In the glowing Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, Archbishop Charles Chaput’s voice echoed over the murmur of his congregants as he led them in reciting the Ten Commandments.
“See, you did pretty good!” he said after the 10th. “I bet if I had asked you to say it by yourself, you would’ve gotten through it.”
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The message was, perhaps, symbolic: Sunday evening was the last time in 8½ years that Chaput would lead the faithful in prayer — the last Mass he would celebrate as archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia before his successor, Bishop Nelson Pérez of Cleveland, is installed Tuesday.
In his final sermon before about 200 parishioners, Chaput left his flock with a prescription for happiness: following the commandments as a “pattern of life" that shows us "how to be good.”
In the towering Center City cathedral, people sat in nearly every pew, though overflow seating on each side remained empty. As they walked in, some said they would miss Chaput, and praised him for being humble, sweet, and caring.
“I think it’s a little sad, but I think he’s happy. I think it’s time for him to relax,” Eileen Heiler, 81, said on her way into Mass. “He’s just a loving man. He tried to do everything he could for us.”
The archbishop’s farewell drew sustained applause as he thanked the parishioners for the “wonderful gift” of their presence in his life and at his 6:30 p.m. weekly Mass.
“I’m very grateful for your presence. It really is the highlight of my week. It’s hard for you to believe that, isn’t it? The highlight of my week is looking at you all," Chaput said, drawing laughter from the crowd. “It’s been a very important part of my life. I’m very grateful to you."
And, he added, “I’ll still be around. I’m not dying, I’m just retiring.”
Chaput, who was appointed as archbishop in 2011, offered to retire upon reaching age 75, as is customary. He has been praised for stabilizing the archdiocese’s finances and for navigating the aftermath of a damning grand jury report on clergy sex abuse that implicated top church leaders in allowing credibly accused priests to remain in ministry.
Throughout his tenure in Philadelphia, Chaput has been known for his outspoken, sometimes controversial views on secular politics and conservative traditionalism.
His final sermon warned against sin — for example, among young people who have sex while dating — and offered a decisive message on divorce.
“People today raise questions about ‘does Jesus really mean you can’t divorce and remarry? Is it all that bad?’” Chaput said, citing the evening’s reading from the Book of Matthew. “The teaching of Jesus on divorce is really clear, and that doesn’t seem that he allows for exceptions for any of us.”
Arjun Dias of Northeast Philadelphia, who attended the Mass with his wife, said the evening was bittersweet.
“We like him a lot. He’s done a lot for the diocese. He cares a lot about the people here,” said the 30-year-old accountant.
Just that afternoon, Julie Milora, 23, learned from the news that it would be Chaput’s final sermon. She has been attending his Mass weekly since she moved to Philadelphia last year.
“I love him,” said Milora, a nurse. “He’s so sweet. I see him every Sunday. His [sermons] have always been so nice.”
As Chaput closes his era, Pérez, his successor, opens a tenure that could last much longer — he is 58, relatively young for the role. Many wonder how Pérez, who is widely described as warm and engaging and who will be the region’s first Hispanic archbishop, may change the tenor of the church.
Chaput on Sunday said Pérez “is a very good man and will serve you very well as your archbishop.”
Laura Baciu, who for the last two years has laid out the vestments before the archbishop’s sermons, held up a blue gift bag full of homemade granola as she walked in.
“I’ve made five flavors to send him off,” she said, ticking off a list that included cocoa, espresso, and brandy cherry.
Baciu, 62, will be there on Tuesday for Pérez’s installment, and she’s “excited for him, too.”
But Chaput was the reason she came to the cathedral each Sunday evening.