Four months after submitting his mandatory letter of resignation to Pope Francis, Archbishop Charles Chaput officially stood down as leader of the Philadelphia archdiocese on Thursday.
With his successor, Bishop Nelson Perez, set to be installed on February 18, Chaput enters retirement after 32 years as a bishop — much of it spent on the national stage, and widely recognized as a spiritual and intellectual leader in the Church in the United States.
Chaput reflected on his vocation as bishop to CNA on Thursday, citing St. Augustine as the model of service he has sought to emulate in his ministry.
“Augustine lived simply, never abandoned his people, and never avoided difficult decisions or issues,” Chaput told CNA.
“That didn’t always make him popular. But he served his people sacrificially, as a good father, in a spirit of love. That’s the gold standard for a bishop’s ministry.”
During his episcopal ministry, and especially as Archbishop of Philadelphia, Chaput faced criticism from secular outlets and within the Church for taking “conservative” stands on leading debates in the Church, including statements discouraging Catholic politicians who support abortion from presenting themselves for Communion and opposing efforts to redefine marriage.
His stances led to him being branded as a “culture warrior” and “political.” Yet, he explained to CNA on Thursday, his pubic stances were required of him as a responsible Catholic leader in the public square.
“Was Augustine ‘political’ for writing City of God? Or for criticizing Roman state corruption and bad officials? Of course not,” Chaput said.
“Politics is a subset of Christian discipleship, and sometimes bishops need to speak and act with conviction in the public square in an unpopular way. That’s always been the case.”
“Politics is important, but it’s not what the Gospel is about,” he said.
The terms “conservative” and “liberal” when applied to bishops only serves as a way of dividing Catholics within the Church, he said.
“The conservative vs. pastoral narrative is just another tactic to divide the Church against herself. And people who think they’re getting a clear sense of Catholic thought and teaching from reading the New York Times are simply feeding their confusion, not healing it.”
Chaput has served as Archbishop of Philadelphia for more than eight years, overseeing almost 1.3 million Catholics and more than 200 parishes.
Before that, he served for 14 years as Archbishop of Denver, helping start evangelization initiatives like the Augustine Institute, founding the St. John Vianney Theological Seminary, as well launching the Centro San Juan Diego to serve the local Hispanic community.
Born in Kansas in 1944, Chaput entered the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin in 1965 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1970. He eventually rose to the rank of chief executive and provincial minister of the Capuchin Province of Mid-America.
In 1988, he was ordained bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota, and in 1997, he was appointed by Pope St. John Paul II as the archbishop of Denver. Chaput became the second Native American to be ordained bishop in the U.S., and the first as archbishop, as he is a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Tribe.
In 2011, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Chaput as Archbishop of Philadelphia. His episcopal motto is “As Christ Loved the Church” (Ephesians 5:25).
Chaput also served on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom from 2003 to 2006, and has served on the board of EWTN since 1996. He was appointed the Apostolic Visitor to the Legion of Christ for Canada and the United States in 2009-10.
When appointed to Philadelphia, the archdiocese was reeling from financial problems in the fallout of the sexual abuse crisis, facing an operating deficit of at least $6 million in 2012-13, leaving Chaput with a series of difficult and controversial decisions.
The archdiocese considered closing dozens of its elementary and high schools and partnered with the Faith in the Future foundation for 17 high schools and four special education schools. Chaput also sold off the archbishop’s residence and the summer home for retired priests, as well as other archdiocesan properties.
“Complacency is the enemy of faith. To whatever degree complacency and pride once had a home in our local Church, events in the coming year will burn them out,” Chaput wrote in a pastoral letter during Advent of 2011.
“The process will be painful. But going through it is the only way to renew the witness of the Church; to clear away the debris of human failure from the beauty of God’s word and to restore the joy and zeal of our Catholic discipleship.”
At a Jan. 23 press conference announcing the appointment, Chaput’s successor Archbishop-elect Perez paid tribute to him, saying that he “made calls that, today, have placed the archdiocese in a way better place.”
“Watching him from afar, I saw him make tough decisions. Many times, like a father has to do in a family,” Perez said.
Asked by CNA what he is most proud of in his 32 years as a diocesan bishop, Chaput responded “I don’t think that way.”
“I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what I’ve accomplished. I’m just grateful to have been the archbishop for eight-and-a-half years,” he said.
He did, however, thank his staff and auxiliary bishops for assisting him with tough decisions, particularly the archdiocese’s pressing financial and sexual abuse problems when he arrived.
He also mentioned the decision to sell the property of St. Charles Borromeo seminary and relocating it to nearby Neumann University. Chaput called that “an extraordinary accomplishment.”
“I’m proud of the things that we have done together,” he said.
Chaput said on Thursday that he will eventually resume responsibilities as archbishop emeritus, including giving talks and retreats, but will spend the next three months on a quieter schedule without regular commitments.
“I am going to continue to be a part of the life of the archdiocese,” he said.
“It’s also important for me to understand that he [Perez] is my archbishop, and I owe him my respect and my obedience, and I do that gladly because I think he’s going to accomplish great things for us, but also with us because the Church is all of us working together,” Chaput said.
“The history of the Church is not the history of bishops, it’s the history of all of us together working for the glory of God.”
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