An Archbishop for the New Evangelization

An Interview with 

Archbishop Charles Chaput, OFM Cap. of Denver

From Inside the Vatican, May 1998

By John Mallon

The first thing that strikes a visitor at an event staged by the Archdiocese of Denver, USA is the youthfulness of the archdiocesan staff, up to and including the Ordinary of the archdiocese, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., who at 53, is the youngest archbishop in the United States. One almost gets the impression of glimpsing the diocese of the future. The presence of zealous, dedicated 20-somethings and 30-somethings—and a few enthusiastic older-somethings—working under the recently appointed lay Chancellor of the Archdiocese, Fran Maier, who is a youthful and energetic 49, is as edifying as it is significant because in the Catholic Church of the 1990s youth means orthodoxy.  

One sees the embodiment of what a diocese can be when the norms of Vatican II are implemented according to the true vision of the Council unimpeded by the "progressivism" that has impeded that vision for more than 30 years. Much of the credit for the dynamism of this archdiocese goes to newly-created Cardinal James Francis Stafford, Chaput's predecessor as Archbishop of Denver who hosted the Holy Father's visit to Denver for World Youth Day in 1993. 

Cardinal Stafford has spoken frequently since then of the many graces that flowed from that unforgettable event which marked a turning point not only for the Archdiocese of Denver but for the Church in the United States. It is said that after that event the Holy Father was sufficiently impressed with Stafford and the events in Denver to call him to Rome to serve as the Prefect for the Pontifical Council of the Laity. 

The appointment of Chaput to Denver from Rapid City, South Dakota, in April of 1997 was a glove fit for the new archbishop and the renewed archdiocese. Archbishop Chaput has caught the notice of Rome in his own right with his youthful dynamism. On Wednesday, November 19, during the Special Synod for America in Rome, he drew the day's loudest applause with his ringing call for personal holiness among the bishops. The Franciscan archbishop called for a return to simplicity among the bishops and warned of the danger of losing their "Christ-like focus." He said, "My concern is that the structures of today's diocesan life too frequently prevent the very thing they were meant to help: a bishop's direct contact with his people ... it is too easy today for a bishop to abdicate his missionary zeal to others, and become a captive of his own administrative machinery. This runs exactly counter to the example of Jesus and the first apostles."

He said, "Our hemisphere has become a culture of noise, confusion and complication. We are a distracted people, both North and South, and we are now also a distracted Church. We have plans and committees and projects and staffs. All these things are important in their proper place. But at the end of the day, are we apostles . . . or are we executives? And what do our people really need: managers . . . or pastors?" 

He also said the new information revolution was creating new issues of a new global mentality and culture, a "new way of knowing and expressing things which we misunderstand at our peril." Among these issues are new issues of justice which he said "the Church urgently needs to speak to."

It was precisely to speak to these issues that the Archdiocese of Denver, along with the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, headed by Archbishop John Foley, co-sponsored the conference NewTech '98: The New Technologies and the Human Person, March 26-28, as a follow-up to the Synod. 

Experts from the new technological fields gathered with Church leaders of North, South, Central America and the Caribbean—including Cuba, as well as from Europe and the Vatican to examine the moral, philosophical, epistemological and anthropological questions raised by recent developments in communications technology. 

The youthful, forward-looking spirit of this dynamic young archbishop and his dedicated staff were very much in evidence at this extraordinary conference where Inside the Vatican spoke with Archbishop Chaput.

John Mallon: Archbishop Chaput, we've heard this week at the conference that in calling the recent Synod for America the Holy Father has, in his genius, almost changed our entire concept of the Western Hemisphere, viewing it as one continent: North, Central and South America. We've heard the term "globalization" this week. How do you interpret these concepts? What do they mean for us?

Archbishop Charles Chaput: Well, I was privileged to be at the Synod of Bishops and it was obvious, even before the Synod began, that the Holy Father wanted to nudge our minds in that direction, so that in our minds, the minds of the bishops of both the North and the South, we really see ourselves as having a common future, as well as a common origin. 

That was one of the beautiful experiences of the Synod—coming to see that the artificial distinctions that exist across the Americas are really that; they're artificial. We really are one continent.  The Church, of course, is a Church without borders, and the Holy Father wanted us to see that. Also, he wanted us to understand the importance of the Americas in the future of the Church—not only the history of the Church, but the future of the Church. 

