Archbishop Samuel Aquila's Denver Return Marred by Tragedy
The new archbishop of Denver is dealing with the aftermath of the Aurora theater tragedy just two days after his installation.
Archbishop Samuel Aquila was installed July 18 as the fifth archbishop of the Archdiocese of Denver. The appointment brings Archbishop Aquila home to the archdiocese where he was first ordained 36 years ago.
His first week has been a difficult one, given the tragedy at the Century Aurora 16 theater just two days after his installation. He spoke July 24 with Register senior writer Tim Drake about his installation and the Aurora tragedy.
How is the Church responding to the Aurora tragedy?
The Church has reached out to the victims and the wounded. The priests and deacons in Aurora have visited the hospitals and been present to the families who were impacted in different ways.
On Friday afternoon, I celebrated Mass at Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Aurora. There were well over 1,000 people there. One young girl had been in the theater, and another had five friends who were injured. The Church has continued to reach out amidst the sadness, the tragedy and the evil of it.
There will be three Catholic funerals. We’re visiting with the families and trying to respect everything they are going through. Catholic Charities has made counseling available for those who desire it.
There has been a real outreach to the families who have lost loved ones and those who have been wounded. There’s been great compassion and charity shown toward them in carrying out the corporal works of mercy to those who have been impacted by this.
Anytime where there is such a violent act that is so unexpected there is the shock and horror and questioning that goes on. We’re trying to help people with those questions and help them to bring it all to the Lord, whether they are experiencing vengeance, anger, emptiness.
There’s a tremendous hole when one loses a spouse, a child, a friend. That unique individual will never be replaced on this earth. There’s a tremendous sense of loss there.
In addition, dying a violent death is quite different from an accident. All those who went to the movie theater went to enjoy a film. Suddenly, that’s been shattered by the power of evil and sin, and it’s so unexpected.
In some of the conversations I’ve had with some of the people impacted, I’ve tried to help them to see how they can bring their suffering to the cross and see how the Father permitted his only Son to suffer a violent death — and to remember that that death and the evil that was present did not conquer the love of God.
Rather, God conquered death and evil with the Resurrection and the gift of eternal life. I let them know that they stand at the cross with Mary and John. They experienced the death of Jesus Christ, and so Mary and John intercede and are with them.
The questions they are asking are likely the same questions Mary and John asked. So, I encourage them to remember their humanity in it all and their deep faith and love to stand with the Lord.
The Church is very much in solidarity with those who have been wounded and hurt and lost their lives.
Is there any indication of how many of the victims were Catholic?
Of those who were killed, we know of three. I’ve met with one of the families and will be meeting with the other two. Bishop [James] Conley or I will be present for the funerals. I would ask all people of good will to continue to pray for those impacted.
What many of these people experienced will take time to heal. After the funerals will be the greatest part of the adjustment, when they need our continued prayer.
This tragedy has occurred just days after your installation. You were ordained a priest here. Does it feel like you’ve come home?
In many ways, it does. I served as a priest here for 25 years, so I know a lot of the people. Even though I was away for almost 11 years, there were a lot of friends and contacts that I had here.
In that way, it is very much like a homecoming. There’s been a lot that has changed. When I looked out at the clergy, there were a number of younger men who have been ordained over the last seven or eight years who I did not recognize. Archbishop [Charles] Chaput also brought in some new religious communities.
I look forward to reconnecting with people and look forward to meeting the new clergy and all those in seminary, the staff at the pastoral center and the diocese.
What was the highlight of your installation?
The installation Mass itself was filled with meaning and tremendous joy. Never in your imagination do you think you’ll ever be in the diocese where you were ordained a priest. As we celebrated Mass, there were a flood of memories of being ordained at the cathedral. I was in residence at the cathedral for almost eight years and celebrated Mass there.
There were also memories from World Youth Day in 1993 and being an assistant emcee for Pope John Paul II. There is a stained-glass window of the Council of Ephesus that has always spoken to me of Mary’s love and protection, and that was very much present. There was also the strong face of the people and the reception I was given as I entered into the cathedral. To see so many of the clergy present who I hadn’t seen for 11 years and so many of the faithful — my heart was filled with a great love for the Father for his providential love for me.
