Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Chaput looks forward to World Meeting and beyond

When Pope Francis' jet climbs above Philadelphia on the last Sunday of September and banks east for Rome, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput might allow himself a sigh of relief.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput acknowledges hoping for a measure of tranquility after four challenging years that have included planning for Pope Francis’ visit. His time here, Chaput said, “has not been the typical life of a bishop.” (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput acknowledges hoping for a measure of tranquility after four challenging years that have included planning for Pope Francis’ visit. His time here, Chaput said, “has not been the typical life of a bishop.” (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)Read more

When Pope Francis' jet climbs above Philadelphia on the last Sunday of September and banks east for Rome, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput might allow himself a sigh of relief.

The World Meeting of Families - three hectic years in the planning - will be over at last.

The six-day international gathering, capped by Francis' visit, "keeps me awake at night," Chaput said in a recent interview. The huge event, expected to draw as many as two million people, is the latest in a litany of challenges to confront him since his arrival in September 2011.

But Chaput also says it could reenergize, even "transform," Philadelphia and its Catholic community.

The church's 1993 World Youth Day did just that in Denver, he said. A half-million young people poured into the city, and Pope John Paul II said a Mass at its close.

"There was an incredible transformation as a result" of that five-day event, Chaput said. He hopes Philadelphia receives the "same kind of gift" - a "moment of building confidence and enthusiasm for the local church" and national recognition.

"But we won't know until after the visit."

And once the Benjamin Franklin Parkway is swept clean, and the temporary altar at the foot of the Philadelphia Museum of Art is disassembled, Chaput acknowledges hoping he can finally enjoy the tranquillity that has eluded him in his four years here.

Just last week, he hastened to distance the archdiocese from a Vatican official - whose office sponsors the World Meeting of Families - who is being investigated by Italian authorities over a real estate deal.

There is no evidence that Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia misappropriated World Meeting funds, but the investigation was yet another jolt for the oft-harried Chaput, who had to issue a statement saying the World Meeting was still on track.

"It has not been the typical life of a bishop," the 70-year-old archbishop said of his tenure here. He was seated in a chair in his 12th-floor office overlooking the great dome of the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul.

His nine years as bishop of Rapid City, S.D., and 14 as archbishop of Denver had not prepared him for what awaited him here. Neither had Cardinal Justin Rigali, his predecessor.

"I've had more chaos in the last four years than in all the time before that," he said, shaking his head slightly. But his manner was resigned, at times good-humored, as he spoke in concise sentences that bore traces of his native Kansas.

What he inherited here was a shrinking school system that could not pay its bills, a grossly underfunded employee pension system, a grand jury report alleging that dozens of active priests had acted indecently with minors, impending criminal trials involving four current or former priests accused of child sex-abuse or cover-up, and an untold number of moribund parishes in need of merging.

Any one of these might have been enough to gray the head of a new archbishop.

Then, nine months into his new tenure, Pope Benedict XVI handed Chaput a staggering new challenge.

The archdiocese had been chosen, Benedict told him, to host the eighth triennial World Meeting of Families in September 2015.

Though he put on a brave face, the news made him "nervous" and "not very enthusiastic," Chaput acknowledged later.

In addition to appointing the staff and volunteers needed to organize the massive undertaking, and consulting with the Vatican to develop its program, his new assignment would require him to raise $45 million. As of February, $30 million had been raised, and "we have every confidence of hitting the goal," archdiocesan spokesman Ken Gavin said last week.

Most of the money will be used, Chaput said, for "infrastructure, safety, security, and cleanup" for Francis' visit, and bringing in visitors from poor parts of the world.

Between 1.5 million and two million people are expected for the papal Mass, and about half that number for the Festival of Families the night before.

Chaput's early doubts that his troubled archdiocese would not be able to make a success of this "very complicated event" are long gone, he said, but the planning and fund-raising still deprive him of sleep.

"It's hard to imagine we can accomplish all the things we need by the end of September," he said. "But we have no choice."

By one measure, the World Meeting is already a success. With four months to go, 11,000 people have signed up for the four-day congress of lectures and workshops at the Convention Center. That is far ahead of the 7,000 who attended the 2012 World Meeting congress in Milan, Italy.

Still, uncertainties loom. While it has long been established that Francis will appear at an evening street fair on the Parkway Sept. 26 and say Mass there Sept. 27, Chaput said he still does not know what other appearances Francis might want to make here.

"I've suggested to him [that he see] the Liberty Bell" and Independence Mall, he said, because they are "a particularly important symbol for Philadelphia."

He has also proposed that Francis visit one or more of the city's Catholic schools, since they were the prototype of the massive school system that thrived in the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Holy See - at Francis' direction - will advise the archdiocese on what the pope will see, though it seems to have little control over Francis' penchant for straying off course and plunging into crowds.

In the meantime, the archdiocese waits. "I'm surprised we don't have the final schedule" for the pope, Chaput said.

He also does not know where the famously informal Francis might reside, "but I hope he stays at my residence," at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood.

The relatively modest apartments, where Chaput relocated after selling the 16-room cardinal's mansion in 2012, might appeal to Francis, who rejected the lavish residence in the papal palace for a plain apartment on the outskirts of Vatican City.

Chaput said he is sometimes asked if the tens of millions of dollars that will be spent on a modest four-day convention and the pope's brief appearances might be better used to serve the poor or other worthy causes.

He said that was a question for the major donors to answer. Some of those, he said, have been corporations "very interested in promoting Philadelphia as a vibrant, healthy community," but not likely to write large checks to further the mission of the Catholic Church.

And he does not regret the great cost of the World Meeting, he said, because "you can't estimate the amount of good" that might flow from it.

As an example, he said, several foreign lay Catholic communities were so impressed by the positive energy they saw in Denver that "they brought their movements to Colorado." The same might happen in Philadelphia, he said.

While he says he expects that the popular Francis will connect with the giant crowds, Chaput said he had "no idea" what the pope might talk about in his public remarks, although he recently met with him in Rome to discuss the "issues we face" in the archdiocese.

Although there will "always be fires" that need putting out, Chaput said, once the World Meeting is behind him, he hopes to shift from the "draining" work of crisis management.

On his agenda: evangelization, and leading his flock toward a "new model of Christian community."

The latter is compelled in part, he said, by the rapidly declining supply of priests in Philadelphia and most other dioceses in the United States.

"We need to declericalize the church and emphasize lay leadership," he said. "We'll need fewer priests if everyone is doing his or her role."

The World Meeting, capped by the massive turnout to see Francis, could be the transformative moment that "energizes our people" and prepares them to engage in new ways in their parishes.

"World Youth Day gave the people of Denver confidence in their church and the value of the Gospel in the life of their community," he said.

Drawing from that, he has asked every parish to send delegates for the whole six days "and take what they've learned, and their enthusiasm, back to their parishes."

"We have to have follow-up to make it worth all the energy and commitment and money we've put into it," Chaput said. Otherwise, it's "just a flash in the pan."

And when it is over, the archbishop's newest challenge - one that he welcomes - will be to carry forward the World Meeting as "a moment that leads to a transformation of lives."

Editor's Note: This story was corrected to reflect that Archbishop Chaput was not archbishop of Denver when the city hosted the 1993 World Youth Day. He became archbishop of Denver in 1997.