Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput on Pope Francis
HH: I can think of no one better to end our week of study of what has happened in Rome than with the Archbishop of Philadelphia, Archbishop Charles Chaput. Excellency Chaput, welcome back, it’s great to have you. Thank you for joining me.
CC: Thank you very much, Hugh. I’m glad to be with you again.
HH: When, where were you when you learned of the selection of Pope Francis, and what was your first reaction?
CC: Well, I was in the car when I heard about the white smoke, and I rushed home, which is difficult to get to at that time of day. And I was actually sitting in the room where I am now, my office, watching the television. And quite honestly, when they announced that the new Pope’s name was Jorge, which is George, I thought, well maybe it’s Cardinal George from Chicago. But then of course, I knew who Cardinal Bergoglio was. When they said his family name, I was very much surprised, but extraordinarily happy, because quite honestly, he is the man I was hoping would be Pope eight years ago. He would have been a candidate that I was hoping and praying would be expected. So I didn’t expect it this time, because he’s so much older than he was then. I thought the cardinals would go for somebody younger. But he’s an extraordinary person, and I think he’s already shown the world he’s a rather extraordinary choice to be the Pope.
HH: Now Archbishop Chaput, how do you know him? And why were you praying that he might be the Pope eight years ago?
CC: Well, I was invited by Pope John Paul II to a gathering in Rome of about 120 bishops to discuss the future of the Church in the Americas, in North and South America back in 1988. I had just been appointed the Archbishop of Denver at that time. And the Holy Father, Pope Francis, had just recently been appointed the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, and we sit at those meetings in the order of our appointments, and so we were in the same row. And in the course of that month in Rome, I had a chance to listen to him, and to have some personal exchanges with him, and express a common kind of spirit and enthusiasm for the future of the Church. So I was really blessed to have the opportunity to be with him for a month. And I knew him from then.
HH: And explain, or because very few people know him in America, obviously. He’s a new name, and he hasn’t been here, maybe he has been here. I haven’t yet seen that reported if he was, where he went or what he said, but give us some sense of his personal style and his intellectual approach to issues.
CC: Well you know, I don’t want to overstate my personal relationship with him. That was a long time ago, and we were there just for a month. But right from the beginning, I sensed that he was a man who was impatient with formalities, and very much anxious to be part of the new evangelization, which is to admit the fact that we need to do things differently than we’ve done in the past, and to understand that many people who have professed themselves to be Catholics or Christians, really aren’t in any real way committed to what their baptism should mean. He was aware of the fact that although South America, his own country, Argentina, was heavily Catholic by percentage points, it wasn’t as heavily Catholic in terms of real belief and lives that flowed from belief. And so the new evangelization really is a re-evangelization of people who think they’re Christians but really aren’t. And he understood that, and had a great energy in that direction. And as I said, was not patient with formalities that got in the way of being busy about the work of the Gospel. I think he’s already shown that in his time at Pope, too. He seems to be impatient with formalities, and very much anxious to personal embody and then preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
HH: Now the selection of his name, you are yourself a Franciscan.
CC: I am.
HH: He’s a Jesuit. So how did that impact you? And what’s it say to you?
CC: Well, really, I thought he was naming himself after St. Francis Xavier, one of the founders of the Jesuit community, and a great missionary. And because of the new evangelization and his commitment to that, I thought maybe he was choosing Francis Xavier as his patron. But I found out later that actually, when he was elected and asked what name he would choose, he said Francis, and he said Francis of Assisi. So I was surprised by that on one level, and another not, because I’ve always heard, even before I met him, and certainly since then, that in Buenos Aires, he shunned the signs of power and the signs of being a superior, and had a very fraternal approach to being a bishop with his priests and with his people. And that’s at the heart of what St. Francis is. You know, people sometimes mistake in St. Francis as a hippy or someone who is focused on ecology, who loves animals. I don’t mean that he doesn’t love animals, and he isn’t a good patron for ecology. But St. Francis was essentially someone who wanted to be a brother to others, even to all of creation, and not to be superior. And I think the Holy Father is demonstrating that by the way he dressed, and people that he goes out of his way to hang out with, the simplicity of the car he shows in the ride in, those kind of things.
HH: Is he going to present a shock to the system, or the changes that inevitably come, will they be softer and more subtle?
CC: Well, I think he’s already made quite an impact in terms of shock to the system, just those external things about not wearing all the robes that popes have worn. And I understand that when the cardinals came to promise obedience, he didn’t stand on a platform above them, but actually stood with them. His riding in the bus with the cardinals going back to the hotel where the cardinals stay for the conclave, his traveling in one of the cars not associated with the pope when he went out to visit St. Mary Major and pay his bill at the hotel where he was staying in Rome. All those things, I think they have to shock the system of those who are used to a different kind of formality in the papacy. And also, he hasn’t reappointed the heads of the congregations in Rome, and I’m sure that’s making them very nervous, because typically, that would, they would be reappointed right away, at least for a temporary period. But he’s not made any of those decisions yet, and of course, if you and I were sitting in those seats, we’d probably be nervous, too, wondering what our future’s going to be.
