A Tale of 2 Archbishops: Capuchins O’Malley and Chaput Mark Golden Jubilees

COMMENTARY: Much of the recent history of the Catholic Church in the United States can be told in the lives of these two men, who were both ordained Aug. 29, 1970.

Cardinal O'Malley and Archbishop Chaput
Cardinal O'Malley and Archbishop Chaput (photo: File photo, CNA; Matthew Rarey/CNA / CNA)

It is not a tale of two cities, but rather two archbishops. And while it has something of the best of times, it also has the worst of times — both a season of Light, and a season of Darkness, to borrow Dickens.

Much of the recent history of the Catholic Church in the United States can be told in the lives of two men ordained on the same day 50 years ago, Aug. 29, 1970.

It was “King Herod’s birthday,” as Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston sometimes characterizes his ordination day, the feast day of the beheading of St. John the Baptist (Matthew 14:1-12). He shares the same ordination day with his fellow Capuchin friar, Archbishop Charles Chaput, recently retired from Philadelphia. Cardinal O’Malley was ordained in Pittsburgh; Archbishop Chaput was ordained in Victoria, Kansas.

On the two men, I am not neutral. I admire both prelates, and both have been very kind to me over the years.

As two of the most prominent bishops of their generation celebrated their golden jubilees on Saturday, their successive missions tell an important story about the life of the Church in our time.

Born 90 days apart in 1944 (Cardinal O’Malley is older), they both entered Capuchin life and priestly formation in the turbulent 1960s. For men of that era to continue through to ordination and persevere afterward was no small thing. Perhaps that perseverance — alongside their superabundant natural gifts — at a time of massive defections and disarray in the priesthood marked them out to become young bishops. Cardinal O’Malley was sent to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands in 1984, while Archbishop Chaput went to Rapid City, South Dakota, in 1988.

They were already pastorally bold. Archbishop Chaput was rising in Capuchin leadership in the then newly-established western American province, and Cardinal O’Malley had become a true shepherd to the Hispanic, Portuguese and Haitian communities in Washington, D.C., as director of El Centro Católico Hispano. But the Church called them to be bishops in small dioceses while they were young.

Given the growing Roman tendency for bishops to be moved around, it was certain that there would be more appointments on the way. Seven dioceses, in fact, between the two of them.

It is not unusual to find bishops who have been the head of three dioceses — my own retired archbishop (Archbishop Brendan O’Brien) was thus thrice-married. Archbishop Chaput led three sees — the Diocese of Rapid City and the Archdioceses of Denver and Philadelphia. Rare, though, is the bishop who has had four, as Cardinal O’Malley has — the Dioceses of St. Thomas, Fall River (Massachusetts) and Palm Beach (Florida) and the Archdiocese of Boston.

Cardinal O’Malley’s briefest assignment, 10 months in Palm Beach, is testimony to the white-hot heat of the sexual-abuse crisis of 2002.

In March 2002, Bishop Anthony O’Connell resigned as bishop of Palm Beach after admitting to sexual misconduct with high-school seminarians. That was bad enough, but even more dreadful was that he had come to Palm Beach to succeed Bishop Keith Symons, who resigned in 1998 after admitting to molesting altar boys in the 1970s. Bishop O’Connell had not thought to advise anyone that he would be a poor choice to replace Bishop Symons.

Palm Beach had two bishops resign in less than five years for sexual abuse. The nuncio was flummoxed, the Church was floundering, and so Cardinal O’Malley was sent from Fall River to Florida — the safest of safe choices, but also absurd. By the time of his transfer in September 2002, it was clear that Cardinal Bernard Law was not long for Boston and that only one man could replace him there. In July 2003, after his winter sabbatical in Palm Beach, Cardinal O’Malley was back in Massachusetts, the shepherd sent to save Boston.

He was the man for Boston because of what he had done next door for 10 years in Fall River. When one of the more grotesque and prominent scandals, that of Father James Porter, was unfolding there, Cardinal O’Malley was brought in. With more than 100 cases against the priest, Cardinal O’Malley won widespread praise for his efforts to heal the diocese and do justice for the victims.

It would be the story of his long episcopacy. When Boston was on fire, Cardinal O’Malley was sent. And after 10 years of righting the listing ship in Boston — proof that no good deed ever goes unpunished — Pope Francis appointed him head of the Vatican’s new Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. Cardinal O’Malley has spent nearly three decades endeavoring to clean the soiled garments of the Church. That he has maintained his faith and his good cheer makes him one of the most remarkable bishops of his time.

While Cardinal O’Malley was in Fall River, Archbishop Chaput was transferred to Denver, where he was able, over 14 years, to get on with more pleasant tasks.

Very-secular Denver had gotten attention as potentially good soil for the New Evangelization after World Youth Day 1993. Archbishop Chaput arrived in 1997 and set about building what might be considered the premier New Evangelization diocese. The number of initiatives and institutions he formed in Denver reach across the country and around the world. Archbishop Chaput became a great supporter of EWTN — he celebrated Mother Angelica’s funeral Mass in 2016 — and was instrumental in saving this newspaper.

But the cloud of sexual abuse would soon enough cast its shadow over Archbishop Chaput’s mission. In 2009, he was appointed one of five bishops to conduct a visitation of the Legion of Christ after it was revealed that its founder, Father Marcial Maciel, was one of the most wicked priests and perhaps the greatest fraudster in the history of the Church.

That unpleasant task was followed up in 2011 by his transfer to Philadelphia. Cardinal Justin Rigali had retired just months after a grand jury report had accused the archdiocese of having dozens of priests in ministry against whom there were sexual-misconduct allegations. Cardinal Rigali denied it, only to reverse course and suspend 21 priests all at once, leaving a steaming mess for his successor.

The 2011 grand jury report was the second Cardinal Rigali faced in Philadelphia; an earlier 2005 grand jury report had failed to move the archdiocese to adequate action.

In his move, Archbishop Chaput traded the energy and growth of the West for the decline of the East. Like his fellow Capuchin in Boston, Archbishop Chaput faced parish consolidations, school closings, dispositions of property and large debts. One of his first acts was to sell the archbishop’s residence, like Cardinal O’Malley had done in Boston. One of his last would be to sell the seminary. It would be a difficult assignment.

The two remarkable Capuchins called into diocesan service were different in the challenges they confronted and the approaches they adopted. That much was evident — even in their dress. “Cardinal Seán,” as he likes to be called, kept his Franciscan habit, while Archbishop Charles adopted the dress of the diocesan clergy, the priests of which he had become a father and brother. Their considerable energy and talent — whether deployed in the corporal works of mercy that Friar Sean did in the 1970s or in the rebuilding of the Denver seminary that Archbishop Charles did in the 1990s — was diverted over time to purify the Church from the evil of clerical sexual abuse.

The Capuchin brother priests of 1970 came to share together the pain of the Church in the last half-century.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.

Bela Lugosi portrays the famous vampire in this screenshot from the trailer for ‘Dracula’ (1931)

The King of Horror Movies and Catholic Faith and Culture (Sept. 18)

Culture is key in forming hearts and minds. And Catholics well formed in both their profession and their faith certainly can impact culture for the good. We can all agree we need more of that today. One writer who is always keen on highlighting the intersection of faith and culture is the National Catholic Register’s UK correspondent, K.V. Turley, and he has just released his first novel. He joins us here on Register Radio. And then, we talk with Joan Desmond about the so-called “woke revolution” taking place even in some Catholics schools, in modern medicine, and again in culture.