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As Chaput turns 75, the countdown to Philadelphia’s next Catholic archbishop begins

Chaput has sent his resignation to the Vatican and is waiting for a response. His departure will give Pope Francis the chance to select a prelate more in his mold for one of the most active archdioceses in the nation.

Shown here at a Sept. 5 ceremony to celebrate several staff members awarded papal honors from Pope Francis, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput turns 75 on Thursday and is expected to announce his retirement soon.
Shown here at a Sept. 5 ceremony to celebrate several staff members awarded papal honors from Pope Francis, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput turns 75 on Thursday and is expected to announce his retirement soon.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

After eight years as the Roman Catholic archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles J. Chaput turns 75 this week, a milestone that will mark the beginning of the end for his tenure leading the ninth-largest diocese in the United States.

Under church law, prelates must offer to resign upon reaching that birthday, which comes Thursday for Chaput. It is up to Pope Francis to decide whether to accept it, reject it, or to keep the archbishop on until a successor can be named.

Church officials have said little about Chaput’s future. But he has made his intentions clear.

“I’m going to be retiring this year,” Chaput told a crowd at a panel discussion last month at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood. And speculation is already building among the region’s 1.5 million Catholics as to what — and more importantly, who — comes next.

The search could move swiftly or drag for years. Cardinal Justin Rigali, Chaput’s immediate predecessor, remained for more than a year after his 75th birthday. Before that, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua stayed on until he was 80.

An archdiocesan spokesperson confirmed Friday that Chaput has sent his resignation to the Vatican and is waiting for a response. His departure will give the pope the chance to select a prelate more in his mold for one of the most active archdioceses in the nation.

Though Chaput has pushed back against those who would characterize him as Francis’ foil, his outspoken traditionalism and willingness to enter the fray of secular politics have earned him a following in the conservative Catholic movement that has arisen in response to one of the most progressive popes in generations.

“These two individuals have quite different ways of doing theology and processing questions confronting the Catholic community,” said Philip Cunningham, a theology professor at St. Joseph’s University. “They’re not mutually exclusive, but they are different.”

The archbishop’s retirement comes amid a wave of vacancies in U.S. dioceses that could allow Francis the opportunity to reorient Church leadership in the country that houses some of his most vocal critics.

Nine of the United States’ 190 diocesan bishops are 75 or older, and six more — including Camden’s Bishop Dennis Sullivan, whose birthday is in March — will turn that age during the next year. Seven other top seats remain empty as a result of retirements and transfers.

Among dioceses that are open or soon will be, Philadelphia is widely seen as the crown jewel. But it faces serious challenges, including a shrinking flock, financial strain, a looming seminary relocation, and a federal grand jury probe targeting sex abuse that has already led to the indictment of one former priest.

Traditionally, its archbishops have been elevated to the College of Cardinals, though Francis broke that custom with Chaput.

“Philadelphia is still an extremely important see between New York and Washington, with a lot of history and tradition, and whoever gets that job is presumably going to become a leader among the U.S. bishops,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior analyst for Religion News Service. “The pope is going to be very careful to make sure it’s someone he trusts.”

Names of possible successors are already being whispered in church pews, parish halls, and the archdiocese’s North 17th Street headquarters. Frequently mentioned candidates include: Timothy P. Broglio, 67, archbishop for the U.S. military services; Joseph Bambera, 63, bishop of Scranton; James F. Checchio, 53, bishop of Metuchen, N.J.; and Bishop Robert W. McElroy, 65, of San Diego.

Then again, when it comes to speculation about papal appointments, it’s often said that those who say don’t know, and those who know don’t say. And Francis has been known to surprise.

The Vatican’s chief diplomat in the United States is charged with drafting a list of three candidates he believes to be qualified to become the region’s next archbishop.

That report is forwarded to the Congregation for Bishops in Rome, which will review the selections and submit one name to the pope, who can accept it, ask for another candidate, or make his own selection.

A more progressive Catholic leader?

Whoever Francis picks is likely to represent a stark change from the man whom Pope Benedict XVI selected in 2011.