HH: And at 76, I’ve heard it said, and I myself speculated, you might not think you have a lot of time, and you might decide to go faster rather than slower. Has that thought crossed your mind, Archbishop?
CC: I think that’s true, and I think that he knows that he’s just two years younger than Pope Benedict was when he was elected Pope. He’s vigorous. You know, I haven’t seen him since…I saw him in Toronto, or I’m sorry, Quebec City, Canada, at the Eucharistic rally there a few years ago, but he still seems very vigorous. I think he’s a young 76, but I’m sure he knows that at 86, you’re really old.
CC: So ten years would be a long time.
HH: Now you are yourself a brother bishop, a shepherd of many, many people. How are your people reacting to this? You must have, you’ve had 48 hours to be infused with everyone from your chancellor to whomever you’ve given Communion to, and I guess you did Confirmation last night, so that would be an unusual setting in which to experience the reaction of Catholics in the pews.
CC: Yeah, I actually did. I preached about the Pope, and about his role in the Church last night at a Confirmation of about 110, for the most part, 7th and 8th grade kids. And I was really happy that they knew about the election, they all knew his name, and they were enthusiastic about it. But from the most senior people here in terms of Church leadership to those young kids, the reaction has been 100% positive. I haven’t heard anybody express any concerns.
HH: Now among your seminarians, I don’t know if you’ve had a chance, yet, but obviously the role of a Pope is to inspire vocations and to assist the Holy Spirit in so discerning them. What do you think that reaction’s going to be, because he is, he looks rather austere, Archbishop Chaput, don’t you think? I mean, he doesn’t really break out in that beaming smile very often.
CC: No, he is austere in terms of very serious about his obligations and our day to day responsibilities as Catholics, as Christians. So I don’t think he has a lot of light moments where he’s just laughing and carrying on. I don’t think that’s his personality. I think the initial reaction of the seminarians was the same thing I saw on EWTN which is the station I was watching this on. People, when his name was mentioned, they didn’t have any idea who he was, because they didn’t expect him.
CC: You know, I knew who he was because of my previous relationship with him. But he wasn’t on the top ten list, at least not most people’s top ten list for this time around. So I think the seminarians who had expected this one or that one were really quite surprised. But they have been very impressed by the way he’s acted, and they know that he’s going to be hugely influential in these final years of their formation to be priests and their early priesthood.
HH: And a minute to the break, Archbishop Chaput. In terms of his impact, he has authority over all the bishops, but you folks, as you’ve explained on this program before, but for the benefit of non-Catholics, you’re kind of out there on your own. You have to run your own diocese and minster to your own people. I’m not really sure the day to day impact of a Pope upon one of his brother bishops.
CC: Well you know, you’re right, Hugh. We aren’t delegates of the Pope in our dioceses. We believe that the bishops are the successor to the apostles. What the apostles did in the early Church, we have a duty to do in the Church today. And each of us by our ordination as bishop has a responsibility. It’s not delegated to us by the Pope. He’s the head of the body of bishops, the College of Bishops, but he has huge impact, you know, on decisions about the ordinary way of pastoring in a diocese, because we have a whole lot of big questions today, and ultimately, the principle of unity, which is what the role of Peter is about, that we all believe and commit ourselves to the same faith, is exercised by the Pope in a very clear way every day. So it’s really, and his role is really important in our lives as bishops.
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HH: Archbishop, there are three categories – liturgical, social issues, political issues. I’m curious where you think the Holy Father will take the Catholic Church. And let’s begin with the liturgical reforms of Benedict. I’ve seen some speculation that he may not be as enthusiastic a commitment to them as others.
CC: I don’t think he is as committed to the appearance of the older forums. I think already, the vesture that he’s wearing is more, I don’t know, people see all of our vestures quite medieval, but it is much simpler than the form that Pope Benedict used. So I think he’s already demonstrated that he’s going to be a man of the Second Vatican Council in terms of liturgical changes, and probably not as attached to the Latin and the Tridentine Forum, although I’m sure he’ll respect it, as we all should. But I don’t think he’s going to be exactly the same on that level.
HH: Do you expect reconciliation to be a priority of his with those traditionalist elements, which have been separated from the Vatican for many decades now?
CC: Well, I think it really has to be, because the role of the bishop of Rome is to be of a principle of unity for the Church. And that means you’re the principle of unity for those who’ve gone to the left, and those who have gone to the right equally. You know, you have to love them and call them all back to the center. And I think he really is in the center and he’ll do that. It’s his duty as a Pope.
HH: Now the social issues, especially marriage, he has confronted, and I think we have a very clear picture. But I’d like to hear your opinion on how committed he will be to the public defense of the Christian understanding of marriage and life from its earliest moments to its last natural moments?
