“I think the United States has been blessed by God in unique ways. Because of that blessing, America has a duty to be a blessing for the world and for all people,” he reflected. “Philadelphia is one of this country’s truly great cities, and I want to be part of renewing and deepening the best in this community.”
He believes that Catholics, whatever their background or political affiliation, can only act in the country's best interest by putting their duties to God first.
“Before anything else, we're called to be Catholics. That should be the defining part of who we are. Whether we're Indians or Germans or Irish; whether we’re Democrats or Republicans, we are Catholic first. Everything else is secondary.”
But seeking God's kingdom first does not mean disregarding one's country.
“We owe it to our country and the age we live in, to be faithful Catholics,” Archbishop Chaput said. “If we're good Catholics first, then we're good citizens, and if we're good citizens, then we'll be a force of transformation for justice in the world.”
“If we don’t live as faithful Catholics, we betray the Gospel. We forfeit the opportunity God gives us to make a significant difference for the evangelization of culture.”
In recent years, Archbishop Chaput has increased his efforts to help Catholics rediscover a sense of their own identity amid the confusions of modern culture. He sees Catholic politicians' compromises, on issues such as abortion and same-sex “marriage,” as an outgrowth of a deeper secularization affecting the whole Church.
“If our political leaders lack conviction about their faith, it's because the members of the Church lack conviction about their faith. Political leaders are no different from the rest of us. So if we point fingers at them, we're also pointing fingers at ourselves, and at the broader Church community.”
Public officials, he said, are “not alone – not by a long shot -- in their tepidity and compromises of the Gospel.”
“If Catholics in their homes and parishes understand that, they'll realize that a serious conversion needs to take place in all our lives, and not just in the lives of politicians.”
As a Capuchin Franciscan, the archbishop looks to his order's founder as an example of fearless, uncompromising Christian witness. “Saint Francis rejected any kind of effort to diminish the demands of the Gospel,” he recalled.
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“Of course, I have to live that discipline personally in my own life. That's the most important part of my Capuchin identity. But then I have to preach the Gospel in the same kind of way, in a way that's clear, that's always fresh, and always without compromise.”
Although the 66-year-old, Kansas-born bishop has not previously lived in Philadelphia, he did spend 10 years in western Pennsylvania – first as a seminarian, and later as an administrator for the Pittsburgh-based Capuchin Province of St. Augustine. Pope John Paul II chose him to be the Bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota in 1988, before appointing him Archbishop of Denver in 1997.
The archbishop, who is part Native American and belongs to the Prairie Band Potawatomi tribe, believes his first episcopal appointment came about partly through this heritage. In South Dakota, he noted, Blessed John Paul II was “looking for a way to reach out in special love to the native people.”
“So I see my episcopacy, in some ways, as born from that part of who I am.”
As he prepares to succeed Cardinal Rigali, Archbishop Chaput is taking inspiration from one of the earliest bishops of Philadelphia – St. John Neumann, the Czech Redemptorist missionary who became an American citizen, and later became the first U.S. bishop to be canonized as a saint.
“I’ve been praying to St. John Neumann a lot since getting the news,” Archbishop Chaput told CNA. “I want to love the priests and people of Philadelphia with the same zeal he brought to his ministry.”