On Thursday, Charles J. Chaput, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Philadelphia, turned 75, a milestone that marks the beginning of the end of his eight-year tenure. Under church law, bishops must offer to resign upon reaching that birthday. Pope Francis will either accept it or ask him to continue until a successor is named.
What this means is that Philadelphia, the ninth-largest diocese in the United States, may soon have a new archbishop.
This change in leadership comes during some very dark days for Philadelphia Catholics, although perhaps not the darkest in their history.
In 1844, riots in the Kensington and Southwark neighborhoods resulted in the destruction of two Catholic churches and 30 Catholic homes, the violence committed by Americans who viewed Catholicism as an irredeemably foreign religion. The story of what happened since has for so long been a narrative of triumph, punctuated by events like Cardinal Denis Dougherty’s 1935 purchase of a 10,000-square-foot mansion on City Avenue, or Philadelphia’s warm embrace of Pope John Paul II in 1979.
These days of pride are in the past. A dense archdiocesan infrastructure, once a crown jewel of the U.S. Catholic Church, crumbles with each shuttered school or parish. Over the last 28 years, Mass attendance has dropped by 52%, according to CatholicPhilly.com, the official news website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. These numbers were calculated using the Mass Census, an annual headcount of people at all Masses in every parish for four consecutive weeks in October.
Having been born, baptized, and educated in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, I find this precipitous decline astonishing: I grew up surrounded by Catholics who never thought of missing a Sunday.
As a historian, I wonder now whether those early days of persecution were so indelibly imprinted on Catholic bishops’ institutional memory that when the actual threats evaporated, they continued to operate as they had before, consolidating power in church and state and brooking no opposition from either quarter. The path from church burnings in Kensington to a mansion on City Avenue was also the path that led to the contemporary crisis in the church over clergy sex abuse. Intensified by the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report in August 2018, and the scandalous revelations about former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, this crisis was caused by members of the hierarchy who saw themselves above American law, impervious to challenges from lay Catholics, and determined to prioritize the preservation of the institution over the protection of the most vulnerable among them.
This new purchase on Philadelphia’s Catholic past dares us to imagine a new future, one that Chaput’s successor can help create. I hope that Pope Francis will appoint a man who is more pastoral than polarizing, a man who seeks a church that is less powerful but more relevant, a man more inclined to listen rather than condemn. Such a shepherd might not only reinvigorate the steadfast Philadelphia faithful, but may also persuade a few of those who renounced Catholicism to return to the fold.
Imagine, for example, that Philadelphia’s new archbishop forgoes a lavish installation ceremony. Instead, he presides at a modest Mass, adorned in the simple vestments of a parish priest. What follows is not a formal banquet in his honor, but a visit to the city’s largest homeless shelter, where he and archdiocesan seminarians serve lunch to the guests.
Imagine he announces that this January, archdiocesan schools will not sponsor bus trips to the March for Life in Washington. Quoting Pope Francis’ Gaudete et Exsultate, he emphasizes that Catholics will continue to be “clear, firm, and passionate,” in defending the innocent unborn. Nevertheless, Catholic schoolchildren will spend Jan. 24 volunteering at a variety of local institutions, mindful that, as Pope Francis says, “equally sacred are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection.”
Imagine Philadelphia’s next archbishop broadens the definition of “pro-life” to extend to the lives shattered by sexual abuse suffered at the hands of the clergy. He offers to meet personally, without lawyers or handlers present, with survivors and their loved ones, simply to listen to their stories. He offers to publish their accounts as a regular feature on CatholicPhilly.com, so that others can learn of their pain. He pledges to be vigilant, to muster all the resources at his command, to ensure that no child, ever again, will be abused under archdiocesan auspices.
Imagine he reaches out to those who feel unwelcome in the church because of their sexuality or gender. Imagine he appoints women to key leadership positions, and acknowledges that women, lay and religious, have done and continue to do most of the day-to-day running of the church at the parish and archdiocesan level. Imagine he says to some of those women, “I know you have heard the same call I and my fellow priests have heard, but that the church’s lack of theological imagination prevents you from answering it. Our church needs your energy and gifts. Let’s talk. I promise to listen.”
These imaginings might be dismissed as hopeless dreams. How could one man, after all, turn Philadelphia Catholicism around? The simple answer is that he can’t, nor should he. Philadelphia’s 10th archbishop would do well to behave, as few of his predecessors have done in this most clerical and hierarchical of dioceses, as if he knows that the church does not belong to him, but to all of us.