In what ways is the Archdiocese of Denver different or similar to the Diocese of Fargo, N.D.?
They are very, very different. The Diocese of Fargo is a rural diocese. It has 130 parishes, and about half of those have about 75 households or less. It’s a much smaller community.
Denver is a huge metro area, and there are more than 550,000 Catholics there. In Fargo, there were about 75,000 Catholics and about 100 priests. Here, there are over 380 priests. The differences are quite great, in terms of size and territory. The Archdiocese of Denver is about 40,000 square miles. Eastern North Dakota was about 35,000 square miles.
What are the major challenges that you face in Denver?
I think, certainly, part of it is the size of the diocese. It’s much more complex than Fargo. Denver is much more secular, in terms of belief and in terms of political views than Fargo, and in that way it will be a new challenge, because the people of North Dakota were primarily a people of faith.
About 90% of the people of North Dakota had some type of faith. Here, in Colorado, they told me, it’s about 30%. That itself will be a challenge.
How do you keep God in the public square and engage in conversation with society to promote the common good?
You made the restoration of the order of the sacraments of initiation a primary focus during your time in Fargo. Do you anticipate looking at that issue in the Archdiocese of Denver?
It has already surfaced, and it’s certainly something we’ll look at, especially after the encouragement I received from Pope Benedict XVI during the ad limina visit. He encouraged me to continue in that direction.
I will continue to speak to that and reflect on it with the priests and lay faithful of the archdiocese.
Denver is home to a rich diversity of apostolic efforts. I understand there are a couple of new efforts under way (Lighthouse Crisis Pregnancy Center and Christ in the City). What can you tell me about those?
Lighthouse is certainly something I’ve been aware of. The founders came up to see what we had put together in Fargo. They visited the St. Gianna Maternity Home and First Choice Clinic, an ecumenical response to crisis pregnancies and helping women choose life.
Given my own work in the pro-life movement and concerns in that area, I’m very supportive of it and look forward to meeting those involved. It falls under the auspices of Catholic Charities, so will now be a part of the ministry of the archdiocese.
Christ in the City is a movement of young people in the inner city bringing Christ to those who are homeless and poor and in need. Christ in the City combines solid Catholic intellectual and spiritual formation with service to the poor. I encourage young people to look into it.
What do you see as Denver’s greatest strengths?
It’s a young, vibrant, zealous Church. I think it’s a Church that has taken the New Evangelization seriously.
When I see things like the Augustine Institute, Focus [Fellowship of Catholic University Students], the Catholic Biblical School, movements like the Neocatechumenal Way and Communion and Liberation and the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, and the seminaries, they are tremendous signs of light in the archdiocese.
There is a tremendous amount of life and proclaiming the Gospel of Christ and carrying out the mission of Christ in the archdiocese.
What kinds of things do you enjoy doing when you’re not “on duty?”
I enjoy golf, fishing, and I enjoy sitting quietly in prayer, reflection or reading. I also enjoy going out and being out and about.
When I lived here, I would go out and hike on trails in the mountains. I used to ski, but gave that up. My knees are not what they used to be.
Do you have a favorite saint?
There are a lot that I go to. There are two that stand out the most.
Our Lady of Guadalupe: I have a deep devotion to her, just in terms of her deep desire to share her Son with the world and give us the gift of the tilma. I’ll never forget the first time I saw the tilma and realized it was almost 500 years old. What a great gift it is.
Also, St. Joseph, in terms of his fatherhood, his manhood and his deep love for Jesus and Mary — in protecting them and being the one who formed the humanity of Jesus as a father.
It demonstrates the great confidence of God the Father to trust to Joseph the care of Mary and Jesus. I seek his intercession often for being a spiritual father to the faithful and seek his help in that.
When we talk about the saints, something I’ve discovered throughout the years in my own walk of faith is that they are really our friends. The more I read them, the more I see their sanctity and their cooperation with God. They are each unique, and all of us are called to be saints.
Each one of us has a particular relationship with the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and we’re called to live that out in the life of the Church.