Monday, September 30, 2019

The retirement of Archbishop Chaput.

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput turned 75 last Thursday, reaching the age at which Roman Catholic bishops are required to present their resignation to the pope. Now, in the words of a recent Philadelphia Inquirer headline, "the countdown to Philadelphia's next Catholic archbishop begins", though it's unclear exactly how long the countdown will last; episcopal resignations are not always accepted immediately, and Chaput's two immediate predecessors in Philadelphia remained in office beyond retirement age (Cardinal Justin Rigali left office at age 76, and Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua did so at age 80).

Regardless of when his successor arrives, the retirement of Archbishop Chaput represents the end of an era. As Archbishop of Denver from 1997 to 2011, Chaput established himself as one of the emblematic figures of the American Church under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. A forthright defender of Catholic doctrine and a frank voice in debates about public policy, Chaput was also a leading American exponent of the New Evangelization called for by John Paul II. Under Chaput's leadership, the Archdiocese of Denver became known as a place where Catholicism was vibrant, where new ecclesial movements were particularly welcome, and where priestly vocations were plentiful. In difficult times for the American Church, challenged from without by an increasingly secular culture and shaken from within by the crisis of clerical sexual abuse, Denver under Chaput appeared as a harbinger of better days to come.

Named Archbishop of Philadelphia in 2011, Chaput found himself in a very different ecclesial environment. Long home to a robust Catholic culture that was institutionally rich and socially influential, Philadelphia was also a diocese where religious practice had been in steady decline for decades and where the sexual abuse crisis had dealt a particularly sharp blow to the local church. Writing here the day after Chaput's installation as Archbishop of Philadelphia, I sounded a hopeful note: the new archbishop was sober and determined in the face of the various challenges facing the Archdiocese, emphasizing the centrality of faith in Christ and fidelity to the Church and exhorting the faithful to be courageous in difficult times. In the months and years that followed, Archbishop Chaput was forced to make hard and often painful decisions, cutting archdiocesan staff and programs in the face of falling revenues and making plans to sell the Archdiocese's iconic seminary in suburban Wynnewood. Despite Archbishop Chaput's enthusiasm for the New Evangelization, he could seemingly do little to reverse an erosion in Mass attendance, baptisms, and Catholic marriages that had begun long before he arrived in Philadelphia.

In another era, Archbishop Chaput might well have become a cardinal; he would have been a worthy choice, given his personal qualities and his status as a leader among the U.S. Catholic bishops. It may be that he simply arrived too late: given changing demographics, Philadelphia, like Detroit or St. Louis, is no longer the cardinatial see that it once was. Some think that Archbishop Chaput was deliberately "passed over," in some sense, intentionally deprived of a red hat, but they miss a more important point: Charles Chaput has always preached Christ in and out of season, choosing fidelity to the deposit of faith over passing trends. Hopefully, it will be for this that he will be most remembered, long after his tenure in Philadelphia comes to an end.


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