Philadelphia Welcomes Archbishop Chaput

Archbishop Charles Chaput faced challenges as soon as he was installed as archbishop of Philadelphia.

PHILADELPHIA — The City of Brotherly Love welcomed its new archbishop warmly Sept. 8, but Archbishop Charles Chaput had little time to bask in the sunshine.

The former archbishop of Denver was installed at the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul before a celebratory congregation of 1,500 Church and civic dignitaries, priests, religious and well-wishers.

But the very next day, he faced both a clergy abuse crisis that prompted the suspension of 26 priests and an unexpected strike of teachers working in the archdiocese’s 17 high schools that enroll 16,502 students.

During the Mass of installation at the cathedral, jubilant attendees were prepared to set those controversies aside, at least for the day. Indeed, local Church officials and lay leaders suggested that the new archbishop would soon come to appreciate the vitality of the city’s myriad Catholic institutions, backed by generous and faithful believers. 

There are 1,464,938 Catholics in Philadelphia, making it the sixth-largest diocese in the country by population. Archbishop Chaput will oversee 266 parishes and 396 active priests.

In a homily that sought to foster hope that the Church would address the issues of sex abuse and the schools strike and regain the trust of the faithful, Archbishop Chaput said, “This Church in Philadelphia faces very serious challenges these days. There’s no quick fix to problems that are so difficult, and none of us here today, except the Lord himself, is a miracle worker. But the Church is not defined by her failures. And you and I are not defined by critics or by those who dislike us. What we do in the coming months and years to respond to these challenges — that will define who we really are.

“And in engaging that work, we need to be Catholics first. Jesus Christ is the center of our lives, and the Church is our mother and teacher. Everything we do should flow from that.

“What we embark on today is an arranged marriage, where someone who loves you, the Holy Father, is also someone who loves me. And the Holy Father knows in his wisdom that we will make a good family together. So we should see each other as gifts. I receive you as a gift from the Holy Father; and you receive me and my service as a gift from the Holy Father. And this requires us to make a commitment, an act of the will, to love one another, to be patient with one another, and to lay down our lives for one another.”

At the beginning of Mass, the chargé d’affaires of the apostolic nunciature to the United States, Msgr. Jean-Marie Lantheaume, read Pope Benedict XVI’s letter announcing the appointment of Archbishop Chaput. Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, who might normally have read the letter at a Mass of installation, died July 27, following complications from lung surgery. The Holy See has yet to appoint a successor.

Turning Point

In his homily, Archbishop Chaput spoke of the bishops’ symbols: ring, pectoral cross and the crosier. He also spoke of Mary; the feast of her Nativity is Sept. 8.

“Mary didn’t expect the Annunciation. She didn’t expect to be mother of the Redeemer. And yet her act of obedience changed the course of history and led to a new covenant of love and fruitfulness. I have no illusions of being worthy of this ministry, but I do trust in the wisdom of the Holy Father.”

He also said, “In the midst of the turmoil of the Church in our time, specifically in Philadelphia, this feast of Mary’s birth should remind us of God’s loving plan.”

Archbishop Chaput’s arrival marked a turning point for the local Church, which has been roiled by an explosive grand jury report, issued in February, which attacked the archdiocese for permitting additional priests with “credible” allegations of sexual abuse to remain in ministry. After initially challenging the grand jury’s findings, Cardinal Justin Rigali, Archbishop Chaput’s prdecessor, suspended 26 priests, a controversial action, as these individuals reportedly had already been cleared of charges.

The grand jury report also resulted in the criminal indictment of three priests and a teacher for the rape of two boys more than a decade ago. Further, Msgr. William Lynn, the archdiocesan secretary for clergy from 1992 to 2004, was charged on two counts of endangering the welfare of a child.