CC: Well you know, some years ago, I don’t know exactly how long ago, Argentina approved gay marriage, and I was really astonished that would happen anywhere in Latin America, and I kind of looked to see how the, what the leadership of the Archbishop of Buenos Aires would be, and he certainly took a very clear public stand on the matter that we, when we mess with marriage, we mess with God’s plan. And that throws everything off the center, and it really is damaging not only to individuals, but to cultures. So there’s no doubt where he stands on that. On the issue of life, he’s even said something that I’m very happy to be said, that those who promote abortion or do act to make it possible, even politicians, ought not to receive Holy Communion in the Catholic Church, because they’re not in communion with the Catholic Church on those issues. I thought that was terrific, and I hope that those who are Catholics and who take positions contrary to the Church listen to him and let him change their lives, bring them back to where they belong.
HH: Now let me ask you about the new evangelization. This very morning, I heard Alistair Begg who’s quite a famous Protestant preacher, a Scotsman who lives up in Northeastern Ohio in Geauga, say Christians have just got to get used to saying again the truth of the historical fact of the Gospel, that Jesus lived, He died, He rose again, and He’s alive today, and if you don’t believe that, everything is straw. Do you think he’ll be that adamant and that expressive? He began his papacy with the Our Father and the Hail Mary and the Glory Be, which are traditional Catholic rites, but in that explicit evangelical way of the new evangelization, do you expect much of that?
CC: I heard it yesterday when he gave a homily, his first sermon to the cardinals in Mass that he celebrated with them in the Sistine Chapel. He talked about the centrality of Jesus in our teaching and in our lives. And if Jesus isn’t Lord, we don’t have it in order. And he not only spoke about Jesus, but also the importance of understanding Jesus crucified as the center of our faith. And risen from the death nonetheless, but plunged completely into the mystery of human suffering. And that’s where we belong. We belong in the midst of human suffering, to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus out to the lives of those who have lost hope, and have lost any sense of God loving them.
HH: That brings us to the poor, and obviously he has spoken a great deal about the poor. And this is where my concern was on the first day. As I’ve said to you, a Jesuit from South America, I was taught by Franciscans from South America when I was in high school, and they turned out to be just completely left wing liberation theology guys. And your concerns, you have none, evidently?
CC: I have none, and you know, the left wing liberation theologians from Argentina didn’t like him as the bishop, and actually tried to stop him from being promoted to be the Archbishop of Buenos Aires. So they must be especially nervous today. You know, he has a love for the poor, but anybody who is a serious Christian does. Jesus tells us in the story of Lazarus and the rich man that if you don’t care for the poor, you’re going to go to Hell. And that’s a basic Christian principle, that we have to love the poor. That doesn’t mean the government should take care of our responsibility to care for the poor for us. And I think that’s where we often get confused here. People think if you talk about caring for the poor, you must be in favor of government programs that do that for you. I think in some ways, abdicating our personal responsibility to the government on anything is a bad thing to do. It really distracts us from our own responsibilities to be engaged.
HH: Now the past two pontiffs have been extraordinary men of letters, theologians and public intellectuals. And you are yourself engaged in the arena. You’ve written these books and you are always eager to speak out and argue and appear and talk and engage in the public life of the mind. Do you expect that from Pope Francis?
CC: He’s not, he’s more of an evangelical preacher than he would be an intellectual. He’s smart as can be, he’s had a good academic training, but I don’t think he has personally lived his life in that area so much as being out being street preacher, really, someone who enjoys going to parishes on Sunday to preach rather than to engage in academic discussions. We need both in the Church, and many of us like to have both those things as part of our lives. And I’m sure he does, too. He’s been a leader, and leaders have to do that. But his focus would be more on evangelical preaching.
HH: Now I want to conclude by asking in the last minute and a half here, two minutes, Archbishop Chaput, you are yourself a Native American, and you come from the Americas. How exciting is it for the American Hemisphere to have a Pope?
CC: Well, a couple of people I’ve read of some prominence have said it’s about time we had one. I don’t know why anybody thinks it’s about time, because we should always pick the best person to be Pope, not somebody from a particular area. As a matter of fact, this is the right time. This is the right man for this time. But you know, the Hispanic community is especially happy. And I’ve had so many people writing to me about that from the Latino community. The Native American community, of course, would be happy with his leadership because of his focus on the poor and the marginalized, and there certainly are a lot of poor and marginalized among the Indian people. But Hispanics are especially happy about that. I’m very, very happy about it, too. And you know, we, the Church tends to see North and South America as one continent rather than two distinct continents, so we think we have an American Pope.
HH: Well, it’s going to be a fascinating Easter, and I’m sure you’re looking forward to it, and I can’t wait to read your Easter message when it appears on the Philadelphia Archdiocese’s website. In advance, a Happy Easter to you…
CC: Thanks, Hugh.
HH: …after an appropriate Holy Week, Archbishop.
CC: And to you, too. Thank you very much.
HH: Thank you.
End of interview.