Pope Francis' Philadelphia Point Man

Archbishop Charles Chaput says Christian discipleship is a call to change the world.


Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia will be at Pope Francis’ side during his two-day visit to the World Meeting of Families. Afterward, Archbishop Chaput will serve as a delegate at the Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family in Rome, where Church leaders will consider pastoral solutions to foster stronger marriages and Catholic family life.

In an email exchange with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond, the archbishop addressed the U.S. culture’s tangled view of sexual relations and marital love. Further, he shared ideas for drawing young people back to the Church and also into the priesthood.

“Christian discipleship is a romance. It’s an adventure,” he said. “It’s a call to change the world — or it’s not worth wasting time on.”

The greatest value of the World Meeting of Families, Sept. 22-25 and culminating with the papal visit, Sept. 26-27, predicted Archbishop Chaput, will be the “experience of fellowship and mutual support,” uniting and inspiring Catholic families from around the nation and the world.


Our culture celebrates “love” in romantic relationships, but fidelity and permanence are seen as optional, even unrealistic. Will the World Meeting of Families Congress provide an antidote to a confused notion of love?

The biggest antidote the congress can offer is the chance for families to see and meet other families from around the world who are determined to live the Christian vision of marriage. The speakers will be important. So will the discussion sessions. But the real value of a meeting like this is the experience of fellowship and mutual support.

What are the biggest challenges that married couples face today, and how will the congress help to overcome such hurdles?

Listing all the challenges would take the rest of the month. One of the key problems is the sense of isolation our culture encourages, a despair that living the virtuous life is even possible. Again, this is why the experience of Christian fellowship among families is so vital.


In an Aug. 26 column, you affirmed St. Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:21-32: “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything.” But with “gender equality” now held up as an undisputed social value, how can pastors reclaim this teaching?

They can start by having the courage to speak the truth. That passage in Ephesians is part of the word of God. It’s absolutely central to the Christian understanding of marriage. There’s no way around it. And it’s not a mandate for male domination, but a demand that a man should subordinate himself to the needs of his wife and children. Christian marriage runs on mutual respect, shared leadership and mutual dependence. The roles of husband and wife differ, but they have equal dignity.

Men and women are different. They need each other. It seems so obvious. Yet one of the deepest dysfunctions we face as a culture is the confusion we’ve brought on ourselves with abstractions like gender ideology. We’re a society with a profoundly split personality: On the one hand, sex is everything, and everybody should have as much of it as possible, in whatever way they want. On the other hand — and at the same time — sex is just biology; it doesn’t mean anything more than a physical release, and it shouldn’t be allowed to get in the way of however we want to reinvent ourselves. We’re tangled up in our own delusions.


Younger Catholics are more likely to reject this biblical view of marriage, and many no longer marry in the Church. What solutions to this problem hold the most promise?

There’s no quick fix to problems we behaved ourselves into. We can develop better marriage programs, and we can try to be more vigilant in protecting our young from an unhealthy culture. But, in the end, the only real solution to America’s marriage and family crisis is a sustained, sacrificial witness of married love that young people can see in the adults around them. That takes time, and it takes work. And it takes Christian families coming together to create communities of mutual support.


Some have linked the marriage crisis in the Church to the vocations crisis. However, you just announced a sharp increase in seminary enrollment, and Pope Francis will stay at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia. Can you give us an update?

I don’t think it’s smart to overstate good news. We do have an upturn in seminarians in Philadelphia, and that’s a big blessing. But it’s been brewing for a long time. Young people want something to live for that’s larger than themselves. Many of our seminarians came to us because they weren’t being fed or inspired by the emptiness of the culture around them. Now we need to give them a mission they can give their hearts to. That means something more than vanilla pieties and therapeutic religion.

Christian discipleship is a romance. It’s an adventure. It’s a call to change the world — or it’s not worth wasting time on. A passion for the Gospel, a zeal for Jesus Christ: These are what we need to burn into the hearts of our seminarians. And the only way to do that is to live with the same passion ourselves.


Pope Francis’ first trip to the United States will give him and the public a fresh look at the local Church. During an appearance at the Religion Newswriters Association, you said, “I hope when Pope Francis flies home he’ll understand that American bishops share every ounce of passion for the poor.” Has the Pope misunderstood the priorities of the U.S. bishops?

Pope Francis was formed by the concerns of the global south. I doubt that he thought much about the United States before his election. I do think some people in the American news media — both secular and self-described Catholic — have an interest in creating the impression of a breach between U.S. bishops and the Holy Father. And it’s easy to see why.

The Church in the United States has an unwelcome message about issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, contraception and other matters related to the sanctity of life. It’s useful for critics to claim that America’s bishops neglect the homeless and the poor in favor of other issues. But the way American dioceses spend their time, personnel and resources — the actual issues they focus on — proves exactly the opposite.


Some have questioned whether the congress should have been held in a city more used to managing large crowds, like New York or Washington. Why is Philadelphia the right place, and what valuable insights about America will the Pope pick up during his stay?

Philadelphia is one of the largest metropolitan centers in the United States. It’s also the birthplace of our nation. It’s also crucial to understanding the American-Catholic experience, especially our immigrant roots. It’s a city with a history and a personality that embody the American identity. So there’s no better place for the Holy Father to encounter the American experiment.


Does the presence of the Church’s first Latin-American pope give the congress added significance, as Hispanics represent an increasing percentage of U.S. Catholics but may not be part of mainstream parish life?

In terms of ethnicity, Philadelphia is predominantly African-American. But we also have a growing Hispanic population. We need to do a better job as a Church in ministering to them. I think the Pope’s visit will help us focus on the Hispanic community in a more effective way.


Those who seek to change Catholic teaching on marriage have vowed to raise their concerns during the Pope’s visit. How do you hope to keep the media’s attention on the substance of the Church’s message to modern families?

We don’t control the news media covering the World Meeting of Families, nor would we want to. A lot of different voices will be heard. That goes with the nature of these events. I have a lot of confidence in the goodness and energy that will come from this congress. And I’m grateful for the presence of the global Catholic news media. They’re vital for a gathering like this, because they understand the Church and her mission in an intimate way. They don’t have ulterior political motives.

The best we can do — and we certainly do promise this — is to offer a World Meeting of Families that has extraordinary substance and wonderful Christian fellowship. That much we can guarantee. God will handle the rest.


The meeting will finish just days before the Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family begins in Rome. What message will the congress send to the synod?

I hope the congress shows the world that Christian marriages and families are alive and well and strong. And that’s the message of hope I want synod fathers to carry with them to Rome to begin their work.


L'Osservatore Romano photo