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Archbishop Chaput: The best diocesan bishop of our time?

Archbishop Charles Chaput (CNA file photo)

As he was growing up on the plains of Kansas in the late 1940s and early 1950s, it’s unlikely that young Charles Joseph Chaput, a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, imagined himself a major figure in Catholic history.

Educated by Capuchin Franciscans and impressed by their commitment to simplicity of life and service, he eventually joined that religious community (where his seminary classmates included Boston’s cardinal-archbishop, Seán O’Malley).

He taught in Capuchin schools, and served his brothers in a variety of administrative roles before being chosen as the community’s leader (provincial minister) in 1988.

He then met the apostolic nuncio to the United States, Pio Laghi; Laghi, interested in finding a bishop of Native American ancestry, sensed in Chaput a man with the qualities John Paul II was determined to promote in the American episcopate.

So at the young age of 44, Chaput was ordained as Bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota. After eight years in that largely rural diocese, which serves several Indian reservations where grim poverty is the rule, he was transferred to Denver, becoming archbishop of the Mile High City in 1997. In 2011, as the Archdiocese of Philadelphia went into financial and managerial freefall, Pope Benedict XVI asked Chaput to assume the leadership of that venerable see.

On September 26, Archbishop Chaput will turn 75 and it is expected that his successor in Philadelphia will be named shortly thereafter.

On the surface, Chaput’s may seem a conventional episcopal career, notable for his unusual personal background. Beneath the bald facts of biography and chronology, however, lies a deeper truth: more than a few Catholics in the United States consider Charles Chaput the best, most effective diocesan bishop of our time.

One measure of that accomplishment – and certainly the best measure of the man – is that people in Rapid City and Denver still speak of him with heartfelt affection and deep esteem. That pattern will repeat itself in Philadelphia.

So why has Charles Chaput been a model bishop?

He has taken St Paul’s injunction to Timothy seriously: he has taught the faith, whole and entire, in and out of season, inviting others into friendship with Jesus Christ. He has been a dedicated pastor, never losing touch with his people, hearing Confessions in his cathedral every Sunday afternoon before celebrating an evening Mass there. He has lived simply, true to his Franciscan vocation. He has courageously faced cultural and political hostility – and, in recent years, ecclesiastical opprobrium bordering on odium theologicum from the proponents of Catholic Lite. He has sought out and worked in tandem with talented lay men and women, unafraid to learn from them and deploy their competence to enhance his own.

Above all, he has been a collaborative leader, who understood his episcopal service as one that empowers the service of others and their work as missionary disciples. The archdiocesan offices he built in Denver were planned to emphasise collaboration between the archbishop and his staff: only two storeys tall, rather than the multistorey, high-rise chancery offices (with the archbishop at the top of the pyramid) found in other cities. More than one of his collaborators has said over the years that Chaput is the best boss he or she has ever had. He shares responsibility without shirking it, and he defends his people.

The Catholic social service agency he revitalised in Rapid City remains a model for the entire United States. And during his years in the Rocky Mountains, he built on the work of his predecessor, James Francis Stafford (who was transferred to Rome and named cardinal), to create the most dynamic archdiocese in America.

Serious young Catholics flocked to work in Chaput’s archdiocese, knowing that Denver was where missionary discipleship was being lived in a challenging, highly secularised environment – and being lived with panache and joy.

Under Chaput’s wing, the promise of Denver’s World Youth Day, in 1993, was realised in a reformed seminary, missions to inner-city homeless people, and initiatives with national impact such as FOCUS (the Fellowship of Catholic University Students), which trains and sponsors recent graduates as missionaries on campuses, and the Augustine Institute, a model of reformed theological education aimed at the renewal of catechesis using all the instruments of 21st-century technology.

At the time of John Paul II’s death in 2005, the Archdiocese of Denver under Charles Chaput was, arguably, the model new evangelisation diocese in the developed world.

It says a lot about the man and his churchmanship that Chaput, in obedience to the pope’s call, agreed to leave the vibrant Catholicism he had nurtured in Denver, which fit his personality and leadership style so perfectly, to try to save Philadelphia, an archdiocese in grave distress.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia today is not in the same condition as Denver was when he left it, but Chaput was likely the only bishop in the United States who could have turned the corner to financial and pastoral stability in what is typically known (from its Quaker origins) as the City of Brotherly Love, but is sometimes more aptly styled the City of Brotherly Shove.

Those who knew him well found that Chaput aged years in his first months in Philadelphia, as he fought valiantly to staunch a pattern of financial haemorrhage that threatened to bleed the local Church white. He stopped the bleeding but at great personal cost in anxiety, supported throughout in some tough decisions by the life of prayer that is the foundation of his ministry.

And in the midst of that trauma, Chaput hosted Pope Francis for the 2015 World Meeting of Families, offering the Argentine Pontiff a tremendous welcome.

His brother bishops in the United States twice elected him as a delegate to synods, and in 2015 representatives of the world episcopate elected him to the General Council of the Synod of Bishops. Those elections speak volumes about the respect in which he is held by his ecclesiastical peers, who see in him every quality that Pope Francis says he wants in bishops.

Yet the men around the present Pontiff, almost certainly influenced by the calumnies spread around Rome by the now-disgraced Theodore McCarrick, seem to have developed an intense dislike for the mild-mannered Chaput – and their dislike (and worse) has reverberated throughout the echo chamber of the promoters of the current pontificate, who have not hesitated to lie about Chaput, both behind the scenes and publicly.

Their indictment is that Archbishop Chaput is both doctrinally and morally “rigid” (and thus pastorally insensitive) and that he is a “culture warrior”. Both charges are false. Chaput is an orthodox Catholic who believes that the oath he swore to defend the faith at his episcopal ordination demands that he teach Catholicism in full, not some Catholic Lite counterfeit. He has done so with compassion and skill, and with an openness that invites others into genuine conversation.

Unlike some of his episcopal colleagues, who trumpet their commitment to dialogue but are quite inaccessible personally (and quite nasty when confronted), Chaput radiates that courtly gentility that characterised the Poverello of Assisi.

As for the “culture warrior” charge, that is typically laid by those who disagree with what Catholicism teaches about the ethics of human love, who are embarrassed by that teaching, or who have been cowed by the bullies of the LGBT movement. Charles Chaput is neither bullied nor cowed, which makes him a sign of contradiction to those churchmen who have allowed themselves to be unmanned.

His several books – especially Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life; A Heart on Fire: Catholic Witness and the Next America; and Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World – have inspired tens of thousands with their careful analysis of the present cultural confusions of the West and the threat those confusions pose to the democratic project. These works are by no means polemical; they are sharp-edged, as the times and issues demand. Yet while never backing off from being a witness to truth, Chaput has also been a consistent, even persistent, witness to hope: hope for Catholicism and its capacity for self-renewal, hope that the Church might lead the West out of a wintry season of irrationality into a nobler experience of freedom.

Re-reading Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, and its Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church, Christus Dominus, a fair-minded observer cannot help thinking that Archbishop Charles J Chaput, OFM Cap, is what the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council had in mind when they limned a reformed episcopate for the third millennium of Christian history. The best diocesan bishop in the United States may be on the verge of retirement. But the model of collaborative, faithful, dynamic leadership he leaves behind will inspire others for a very long time to come.

That model ought to be appreciated in a Rome truly committed to a Church permanently in mission. Someday it will.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. His 26th book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform, was published on September 17 by Basic Books