Catholic News Service
PHILADELPHIA — After his installation as shepherd of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s almost 1.5 million Catholics a year ago, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput immediately began to put out fires of the crises he’d inherited.
Many were unprecedented in the more than 200-year history of the archdiocese: a severely contracting Catholic school system, deteriorating church finances, parishes under threat of closure or consolidation.
Add to that the ongoing fallout of the priest sexual abuse scandal that saw priests on trial in criminal court, priests whose ministerial status remained in limbo, and priests who were overstretched and just plain demoralized.
“I’d like to set fires rather than put them out,” said the archbishop, who sat for an interview with CatholicPhilly.com days before his Sept. 8 one-year anniversary as head of the archdiocese. “The Lord has given me a lot of fires to put out, where my preference is to light fires.
“But I think things are getting better,” he said. “The second year will be more a matter of lighting fires. The most important one is the new evangelization: The fire of living the Gospel and religious commitment and religious identity.”
Archbishop Chaput spoke at length about his concerns and struggles, plus signs of hope he sees for the archdiocese.
“There’s always hope because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ,” he told the archdiocesan news website. “In most of our parishes there’s ordinary parish life going on, and that’s very hopeful. The majority of our people, who are going to church at least, haven’t let the problems we have undermine their faith or their charity, so I am deeply grateful for that.”
Among the challenges he faced in his first year:
• Acceptance of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Catholic Education’s original recommendations to consolidate scores of Catholic parochial schools and close four high schools. Subsequently, the archbishop opened an appeals process that resulted in a revised mix of mergers or closures, and through the Faith in the Future Foundation, he announced all the high schools would remain open for this academic year. The archdiocese has turned over operational responsibility for its 17 Catholic high schools to the foundation.
• Rallying local Catholics to advocate for the successful passage of expanded school choice in Pennsylvania. The new measure, which increases use of state tax credits to fund tuition for more students, is seen as vital to stabilizing Catholic school enrollment now and raising it in the future.
• Final decisions on the ministerial status of priests following the 2011 report of a second Philadelphia grand jury investigating the clergy sexual abuse scandal. Even as the criminal trial of priests accused of misconduct in the scandal unfolded, Archbishop Chaput announced the findings of investigators into more than a dozen priests.
• Closure or consolidation of 12 parishes following a consultation process.
• Reorganization of parishes into deaneries and of central archdiocesan offices, resulting in layoffs of almost four dozen employees.
• Publication of an archdiocesan statement of finances in details that had never been previously released.
• Folding of The Catholic Standard & Times newspaper and Phaith magazine. (Our Sunday Visitor and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced Sept. 13 they will replace the archdiocese’s former newspaper, The Catholic Standard and Times, with a special Philadelphia edition of Our Sunday Visitor’s OSV Newsweekly.)
Some big problems remain to be tackled, including a bedrock issue for the Catholic Church locally and beyond: Only about 20 percent of registered Catholics in the archdiocese attend Mass regularly in their parishes.
A high priority for the archbishop is spiritual renewal through the new evangelization in the Catholic Church and its application in the archdiocese, which he has called “mission territory.”
While Catholics can participate in this work, their first task is to look within themselves, Archbishop Chaput suggested.
“The hardest people to convert are those who think they’ve already been converted,” he said. “The hardest people to preach the Gospel to are those who think they already know it; people who identify themselves as Catholics when they really don’t know what that means except that it’s part of their family tradition. Those are all examples of candidates for the new evangelization.”
Today the work of evangelization falls mostly to lay Catholics, whom the archbishop called “the primary agents of evangelization.”
“In the past,” he said, “we’ve depended on the clergy (and religious) to do that, and now there aren’t as many clergy and religious. But the reason for lay involvement in evangelization is not because we don’t have enough priests and sisters, it’s because it’s their job by baptism anyway. … It’s the nature of their vocation in the church.”
Archbishop Chaput continues to grapple with church finances. Even after administrative reorganization and employee layoffs, the archdiocese still faces up to a $6 million deficit in the current fiscal year.
“One of the things people need to understand is that when I arrived in the archdiocese, we had nearly run out of money,” Archbishop Chaput said. “So the decisions I’ve had to make (such as) to cut back on employment, it’s not been something I previously chose to do. … I’ve been forced to make decisions and make some unfortunate ones.”
The archdiocese is selling property to generate cash to meet obligations. Those properties include a vacation home for retired priests in Ventnor, N.J.; an office building and parking lot adjacent to the Archdiocesan Pastoral Center in center city Philadelphia; and the archbishop’s residence, a mansion that has traditionally been the home of Philadelphia’s archbishops.
“I’m selling (that) house actually to get us through the winter because we are in a position where the cash flow issue is huge for us, every month,” Archbishop Chaput said. “Each month is a struggle and we’re anticipating a $5-6 million deficit for this current fiscal year. That means (money) going out that we aren’t bringing in. And when you don’t have anything (coming) in, you have to sell assets to bring in cash. So I need to sell properties just to pay bills.”
St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia recently announced it has agreed to buy the archbishop’s residence for $10 million.
In dealing with the archdiocese’s precarious financial condition, the archbishop likened the challenges to those a family might face.
“It is a family,” he said. “It’s always said that the church is a big business, because there are so many of us and we have so many institutions. But it’s a family-owned business. It’s much harder to downsize your family than it is to downsize your business.”
In a letter to Catholics in the archdiocese to mark his first anniversary, he said the future will require “deep changes” in how Catholics think and behave and in archdiocesan structures. But he remains hopeful.
“Please know that I love you as my family in faith, and pray for you daily and thank God for you. I ask you to remember me in your prayers as well,” he wrote.
Gambino is director and general manager of CatholicPhilly.com, the news website of the Philadelphia archdiocese.