Denver, Colo., Jul 19, 2011 / 09:07 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, who will soon leave the Archdiocese of Denver to become the new Archbishop of Philadelphia, says his new archdiocese could emerge stronger from recent troubles, by embracing the chance to live the Gospel “without compromise.”
“The Church in Philadelphia is at an important point in her life. It’s not a time to be embarrassed about what we believe,” Archbishop Chaput told CNA in an exclusive interview. “In fact, it becomes even more crucial to preach the Gospel – both within the Church and outside the Church.”
“The biggest challenge, not just in Philadelphia but everywhere, is to preach the Gospel in a way that captures the imagination of God's people,” he said. “We need to have confidence in the Gospel. We have to live it faithfully, and to live it without compromise and with great joy.”
Archbishop Chaput said he could give “half a dozen reasons” why he considered himself an “implausible choice” to head the Church in Philadelphia. “But I do believe in the Holy Father’s wisdom, so I accept that the See of Philadelphia is where God wants me to be.”
“My life as a priest – first as a Capuchin Franciscan and now as a bishop – is shaped by a commitment to obedience; obedience to God as Father. The voice of the Pope is the voice of the Father for me.”
“I’m going to miss the Archdiocese of Denver very, very much,” Archbishop Chaput said. “They really are my family, and a part of my heart will always be in Denver.”
In Philadelphia, he will confront a challenging new situation. In March 2011, following a grand jury report, Cardinal Justin Rigali announced he was suspending 21 priests over allegations of misconduct he had originally judged not credible.
“We have to deal with scandal in an honest, thorough, confident way,” Archbishop Chaput stated. “We can do that, even when it’s very painful, because we know that Christ rose from the dead.”
He noted that the message of the resurrection is not a set of “powdered words,” but a “statement of fact” that should inform the Church's response to any challenge. In this light, “what happens in the Church, even when it seems death-dealing, can be turned into a moment of resurrection.”
The archbishop also wants Philadelphia's nickname – “the City of Brotherly Love” – to be an inspiration for his ministry, and not “just a good tourist slogan.”
“We know that Jesus, when he chooses men to be priests, chooses them with a brother's love, and I want to be a sign of that love to my brothers,” he reflected. “I look forward to embracing the new family that God is giving to me, the family that is the Church of Philadelphia.”
Archbishop Chaput, whose 2008 book “Render Unto Caesar” addressed the role of faith in public life, says it “means a great deal” to be chosen by the Pope to lead the Church in the city where the Declaration of Independence was signed.
“I think the United States has been blessed by God in unique ways. Because of that blessing, America has a duty to be a blessing for the world and for all people,” he reflected. “Philadelphia is one of this country’s truly great cities, and I want to be part of renewing and deepening the best in this community.”
He believes that Catholics, whatever their background or political affiliation, can only act in the country's best interest by putting their duties to God first.
“Before anything else, we're called to be Catholics. That should be the defining part of who we are. Whether we're Indians or Germans or Irish; whether we’re Democrats or Republicans, we are Catholic first. Everything else is secondary.”
But seeking God's kingdom first does not mean disregarding one's country.
“We owe it to our country and the age we live in, to be faithful Catholics,” Archbishop Chaput said. “If we're good Catholics first, then we're good citizens, and if we're good citizens, then we'll be a force of transformation for justice in the world.”
“If we don’t live as faithful Catholics, we betray the Gospel. We forfeit the opportunity God gives us to make a significant difference for the evangelization of culture.”
In recent years, Archbishop Chaput has increased his efforts to help Catholics rediscover a sense of their own identity amid the confusions of modern culture. He sees Catholic politicians' compromises, on issues such as abortion and same-sex “marriage,” as an outgrowth of a deeper secularization affecting the whole Church.
“If our political leaders lack conviction about their faith, it's because the members of the Church lack conviction about their faith. Political leaders are no different from the rest of us. So if we point fingers at them, we're also pointing fingers at ourselves, and at the broader Church community.”
Public officials, he said, are “not alone – not by a long shot -- in their tepidity and compromises of the Gospel.”
“If Catholics in their homes and parishes understand that, they'll realize that a serious conversion needs to take place in all our lives, and not just in the lives of politicians.”
As a Capuchin Franciscan, the archbishop looks to his order's founder as an example of fearless, uncompromising Christian witness. “Saint Francis rejected any kind of effort to diminish the demands of the Gospel,” he recalled.
“Of course, I have to live that discipline personally in my own life. That's the most important part of my Capuchin identity. But then I have to preach the Gospel in the same kind of way, in a way that's clear, that's always fresh, and always without compromise.”
Although the 66-year-old, Kansas-born bishop has not previously lived in Philadelphia, he did spend 10 years in western Pennsylvania – first as a seminarian, and later as an administrator for the Pittsburgh-based Capuchin Province of St. Augustine. Pope John Paul II chose him to be the Bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota in 1988, before appointing him Archbishop of Denver in 1997.
The archbishop, who is part Native American and belongs to the Prairie Band Potawatomi tribe, believes his first episcopal appointment came about partly through this heritage. In South Dakota, he noted, Blessed John Paul II was “looking for a way to reach out in special love to the native people.”
“So I see my episcopacy, in some ways, as born from that part of who I am.”
As he prepares to succeed Cardinal Rigali, Archbishop Chaput is taking inspiration from one of the earliest bishops of Philadelphia – St. John Neumann, the Czech Redemptorist missionary who became an American citizen, and later became the first U.S. bishop to be canonized as a saint.
“I’ve been praying to St. John Neumann a lot since getting the news,” Archbishop Chaput told CNA. “I want to love the priests and people of Philadelphia with the same zeal he brought to his ministry.”
“At least I can guarantee that no one will work harder, or try harder, than I will.”