July 20th, 2011
07:56 AM ET
By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
(CNN)–The City of Brotherly love welcomed a new Catholic Archbishop on Tuesday. But Archbishop Charles Chaput arrives in Philadelphia from the Rocky Mountains during very rocky times for the archdiocese.
One of the country’s largest dioceses, with 1.5 million congregants who account for nearly a third of the city, Philadelphia is reeling from a sex abuse scandal that has indicted four priests and a parochial school teacher and that has unleashed a bevy of civil law suits.
Chaput, former Archbishop of Denver, Colorado, takes his new post in Philadelphia at the behest of Pope Benedict XVI following the resignation of Cardinal Justin Rigali five months after the Philadelphia scandal broke.
“I ask all of you to pray for me and this great local church which we now share,” Chaput said at a press conference Tuesday at which he shared the podium with Rigali.
Chaput (pronounced Chap-u) is considered by many to be a conservative Vatican hardliner. But he rejected both labels in a recent interview with the National Catholic Reporter.
“I try to be faithful to the church's teaching, as the church has handed it on to us,” Chaput the newspaper. “I don't feel that as a Christian or as a bishop I have a right to play with that tradition, which is the apostolic tradition of the church. I hope that I'm creative and contemporary, however, in applying that teaching and in the structural living out of it in the local church.”
John Allen, who conducted the interview for the National Catholic Reporter and who is also Senior Vatican Analyst for CNN, said Chaput is not, “one of the bishops who moves in the shadows.”
“There is no significant political controversy in recent Catholic life that he has not been involved in,” Allen said. “He was critical of Notre Dame offering an honorary doctorate for [President] Obama because he thought it legitimized Obama’s abortion stand. He was very critical of Obama’s health care law because he believed it promoted abortion. He’s taken a strong position against gay marriage and stem cell research.”
Admirers praise Chaput’s willingness to speak out.
“He is known for his ability to articulate, in a very persuasive way, the teachings of the church and to do so in a way that does not seek to curry favor with those who oppose those teachings,” Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami told CNN.
“You have a man who that is comfortable in his own skin,” he said. “These are jobs that are almost impossible for any human person. When we assume these positions we count a lot on the grace of God.”
Wenski and Chaput became archbishops around the same time and have worked together often.
“He has a good track record of dealing with the things he will face in Philadelphia both on the abuse crisis and on calling Catholics to coherency and their beliefs,” Wenski added.
The 66-year-old Chaput is a part of the Capuchin order and was ordained as a priest in 1970. Twenty-three years ago he was appointed Archbishop of Rapid City, South Dakota. In 1997 he headed south when Pope John Paul II installed him at helm of the Denver archdiocese.
Chaput was the first Native American to be ordained as an American bishop.
While in Denver he headed a flock of just over half a million Catholics. “He has a great young adult following,” said Jeanette DeMelo, his Denver spokeswoman. “They are going to be especially sad to see him go.”
Chaput, she said, stayed current with music and movies to remain relevant with his flock. He is an avid reader of news and consumes much of it on his Kindle and Ipad, DeMelo said.
As a young priest in Denver in the early 1980s he had served as a campus minister.
Terry Mattingly was the religion reporter for The Rocky Mountain News at the time. “He was ministering to college students and he was very interested in college culture, he was very interested in film,” Mattingly said.
“One of his first acts as archbishop in Denver was to host a national, or even global conference on the spiritual implications of the Internet,” Mattingly said. “There aren’t a whole lot of Catholic bishops who are talking about the Internet in the mid to late 1990s.”
Mattingly, who today is a religion news columnist for Scripps Howard News Service and the proprietor of GetReligion.org, said Chaput continues to skillfully use the Internet.
He has a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and an email address listed on the Denver Archdiocese website. According to the site, Chaput personally answers emails to the address.
Since the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005, Benedict has installed new leadership in New York, Washington and Los Angeles.
In Philadelphia, the pope gets a vocal advocate for the Vatican.
“It’s the notion that we need leaders who are going to call Catholics to a clear sense of who they are and how they differ from the rest of the world.” Allen said.
“I don’t’ know that’s the reason for the appointment but it’s clearly an indication that Benedict is himself a strong conservative and it’s not any big surprise that he’s promoting somebody who shares those values.”
Chaput celebrated mass on Tuesday in Philadelphia as part of the announcement of his new position. He begins fulltime work there on September 8.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.