Prior to Archbishop Chaput’s installation, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia was asked to explain the status of the suspended priests. No update was forthcoming, and it seems likely that Archbishop Chaput will inherit a complex problem of deciding which suspended priests must be permanently removed and possibly laicized and who can be returned to ministry, an equally difficult process. In many cases, priests cleared of such charges opt for early retirement.

Schools Strike

Archbishop Chaput was also greeted by a labor dispute, as teachers in the archdiocese’s high schools went on strike Sept. 7. The schools, which enroll more than 16,000 students, opened as scheduled, with administrators operating them. But on Sept. 13, officials announced that schools would close until a settlement is reached. “We are not able to bring the entire school population back into the building with reduced staffs, since this would compromise the safety of the schools and our students,” the officials said in a letter to parents. “There has been some progress in the negotiations over these past few days, so we are hopeful for the future.”

At the installation, schools superintendent Mary Rochford expressed frustration regarding the standoff between the archdiocese and the local union for teachers at Catholic high schools.

“It’s a battle to preserve a contract of the past for schools of the future. We can’t just hold on to the status quo. We want people coming to our schools because of faith formation, but the Gospel also compels us to provide our students with an education that will prepare them and keep them engaged,” said Rochford, who noted the new archbishop had been informed about the issues.

Negotiations between the archdiocese and the teachers’ union commenced last March. Neither side has specified the obstacles to a resolution. But Rochford suggested that teachers with tenure resisted changes that high-school administrators wanted to implement, including the hiring of part-time faculty and the integration of technology into high-school classrooms. Tenure, she said, was “off the table.”

Following Cardinal Rigali’s arrival in 2003, the number of Catholic elementary and high schools sharply contracted, repeating a pattern familiar to many Northeastern dioceses.

But two high schools are also opening here, reflecting a dynamic environment shaped by population shifts within the far-flung diocese, as well as the closing of Catholic inner-city and ethnic parishes and the challenge posed by charter schools, which draw many families who struggle to pay tuition.

Msgr. Francis Beach, executive director for the archdiocese’s office of stewardship and development, is eager to project a more positive image of the local Church’s future prospects, and he has some hard evidence to back his claims.

He just finished a capital endowment campaign that raised $220 million dollars in just over two years — a stunning feat in the midst of an economic crisis. A quarter of those funds will flow into Catholic education, including $30 million for seed money for the two new high schools and the rest for inner-city Catholic schools and special-education schools.

“The archdiocese has always been a strong Catholic Church, and the people have been very committed to the Catholic faith,” said Msgr. Beach, who noted that there had been a drop-off in regular Mass attendance.

Strong at the Core

In spite of the temporal problems Archbishop Chaput faces, Philadelphia seems to have a strong Catholic core that will sustain it through its difficulties. Dr. William Williams, the editor of The Linacre Quarterly, the official journal of the Catholic Medical Association, noted that the archdiocese still fostered deeply committed Catholics, including pro-life physicians and 247 deacons. Williams himself is a candidate for the diaconate.

“There is a real core of faithful Catholics in the archdiocese. Many parishes have strong daily Mass attendance, and many are involved in a variety of Catholic organizations. I think there is a lot more going on here than in Denver,” Williams said. “And if Archbishop Chaput maintains his style of leadership, which involves encouraging lay Catholic leadership, it should work well.”

Williams is especially intrigued by Archbishop Chaput’s public opposition to “pro-choice” Catholic politicians receiving Communion, and said he will be interested to see how the city’s new Catholic leader addresses this problem.

But the biggest challenge Archbishop Chaput confronts in the upcoming months will be a resolution to the cases of the priests suspended after the grand jury report and a restoration of public confidence in the credibility of the local Church.

“I felt for Cardinal Rigali. He was getting hit from both sides: He has been criticized by victims’ groups for being too soft and at the same time others criticized him for suspending priests with a boundary violation,” said Williams. “There wasn’t anything the cardinal could do that would satisfy everybody.”

Joan Frawley Desmond filed this report from

Philadelphia, where she attended the installation Mass.