One thing that's been obvious during our time together, this week even, as well as at the Synod, is that there's a huge proportion of the Catholic world in the Americas. We are in some ways going to be the ground of the New Evangelization. I use the word  ground of the New Evangelization, because we're here. So many of us are here. And we have a common responsibility for one another. One of the great blessings to the North, I think, is the immigration of so many people from the South into our part of the Americas. In some ways, they may be the salvation of the Church in the United States, because they bring with them a spirit and a soul, and a deep kind of faith, that will, I think,  rekindle and re-enliven the faith of the churches of the North.

In the year you've been in Denver, you've distinguished yourself as a zealous, energetic, and joyful evangelist. Your intervention at the Synod for America was electrifying. You mentioned the new Information Revolution. Is the present conference on the new communications technologies a kind of extension of that point, or an extension of the Synod? 

It is. One of the great joys that I have had this week is meeting so many of my brother bishops that I came to know, in a passing kind of way, at least, in Rome at the Synod. So many, again, of the Holy Father's prime collaborators from the Synod are also with us—those who work at the Vatican.  We see this—and some people have referred to it as the first fruits of the Synod. I don't know if it's the first or not, but I know it is a fruit of that, because when we planned this conference, we really did do it with the thought that we wanted to have a Synod, a gathering of bishops of the Americas, reflecting on the importance of the new technologies, on the dignity of the human person, but also as an instrument of helping people know their dignity, by bringing them to know Christ, and how Christ transforms our understanding of what it means to be a human being, what it means to be in relationship to God, and in relationship to one another. So it really is a great fruit of the Synod, therefore it's a fruit of the Holy Father's genius and imagination.  But I also know it's just the beginning, and just one of the fruits of the Synod, because we hope that there'll be many other similar kinds of initiatives in the local churches, where other bishops in other local churches will be invited to participate. 

Well, it's a great initiative. Could these technological tools be characterized as simply bigger megaphones, with which to proclaim the Good News from the housetops? 

CHAPUT: Well, they certainly are bigger megaphones because the outreach is more significant than in the early megaphones that we used to speak through. But, also I think it's been clear from the presentations this week, that these instruments also change the way human beings think. Because they change how we think, and what we think about, even our capacity for thought, it's more than just a megaphone. It is truly a revolution. It's an anthropological revolution. In the same way, the image that's used so often is the printing press. The printing press did more than just speed up the work of the copyist. It changed the way human beings relate to each other because it made the basis of education much broader, and enabled us to access information more freely. This, of course, is doing that in spades. It's just incredible, what's going on. 

Well, the meeting here is almost without precedent, isn't it? 

CHAPUT: I don't know that it is without precedent; it's something we wanted to do. We didn't think about that. The people say, "Why Denver?" and "Why now?" and "Isn't this without precedent?" and it kind of surprises me when I hear that, because, why not Denver? It's a great center of technological development. 

You'll notice that most of the speakers who talked at our sessions were from Denver, actually. So, we have a huge group of folks, both Catholic, and people who aren't members of our Church, who wanted to make their resources available to the Church and who see the importance for the Church of our getting on board with an understanding and some kind of ability to use the new technologies. So, if it is without precedent, it was kind of an accidental thing. We were glad to get it started, but we hope it won't be without precedent in the future. We hope it will be the first of many. 

Denver seems perfect, geographically, at the center of the continent, and with its altitude that communications technologies can utilize. 

CHAPUT: One of the things too, that we're very proud of about Denver, is our Hispanic community. And, in some ways we're a mix, in Denver, like the Americas is a mix of people. So, we knew that our friends from the South, our brothers from the South, would be at home here. 

I heard a theologian say that thanks to Pope John Paul II, and Cardinal Ratzinger, the Church has moved out of the Post-Conciliar age and into the era of the New Evangelization. You're the youngest archbishop in the United States. You seem to embody the qualities of a bishop for this new era, as specified in the Vatican II documents. How do you envision the future of the Church, as we enter the new millennium? 

CHAPUT: It's kind of you to say that. I guess I am the youngest archbishop—I can't deny that. I've been a bishop for a long time already, ten years, it's going on ten years, and so I don't think of myself as a new bishop. I really do hope I will be able to be faithful to the vocation that God gives me, which is making me a bishop in the Church at this time. I am going to be a bishop for a long time, unless the Lord calls me to Himself. Because of that, I really do need to strategize with my collaborators and in my own mind, in my prayer with God, on what's coming up, what's happening, how we might be better evangelists. 