In his time in Philadelphia, Chaput emerged as the intellectual leader of the conservative wing of the U.S. Church through his fierce opposition to abortion, divorce, and same-sex marriage, as well as his penchant for wading into secular political debates.

Most notably, in 2016, Chaput posted notice that Catholics living in “irregular” sexual relationships — such as heterosexual cohabitation, same-sex partnerships, and those divorced and remarried outside the church — still could not be given Holy Communion. The move came just four months after Francis issued a major decree that appeared to grant bishops more latitude in that regard.

“The Catholic Church has too often been like a country club with a rule book that you have to follow to be a member,” said Reese. “Francis talks about the Church as a field hospital for the wounded and that we should be focused on that instead.”

That philosophy can be seen in many of the bishops whom the pope has elevated, such as McElroy, the San Diego bishop who has written widely on the Church’s social-justice mission and has championed causes including comprehensive immigration reform and ending homelessness.

“Francis doesn’t believe in the culture war model,” said Massimo Faggioli, professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. “You still won’t see a bishop who thinks abortion is good or who is neutral on the moral issue, but you might have one discussing it in a different way or focusing on different things like promoting the Church community.”

A manager as much as a minister

Practical considerations are also likely to factor in the choice of Chaput’s successor. With more than 215 parishes, 460 diocesan priests, and a network of universities and schools serving more than 141,000 students, the Philadelphia archdiocese has one of the largest Catholic infrastructures in the nation and will require a prelate with strong administrative skills.

Chaput has admitted to feeling unprepared for the steep learning curve when he arrived from a stint leading the much smaller diocese of Denver eight years ago. More than anything else, his early tenure was defined by two crises he inherited from his predecessors — fallout from the clergy sex-abuse scandal and the Philadelphia archdiocese’s faltering finances.

Reese, the Religion News commentator, gave him high marks for his response.

“I think he did a pretty good job,” he said. “He was willing to make decisions that hurt,” including closing more than 70 parishes and selling off valuable properties like the cardinal’s mansion, the archdiocese’s 19-room Jersey Shore vacation villa, and St. Charles Borromeo Seminary’s 75-acre property in Lower Merion Township, prompting the school’s upcoming relocation to smaller quarters.

Chaput will likely hand the aftershocks of those problems to his successor.

Pennsylvania is still grappling with last year’s grand jury report that uncovered decades of abuse and cover-up in dioceses across the state and set off a contentious statehouse battle over laws that would give victims more time to sue. Meanwhile, Mass attendance continues to decline, promising another wave of austerity measures.

“The history of Philadelphia Catholicism was for so long one of expansion — ‘Let’s just keep building more schools, more churches,' ” said Kathleen Sprows Cummings, an Aston native and a historian of the Church at the University of Notre Dame. “Now it’s one of retraction, and the next archbishop is going to have to preside over that.”

Chaput acknowledged the issue, speaking at a forum last month, but said that he would leave it to “the next bishop [to] come in and make plans for the next 10 or 15 years.”

“We have more than 200 parishes in the archdiocese,” he said. “When we consider … people who actually go to church, we need about 100.”

For now, though, Chaput appears to be enjoying a victory lap. He’s taken to dropping in at random parish Masses. Two weeks ago, he bestowed papal honors on 40 longtime archdiocesan employees. And next month, the archdiocese’s youth ministry will fete him with a birthday bash featuring bowling, beer, and, if the ads are to be believed, the archbishop playing trombone.

Chaput’s spokesperson, Ken Gavin, said Friday that the archbishop intends to remain in the region after stepping down.

As for what else his future holds, or how prominent his public profile will be, Chaput is keeping his own counsel.

“Philadelphia’s a tough place to be. You can’t please everyone here,” said Matt Coyne, an ordained deacon from West Chester and president of the Philadelphia chapter of Legatus, an organization for Catholic business leaders. “But he came, he did his time, and I give him a lot of credit. He’s a tremendous spiritual leader. I don’t know that everyone got to see that, but I did.”