When Pope Benedict tapped Charles Chaput to replace the retiring Cardinal Justin Rigali as head of the Philadelphia Archdiocese, I could barely contain my excitement.
Finally, a man of uncorruptible ethics, a scholar and someone who did not care about whether he would speak softly enough for parishioners with pitchforks, was coming to my hometown. I believe that he was sent to clean up the mess made by generations of predecessors like the imperial and secretive Anthony Bevilacqua, and put the Philadelphia church back on track.
Chaput came into an archdiocese, the ninth largest in the United States, amid financial crisis. He was forced to be an accountant and a CEO as well as a spiritual leader. He closed many parishes and merged others, despite resentment from parishioners who lost their beloved churches and schools. And he was successful. In 2018, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s central administrative office had an operating gain for the first time in many years.
And yet, over the last eight years, Chaput has put up with criticism, a sometimes hostile press, and the thankless job of being a traditional Catholic in a city that is increasingly (and in my view, problematically) woke.
Because of his ability to make these tough decisions and display grace under pressure, I have been a fan of Chaput’s for the duration of his tenure.
I will be sad to see him leave in a few months when he retires. This week, he turned 75 and according to church laws, was required to tender his resignation to Pope Francis. It is expected that Francis, with whom Chaput has publicly disagreed, will name a successor.
But my admiration goes beyond his business acumen and thick skin. It is the personal experiences that have shown me what a truly great man he is.
Several years ago, I was handling the asylum case of a pregnant Salvadoran woman whose boyfriend had beaten her so badly that she lost the child. A devout Catholic, she believed it was her fault her unborn child had died. I reached out to the archbishop and said that it would mean a great deal if he would speak with her, and without a moment’s hesitation he said, “Bring her tomorrow at 4:00.” And the very busy archbishop of a city in crisis sat on his couch next to a humble young Latina in pain. They prayed together. On the day that she was granted asylum, she told me that his kindness had helped her fight, both for herself and that unborn baby.
A few years later, I asked the archbishop if he had a moment to meet with a very young mother who had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. She was also deeply devout, and afraid for her three little children when she was gone. He again found the time to meet with someone in deep pain, hold her hand, pray with her. When she died, I reached out to tell him the sad news. He already knew, because he had kept in touch with her during her final illness. I had no idea.
These are just two examples of Charles Chaput’s quiet kindness, incidents of which I’m personally aware.
There are others. A friend once told me that the archbishop was scheduled to preside at her child’s confirmation but arrived late. It turns out that on his way to the event, he passed by a fatal car accident on the road, stopped to give the victim last rights, and stayed with him until the last moment.
This is the true nature of Philadelphia’s current archbishop. He has often been caricatured in the press as conservative and out of touch with an evolving cultural landscape. And yet in many ways he is as much the simple parish priest who cares deeply about his people as he is the exalted son of a great church.
For me, simply, he is a man whose heart and spirit are gifts this archdiocese can ill afford to lose.