When the Archbishop of Denver, Charles J. Chaput, circulated a pastoral letter to his flock in July 1998 to mark the 30th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, he little knew the impact that letter would have. The pastoral has since then been widely disseminated around the world on the Internet and in the columns of L'Osservatore Romano, translated into six languages (including Japanese) and published in booklet form in Britain. The Archbishop is both pleased and rather surprised at the response.
In a recent interview with The Irish Catholic, Archbishop Chaput spoke of his background, his work and his hopes for the Church and society. An affable and vigorous 54-year-old and a genuine 'people-person', Charles Chaput has been Archbishop of Denver since April 1997. He has responsibility for a Catholic population of over 300,000 in Northern Colorado, with many Hispanics and some 2,000 Native Arnericans in his flock.
Charles Chaput was born in Concordia, north Kansas, where his mother still lives. Second in a family of three, his older sister and younger brother are both married. His family background is French Canadian and Native American; he is one of only two Native Arnerican bishops in the USA. Archbishop Chaput is a member of the Potawatomi tribe of Native Americans, an Algonquian-speaking group that originally inhabited Michigan. His maternal grandmother was the last member of the family to live on a reservation and Charles himself was enrolled in the tribe at a young age.
Educated by the St Joseph Sisters in Concordia, where two of his aunts are members of the community, Charles Chaput identified his priestly vocation at the early age of 13 years.
"I've never wanted to do anything else," he says. He attended a high school seminary run by the Capuchins. During formation for the priesthood part of his theological training came from Irish Capuchins in California.
Following his ordination, Fr Chaput taught theology and afterwards was appointed provincial superior of the Capuchins in the newly-created western province of the Order, where much of his time was given over to administration. During those years he also served as a pastor in the parish of Thornton in north Denver. In 1988, he was appointed Bishop of Rapid City in South Dakota, some 400 miles north of Denver, one of the most sparsely-populated and rural parts of the United States. He took as his episcopal motto: "As Christ loved the Church" based on Ephesians 5:25. He spent nine happy years in Rapid City, ministering to a thinly-spread Catholic population of 35,000, 40% of them Native Americans, many living on reservations.
His commitment to youth led him to challenge young people wherever he went to have joy and hope in a radical commitment to Jesus Christ. He also put in place strong vocations and lay ministry formation programs, as well as a complete diocesan system of Catholic education for the Rapid City diocese.
In early 1997 came the call to Denver to fill the vacancy created by the appointment of Archbishop (now Cardinal) Francis Stafford to the presidency of the Pontifical Council for the Laity in the Vatican and, on 4 April 1997, Charles Chaput was consecrated Archbishop of Denver. In June 1997, he received the pallium from the Pope.
In his almost two years as Archbishop, Charles Chaput has endeared himself to his flock and has shown himself to be a pastor extraordinaire, with an enormous capacity for work, for meeting people from all social and ethnic backgrounds and for encouraging initiatives.
His vocations program has proved particularly fruitful. As 1999 begins, Archbishop Chaput is in the enviable position of having 71 young men preparing for the priesthood within the diocese. Of these, 24 are new diocesan seminarians, 18 are in the Neo-Catechumenate apostolate, and 12 have joined the new religious order "Cor Jesu" which has, with the support of the Archbishop, set up its base in Denver. The remainder joined the diocesan seminary in past years. Much of this flowering of vocations can be attributed to a "Spirituality Year" during which young men are invited to make a commitment for one year and are then put through a formation program which includes much prayer, a 30-day Ignatian retreat and an emphasis on the teachings and doctrines of the Church as presented in the Catechism of the Catholic Church ("The Holy Spirit's gift to the Church," remarks the Archbishop).
Charles Chaput is a man of hope who shares Pope John Paul's vision of a coming Springtime for the Church. He also shares the Pope's love of Our Lady, saying: "Mary's great power flows out of her apparent weakness, her humility, her lowliness - so, too, the Church is many times written off by the world and yet she forever leaves her mark on the soul of the age through the witness of holy men and women. Nevertheless, he says, this time of grace may be preceded by more difficult times which could well result in a smaller and more intense - but holier - Church.
The Archbishop regrets that America has been very successful in "exporting" its culture through television and movies to so many other countries, with all the negative consequences that have flowed from this. The Gospel of Jesus Christ opposes much of contemporary culture and the Church must develop ways in which to present the truth and beauty of her teachings on human sexuality. Indeed, Archbishop Charles Chaput himself has already done this powerfully and effectively through the pastoral letter which has received such worldwide acclaim.
Archbishop Chaput receives many invitations from around the world to speak but, because of his commitment to the people of his diocese, he feels compelled to turn them down.
With acknowledgement to 'The Irish Catholic.'