I think that evangelization is the heart of the Church. When we love, we proclaim our love. When we love our neighbors, we want them to know that God loves them, and who they are in relationship with God, and so it just drives us into a fruitful and zealous evangelization. The Holy Father has talked about the next millennium as being a new springtime for the Church. It makes me think of the first springtime of the Church, which was the age of the martyrs. So, when the Holy Father calls us to the New Springtime, I think he's prophetic. But, I think we might be a bit naive if we think the new springtime is going to be pleasant, warm weather. The blood of the martyrs were the seeds of faith for the Church. Perhaps, one of the things we need to reflect on is what I sometimes refer to as missionary realism. We really need to get aware that the nails of the cross are very much a part of the message of Easter, and we need to go through Calvary to get there. 

The document on the role of bishops in the Second Vatican Council repeats over and over that the bishops' primary task is to proclaim the Gospel. Your recent statements recall this simplicity. Your Synod intervention and your article, "John Paul II and the Gift of Clarity," both mention the noise of our culture, and conforming our actions to our words. How do you personally escape the noise of our culture and the distractions of bureaucracy, in order to refocus on the essentials? 

One of the dangers of the new technology is that it brings noise to places where it wouldn't have existed before. When I get up in the morning, I get up to news. And I do it very deliberately, because, otherwise I won't get a chance to know what's going on in the world until well into the day, and it's important for me to know that. Now of course, one of the temptations would be to leave the news on, and be preoccupied with it. So many in our society, in the United States, turn on CNN, and watch it all day long. It repeats itself, over and over again. It seems we just have to hear it all over and over again. Also, we come home and we plug in our computer, and we go to the Internet, and again, we can be bombarded with it—with noise. Not just audio noise, but noise—perception—being bombarded from outside simulation—news and information. I think that one of the important examples of Jesus in the Scriptures, if we really want to come in touch with the Father's plan for us is we have to go into the desert. We have to have time to ourselves. 

After I wake up to the news, I turn it off and I go to my chapel, and I pray. I mean, I begin the first part of the day in personal prayer. Which gives me an ability, really, to endure the rest of the day. When I say endure, some days it's a real endurance but, some days it's a very joyful time. You endure the distractions of the day. So, I think we need time in our life for prayer and reflection, for serious reading of the Scriptures, for praying of the Psalms, so—that's how I do it. There are more and more temptations with the new technologies. 

Yes, well, again, even when we seek silence in prayer and the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament our minds are still reeling with internal noise. It's hard to turn that off, even. It takes a long time to settle down. 

It does. God has blessed me with the grace of being able to do it pretty quickly, generally. I really like to escape it. I really like to escape it. When I was the bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota, I had great opportunities for travel, in quiet, because there are huge distances there, and I was quite often on the road. There were always times when I really came back better than when I left. One of the things I refuse to do is have a cell phone, and I don't have one, even in the car. I just do not believe that I need to be available to others all day long, and yet have time to be available to God, and I have a certain priority that I need to give to that every day.  

Well, your statement of June 4, 1997, which we just mentioned, "John Paul II and the Gift of Clarity," came as a breath of fresh air to many Catholics who are wearied by the drone of dissent, and questions that really belong to the past. Your comments on the Catholic Theological Society of America calling them to task for rehashing the question of women's ordination, were very direct, concise, and charitable. Has the time finally come to abandon these discussions and move forward? 

Well, I certainly think so. You know, one of the joyful messages of the Second Vatican Council that all of us embraced when the Council was being celebrated, was the necessity of the Church to read the signs of the time. It seems to me that so much of that internal fighting—those fights within the Church—are really fights about things that are not terribly important anymore. They seem to be the agenda of the past. 

One of the things that I always use to judge, and I think this is extremely important—whether it be a view that I have, or a policy that's present in the life of the Church—or a policy of an archdiocese—is whether it bears fruit. Jesus said very clearly that "By their fruits you will know them". And it seems to me that so much of what people of my generation are clinging to in the leadership of the Church, among religious and priests, are things that didn't work. They didn't bear fruit. We don't have vocations and a huge number of people have stopped going to church. 

Now, those initiatives were embraced with all the good will in the world, and with real hope that they would bear fruit. But, you have to come to the point where you just have to sit back and look at it. The only question we should ever ask about any of our initiatives, and our own thinking, is—does this lead people to Christ? Has it led people to Christ? And if it doesn't, then it's time for us to try something new. 

And so I think in some ways, one of the dangers of all of us is that yesterday's progressives who were looking for a new way of spreading the Gospel become today's conservatives, in the sense that they don't want to look at anything new. They're attached to old ideas. It's tragic that those old ideas don't work. And they don't bring people to Christ. Why be attached to them? That's the wrong kind of attachment. It's an attachment to something we've created rather than an attachment to the Lord Himself. So, I wish we'd just get over all this stuff and get started on a New Evangelization, because we've got a whole lot of people in our communities who want to hear the Good News of Jesus. And these inter-family fights draw energy away from what we're supposed to be about. 

