Archbishop Chaput is an inspiring example for his priests and faithful

Archbishop Chaput at a press conference (Photo: CNS)

Having given up on the idea of clearing on top of my desk, I decided to clear underneath it – and have unearthed the Herald Christmas issue of 2011. Starting to re-read it I came across Mary O’Regan’s article on “Ten amazing Catholics of the year”. They include Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury, whose motto is: “My task is to announce the Gospel.” I also learnt that “a firm advocate of the rosary, he often prays this prayer for the priests of his diocese… and makes them aware that he does so. Renewal and support for the priesthood is a motif of Bishop Davies’s preaching and actions.” He sounds spot on.

From Bishop Davies I went on to read a notice in the current edition of the Herald, about the sale of the residence of the Archbishops of Philadelphia to the local Catholic university for the equivalent of £6m. Archbishop Charles Chaput, the present incumbent, will live at his diocesan seminary, St Charles Borromeo. For a bishop or archbishop to live among his student priests sounds a great idea, especially when the archbishop is Charles Chaput; the seminarians will have a concrete example on their own doorstep of how the pastor of their diocese lives a life consecrated to Christ and the local church.

John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter (and the liberal Catholic journalist I like most) has recently interviewed Archbishop Chaput. The more I read about him the more I am drawn to his practical holiness and his refusal to let himself be bogged down by administration at the expense of evangelisation. Like Bishop Davies he knows his task is to announce the Gospel – despite taking on a huge archdiocese with considerable financial problems. That’s why he is selling the official residence: “It’s an expensive house to keep when you don’t need it,” he told Allen.

The archbishop has come under strong criticism in his archdiocese for seeking to close or amalgamate some of the Catholic schools. But as he points out, the numbers of Catholic students have fallen hugely from the Church’s hey-day, when there were 267,000 pupils: “Now we have around 60,000.” Some of this is due to the fact that “people aren’t having children as they used to, and people aren’t willing to sacrifice to pay the tuition as they did in the past.” It sounds a familiar story.

On the forthcoming presidential election, Chaput informed Allen that he is registered as an independent: “As an individual and a voter I have deep personal concerns about any party that supports changing the definition of marriage, supports abortion in all circumstances and wants to restrict the traditional understanding of religious freedom.” He is clearly not a Democrat then. Chaput also does not equate Christianity with socialist politics. “Jesus didn’t say the government has to take care of [the poor] or that we have to pay taxes to take care of them. These are prudential judgements… You can’t say somebody’s not Christian because they want to limit taxation.” In case you might think he is hard-hearted, a very similar debate is going on over here: is massive government welfare payments, paid for from taxes, a sign of compassion or do they simply keep people trapped in a cycle of poverty? According to Philip Johnson in an article entitled “The welfare state is broken – what next?” in yesterday’s Telegraph, “support for more state spending on social benefits has halved, from a peak of 63% nine years ago, to just 31%”.

Like Bishop Davies, the archbishop wants to be focused on “mission rather than maintenance”; he is acutely aware that the latter, given the problems he has inherited, at present takes up too much of his time. He would rather be “an evangelist than a bureaucrat and has absolutely no wish for an eventual curial appointment in Rome”. “Diocesan leadership” is his vocation, as he told Allen.

He sounds inspiring – and we lay members of the Church long to be inspired by the example of men such as him.