Denver Archdiocese: the future of Catholicism

Denver Archdiocese: the future of Catholicism

David Scott

The Archdiocese of Denver, Colorado, under the leadership of Archbishop Charles Chaput and his predecessor, Cardinal Francis Stafford - who now works in the Vatican - has become one of the most vibrantly Catholic in the United States, pointing the way to a "new springtime" of Catholicism in the third millennium.

The following profile of the Denver Archdiocese (here abridged) first appeared in a recent issue of the US Catholic monthly 'Crisis'. Its author, David Scott, was editor of 'Our Sunday Visitor', a national US Catholic newspaper, from 1993 to 2000, and is currently writing an introduction to the Catholic Faith for Loyola Press and a study of Dorothy Day for Our Sunday Visitor Books.

At 10:30 on a recent Friday morning at St Vincent de Paul School in Denver, about 20 blue-and-white uniformed fifth-graders kneel silently, fidgeting only slightly, in a small chapel lit only by the flickering of a thick red candle. Two floors down in the school building, a fresh-faced nun in full black-and-white habit paces the well of a large, bright auditorium. Smiling, moving her hands like punctuation marks, she gives a rousing talk to a sixth-grade class on the importance of learning how to make the "right" decisions.

In yet another St Vincent's classroom, down a long narrow corridor festooned with colourful paintings and construction-paper banners, students hunch in front of sleek teal-blue iMac computers, working the bugs out of their latest assignment: to create a multimedia presentation about their favourite saint, incorporating sound, text, graphics, and animation. In the principal's office, another young nun in wire-rim glasses is explaining it all to a visitor. "In Denver, the faith is young and alive and being lived," Sister Mary Jordan says. "It's exciting here. The parents know their children are the future of the Church, and we're working with them to try to make them good Catholics."

Sister Jordan is a member of the St Cecilia Dominicans of Nashville, Tennessee, a tiny but fast-growing religious order whose nuns are all in their mid-30s. She and four of her fellow sisters were invited to Denver four years ago to run this elementary school of about 500 students serving a middle-class parish. With their straight-backed gaits, full habits, rosaries, and devotion to the Eucharist, they seem right out of 1950s American Catholicism. But St Vincent's is no blast from the past. In fact, with its mix of old-time Catholic feeling, high-tech sensibility, and nuns talking about "mission" and "the new evangelisation," this seems like a school headed back to the future.

St Vincent's is a lively symbol of the new kind of Catholic Church that is emerging in Denver eight years after Pope John Paul II celebrated World Youth Day here and predicted "a new springtime of faith." All across this sprawling 39,000-square-mile Archdiocese that spans northern Colorado are the signs of a young and energetic Catholicism that is trying to position itself along the cutting edge of the third millennium.

New religious orders like Sister Jordan's have transplanted themselves to Denver, as have more than a dozen missionary groups and spiritual renewal movements from Latin America and Europe. A new seminary has opened - the only one between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean - and already it is filled to capacity and drawing up expansion plans. More than $80 million worth of new schools, churches, and outreach facilities are being built to meet the demands of preaching the gospel in this boom town of the new global economy, with a population that is among the youngest, best-educated, most technologically "wired," and wealthiest in the world.


The Denver area itself is a study in spiritual and cultural contrasts. A leading centre for evangelical Protestantism and Mormonism, it is also an unofficial capital of the New Age movement, boasts an increasingly influential gay community, and is headquarters of the Hemlock Society, the nation's leading advocate of the "right to die." Catholic officials say the 375,000 Catholics who live in the Archdiocese of Denver are a reflection of the culture around them - a farrago of rich and poor, white and dark-skinned, tradition-minded and progressive.

The Catholic Church in Denver is young. The first missionaries came here in 1860, not long after the gold rush that earned the region the nickname "the new El Dorado." Roaming from mining camps to shanty towns, celebrating Mass on a makeshift altar in the back of a horse-drawn buggy, Denver's first bishop, in 1887, was an adventuresome Frenchman, Joseph Machebeuf, close friend of the legendary evangelist of the American Southwest, Jean Baptiste Lamy.