Now, I have to be realistic; if you read the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles, you know that St. Paul and Barnabas, apparently, argued over Mark. Their debates and struggles are very true. That's a part of being human. But, my concern is that we're not asking the right question. What is this for Christ? What is this for Christ? If it isn't fruitful for Christ, it isn't the inspiration of the Holy Spirit for our time. 

You referred in your talk at the last Mile-High Conference on Religious Education in Denver to your Christmas Eve pastoral letter, that you didn't particularly like writing pastoral letters. After reading a good deal of your written work in preparation for this interview, I find that a pity. Your zeal is infectious, it jumps off the page. Could you be persuaded to write more? 

Oh, my goodness, you know, I hardly have time to do what I need to do now. I've even had a publishing company come to me and ask me to do a book. I can't imagine where I would find the time. You know, the stuff you're reading, really is the fruit of my ten years as a bishop. In some ways I may have said all I have to say. You'll see, the themes will be repeating themselves over and over again, because I think they are very important themes. I have a certain confidence, a clear confidence, that that's where the Holy Spirit is calling the Church to go. So I need to keep speaking that. Oh, I'll say it in new and creative ways, so it won't be mere repetition, but most of us just have one or another idea, and that's why the community of the Church is so very important. I'm honored that people think I have something to say—I'm not at all sure that I have as much to say as they think I do. But I hope I do make an ongoing contribution. 

There's something else I wanted to tell you. Not long ago, I expressed my idea in print—it wasn't a pastoral letter. It was an article that I wrote for the magazine of the Lateran University in Rome—the "Fools with Tools are Still Fools" article, and someone who thinks the bishops ought to keep their noses out of politics—and I think generally we should—wrote to me and said he wondered if I wasn't exceeding my competence, in talking about political issues. My response to him was, "Every time I open my mouth, I exceed my competence," you know, so, I have to be careful that I don't think I have too much to say about too many things. I just hope the Lord guides me in the appropriate way of being the Archbishop of Denver. If what I do here is useful for the broader community of the Church, thanks be to God. But my love and my focus, really, is on the people of the archdiocese. 

I think what you say repetitively bears repeating. At the Mile-High talk—and you anticipated me when you mentioned this before—you used the term "missionary realism," by which you meant inclusion of the cross and suffering in our expectations as disciples and missionaries. Would you like to elaborate on that?

CHAPUT: Well, from my personal experience, and you've been very kind to me in your reflection and your questions today, and your evaluation of my presence in the Church. But, there are others who would disagree with you very strongly. It's nice to be among friends, but the Church is all of us, you know. We don't always share the same views. I'm aware of that—I'm very much aware of that. I hope that I'll always be open to those who are different than I, and I can enter into honest and joyful dialogue with people of different views. But the Church has gone through difficult times, and I expect we will in the future, and if persecution was the response that Jesus received to His preaching, those of us who are His servants and disciples certainly can't expect any more than that, and certainly not any less than that. 

So, I think it's very important for all of those who know, who experience the call from the Holy Spirit, the call of Jesus, to be evangelizers in the world, to know that not everyone will joyfully accept them. And that the message of Christ is despised by the evil one. The evil one touches all of our lives in some ways. That's why the sin of the Church sometimes gets in the way of our preaching. So, I really do pray that we'll have the courage to be faithful to the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ, even in difficult times. And that we won't be at all, ever, afraid of the struggles, in such a way that the fear would paralyze us from doing what's good. We should have appropriate fear of the struggle, because otherwise we won't depend on the Lord. But, if it ever paralyzes the Church, then we've been unfaithful to our spouse, and we need to be courageous. We ask for the gift of courage from the Holy Spirit.  

In your "Fools with Tools Are Still Fools" article you mentioned, is the idea of this conference we've been attending on modern technology intended as a way, as a step, in curbing our foolishness, so as not to let it keep pace with the breathtaking expansion of our tools? 

You know, I think there are two things that I hope this conference does, and it's kind of designed this way, that one part of the design is for us to be aware of how an empty use of the tools can lead to foolishness. We have to be aware of the dangers. We can't be so fascinated with technique, that we lose contact with content. But, at the same time, we have to make sure that we are competing in the real world. By competing, I don't mean against, but competing for the attention of people, so we have to use the new tools. We have to make sure the new tools are fully enriched with the Gospel of Christ, so that they can be used effectively, to bring people not to say, how clever Catholics are, but how good the Lord is. And how necessary He is, because He's the one savior. 

© 1998, 2007, 2020 by John Mallon