Chaput drew attention last week for a column he published after mass shootings in California, Texas, and Ohio.
The column, which evoked his own experiences in the aftermath of the 1999 Columbine shooting, said that “assault rifles are not a birthright, and the Second Amendment is not a Golden Calf.” It called for greater restrictions on the sale of firearms.
But, in making a point about fighting the deep causes of a “culture of violence,” the archbishop wrote that “only a fool can believe that ‘gun control’ will solve the problem of mass violence.”
It was the last quote that made the headlines. Local television stations, and then national publications, led with the quote, and a column in the Philadelphia Inquirer said the archbishop had “foolishly missed the mark,” before accusing him of racial insensitivity.
Chaput is a lightning rod for controversy, and neither the archbishop nor Church observers are surprised when his weekly column garners national attention.
In short, it is not news when Chaput is in the news.
In 2010, the archbishop told reporter David Gibson that “I don’t have a whole lot of concern about what people think of me.”
“To me, NOT to say something is really very destructive, because silence implies consent,” he added.
“So I feel obliged to talk. A lot.”
The archbishop is a frequent commentator on American public life, on issues that reach well beyond internal ecclesiastical affairs. He is not shy to express opinions on political issues, on film and television, on family life and economic justice. And he is not hesitant to make unlikely allies.
In Colorado, Chaput made headlines for speaking engagements he arranged with then-Congressman Jared Polis, who is now the first openly gay American to be elected a state governor. The unlikely pair had common cause on immigration reform, and worked together to forge alliances on the issue. He has engaged with Pennsylvania politicians in a similar way.
The effect of Chaput’s engagement with culture is that his influence on the lives of ordinary people extends far beyond the boundaries of his diocese. Livestreamed Facebook homilies are credited with his popularity among younger Catholics. Writing in secular journals and magazines is often seen as a factor in the archbishop’s credibility with non-Catholics, and the catalyst for Chaput’s recognition as a focal point of engagement among Catholics and evangelicals, Mormons, and Jews.
The hallmarks of Chaput’s speeches and columns are citations from a broad and deep bibliography, the framework of a Catholic worldview, and a clear and digestible series of points.
While bishops are both free and encouraged to engage meaningfully on topics of importance to the Church, few actually do, and even fewer give evidence of having done the necessary homework. But the reach of Chaput’s engagement is evidence that bishops can successfully engage culture as both pastors and public intellectuals, and are likely find an eager audience when they do.
In 2015, Philadelphia Magazine reported that “Chaput has long been known to have an ‘open-door policy’ of sorts with emailers.” Church-watchers note the same thing. So, in fact, do perfect strangers to the archbishop; those who are surprised when a bishop responds to their emailed notes.
Pastoral availability is not subject to theological viewpoints or ideological positions. But it is, by many accounts, the mark of a good priest, and is often the defining characteristic of a priest’s legacy.
Those who have worked in parishes know that the parish priests most fondly remembered are those who made time to visit a sick relative, to listen after a loss, to patiently accompany a parishioner through a personal struggle or a period of difficulty.
By the metric of pastoral availability, Chaput’s legacy as a bishop will likely receive high marks.
Chaput is well-regarded among staffers, priests, and a broad circle of friends and acquaintances for his availability by email, a phone call, or a short visit.
It is not uncommon, staff members say, for the last email received of the night, and the first received the next morning, to be from Chaput.
Nor is it uncommon for the archbishop to forward to staff members emails from Catholics seeking advice, or looking for solutions to problems, and to follow up later on how the matters were resolved.
When he celebrated his last Mass in Denver before his move to Philadelphia, Chaput stood at the door of his cathedral shaking hands for hours. Some of those who waited on line were surprised when their archbishop remembered their names, and something about their stories. When he arrived in Philadelphia, he greeted his new subjects in the same way, and after his resignation is accepted, he is expected to do the same.
In Philadelphia, he is also praised for making “surprise visits” to parishes, announcing only to a parish pastor that he intends to be present for Sunday Mass, and visiting with Catholics after Mass often for hours.
The archbishop has also been recognized for making available pastoral care in styles or forms that are not his personal preference. Though he has admitted that the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite is not his personal liturgical preference, he established a quasi-parish in Philadelphia for the Extraordinary Form and a personal parish in Denver for the same. He has, at the same time, welcomed charismatic communities, ecclesial movements, religious orders, and other apostolates of evangelization, catechesis, and pastoral life, without presuming to impose one model of spirituality or ecclesial life on his dioceses.
Of course, anyone who engages in public life needs thick skin. And Chaput has sometimes been criticized in Philadelphia for terse responses to those who disagree with him. He has also, it is worth noting, reportedly received his share of vulgarities and hate mail.
Pope Francis has emphasized the importance of a bishop’s availability to his people, using the oft-quoted image of a bishop “smelling like his sheep.” As bishops face mounting pressure to spend time on their legal problems, or on complex financial challenges, the pope has reminded them to make themselves available first to their people, and to spend the time and energy required to attend to them. Chaput, according to those who know him best, seems to have made that priority the defining characteristic of his ministry as a bishop.
Chaput is said to delight in defying expectations, and he has not yet announced what he will do in his retirement. Nor is it certain when the pope will accept his resignation. But whenever Chaput’s resignation is accepted, a mantle of episcopal leadership will be passed. Whether bishops will have the courage to take up that mantle remains to be seen.