Though less dramatic, the background of Denver's current Archbishop, Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap, also has a bit of a storybook quality about it. A Potawatomi Indian, who is part-French and a Franciscan friar, he has a heritage that bespeaks the new multicultural and missionary image that the Church here wants to portray. At 53, Archbishop Chaput (pronounced SHA-poo) was the youngest Archbishop in the country when he was installed in 1997.

In nine previous years as Bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota, he had established a reputation for solid teaching and a prayerful, simple way of life: he still does his own laundry and cooking and answers all his own mail. Nationally, he is regarded as among the best and brightest of a new generation of Rome-minded bishops appointed by John Paul II.

In Denver, Archbishop Chaput took over an archdiocese that had been patiently refashioned during the ten-year tenure of J. Francis Stafford, a theologian and intellectual who is now a cardinal and head of the Pontifical Council for the Laity in Rome. It was then-Archbishop Stafford, observers say, who first identified Denver as an "emerging city" and set about building a local Church to match its energy and dynamism. He brought in top lay advisers, encouraged new religious orders and movements to relocate there, built close ties with Latin American Church leaders, and made the Church a respected voice on issues ranging from urban sprawl and "hyperdevelopment" to evangelisation and the Internet.

Archbishop Stafford drew the scorn of Denver's "progressive" Catholics, squeezing them out of parish and archdiocesan positions and refusing to permit them to use church grounds for their gatherings. They waged a bitter campaign against him, at one point staging a "church council" to nominate a replacement for him. But his efforts earned Rome's respect. To the surprise of nearly every Church observer, Denver was selected as the site for the celebration of World Youth Day in 1993.

Officials here point to World Youth Day - which attracted an estimated 450,000 young people - as a powerful turning point in the Archdiocese's understanding of itself and its place in the universal Church. "It was a special moment of grace - there was a dramatic change from before to after that visit," says Anthony Lilles, associate director of liturgy for the Archdiocese.

Archbishop Chaput describes his work as building on the graces of World Youth Day and the foundations laid by Archbishop Stafford. One of his first moves was to relocate the archdiocesan headquarters to a grassy 40-acre campus that includes two seminaries, his own small stone house, soccer fields, a baseball diamond, and a perpetual adoration chapel. Visitors to the complex are greeted by a life-size statue of the Pope and a sign indicating Denver's new attitude: the "John Paul II Centre for the New Evangelisation."

Archbishop Chaput has been outspoken about the need for bishops to be "apostles" and not "managers." Nevertheless, he is regarded as a shrewd and skilled administrator, who delegates well and takes a hands-on approach to fund-raising. He is said to prefer small-bore, mission-driven initiatives to bureaucratic structures and programs. "I think the role of the bishop is to try to discern and not get in the way," he says. "We need to take risks all the time. Growth is never accomplished without trying new things. I don't think I've ever been afraid of failure, because if it's of the Holy Spirit, it will survive. If it doesn't survive, it's a good sign that we ought to try something else."

Archbishop Chaput has also made a name for himself as a tenacious and effective recruiter of religious vocations. "You should see him work the crowds," says David Warner, whose 20-year-old son is a first-year seminarian in Denver. "After every Mass, he's saying to parents: 'Well, is your son going to become a priest?' That was so out of vogue for decades."

In addition to talking to parents, the Archbishop freely gives out his home phone number and keeps up a brisk e-mail correspondence with those he meets at youth rallies and other diocesan events. A crack racquetball player, he regularly invites students and others to join him for a match and a postgame chat about their faith and their vocations.

"We joke that the crozier he carries is really a hook he uses to bring guys in," says Tom Smith, a 30-year-old former Protestant minister in his second year at the seminary. Smith met Chaput after one of the youth Masses that he celebrates every Sunday evening at Denver's Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

"Immediately upon meeting me, as he always does with any young man who isn't married, he raised the question," Smith recalls. "When he found out I used to be a minister, he said, 'You had a pastoral call in your life, and it's still here. Why not give your life to God as a priest?' As we would talk in the weeks that followed, every excuse I had, he would just blow right through it."

There are 60 young men studying for the priesthood in Denver's two archdiocesan seminaries. St John Vianney Theological Seminary was opened by Archbishop Chaput in 1999. On the same campus is Redemptoris Mater, operated by the missionary movement Neocatechumenal Way, which has men from more than a dozen countries training to be Denver priests.

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