishop who shares their culture has been a source of pride for many of them, but Archbishop Chaput's popularity has transcended ethnic lines.
“I think there's a greater unity here between the native people and the non-native people than when I arrived, and I think that's as much a function of the fact that I' Indian as anything else, and that's not something everybody can bring to the diocese,” Archbishop Chaput said. “I think native people feel comfortable with me and they feel like they belong to the Church because their bishop is one of them. And I think non-native people have seen that I' not a threat to them, as well. Native people can have leadership in the Church and it can be a good thing for everyone. I just hope that energy continues to grow.”
While the Native American population in Denver is considerably smaller than in Rapid City, other minority groups, particularly Mexican Americans, make up a large percentage of the Catholic population there. A blessing of his Indian roots, Archbishop Chaput said, is that he has never experienced “the temptation of racism.”
“I really can't quite understand why people would be afraid of others because of their race or their culture,” he said. “I've been very proud of who I am and I feel it's also enabled me to be rather free with people of other minority groups. I feel really comfortable with blacks, Hispanics and others who might feel that society does not have room for them.”
As bishop of such a small diocese— and a Franciscan to boot—Archbishop Chaput is known for informality and accessibility which may be hard to duplicate in Denver. He's frequently referred to simply as Bishop Charles.
“One of the great advantages of a diocese this size is it's possible to know a great number of people,” said Father Michael Woster, moderator of the curia for the Rapid City Diocese. “He has a reputation for turning mail around in 24 hours. He knows people by name.”
When he became a Capuchin friar, Archbishop Chaput said, he never dreamed of being a bishop, let alone archbishop of Denver. “St. Francis didn't want his brothers to be bishops, so I hope I haven't made him turn over in his grave,” he said. “He thought it could lead us away from being the Brothers that our vocation calls us to be. So I hope in exercising my ministry as a bishop, I will do it as a Franciscan Brother with a great respect for other people, a great humility and a fraternal spirit.
“At the same time, I have the authority of bishop, and I wouldn't hesitate to exercise it because that's what my vocation calls me to do. But I would tend to do that in the spirit of the founder of my community.”
Dennis Poust is based in Austin, Texas.