The following Q&A with Archbishop Charles Chaput first appeared on The Torch, the Catholic newspaper of Boston College, and appears here by permission.
Catholic bishops from around the world convened beginning on Oct. 3 for the 2018 Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment, which concludes Oct. 28. One of the six bishops representing the United States is Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, Archbishop of Archdiocese of Philadelphia. On Oct. 20, Archbishop Chaput corresponded with The Torch to share his thoughts on the synod so far.
The Torch: What pressing issues are specifically facing young people, as opposed to other groups within the Church? What do you consider the most serious issue young people must contend with?
Archbishop Chaput: The issues differ from culture to culture. We in the United States judge ourselves lopsidedly by our work and how well we do at it. It’s our Calvinist roots. We need to accomplish things. Material success gives us our rank in the social machinery. Maybe that’s true everywhere, but it’s intensely so in America. This creates a huge amount of anxiety, especially among young people just starting out. If you can’t find a good job, if you’re not climbing up the economic ladder, your life loses meaning.
It’s not a sane way to live. Beauty, love, silence – these are vital things that feed our humanity, and a constant frenzy of work and distraction blinds us to all of them. So I think the most serious issues facing everybody today, but especially young people, are things like, “What does my life mean? Why am I here? Where do I belong?” And our culture seems very well organized to avoid or muffle all those basic questions.
Has your view of the Synod, its goals, and its documents changed since the outset?
I thought the Synod should be rescheduled or canceled because of the current abuse crisis in the Church. So my expectations have been modest. The original instrumentum laboris, or working document, had a lot of problems and almost no evangelical zeal or confident teaching. The final text will likely be much improved. That happens at every Synod. The running joke at these meetings is that the original instrumentum is a martyr text. It gets cut to pieces. In this Synod, I sincerely hope that’s true.
What concrete outcomes do you see following from the Synod?
The best outcome would be a reality check: a frank awareness among bishops and at the Vatican of how quickly the Church is losing young people, especially in the so-called “developed” world, and what that means for the very near future.
After the Synod, what might be the most important topics to address in continuing conversation with your brother bishops and with clergy?
That’s a logical question, but it’s almost too broad to answer. The most urgent question for me is: How do we transmit a real, compelling faith to young people? By “real faith,” I mean a vivid sense of the supernatural, the transcendent, the sacramental—a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. A Christianity reduced to a good moral code or a useful system of ethics is just a halfway house to atheism. Nobody needs it.
What are some ways in which Bishops could be more accessible to their flocks, and especially to young people? What benefits do you think this could have for both laypeople and bishops?
Every bishop, at least in this country, is part CEO. That’s the nature of American institutions. You need to work very hard to avoid being monopolized by the duties and headaches that go with leading a diocese, especially a big one. Every bishop handles it differently. I spend three or four hours a day personally answering letters and emails from people in the parishes. I do it— not my staff. It sounds like a little thing, and it is. But I’ve been doing it for three decades. Over time, as people realize they’re actually connecting with their bishop and not a secretary, it really does make a difference.
I visit one or two different parishes every weekend, and I try to be present for youth and young adult events. Most weekends, I celebrate the Sunday evening Mass at our cathedral, and I encourage young adults to join me at that Mass. But a bishop’s physical presence is not enough. He needs to communicate to his people that he really does love them. If people feel that love and see it in their bishop, they’ll forgive a great deal. If they don’t, they’ll forgive very little.
How is the Synod balancing conceptions of youth across cultures and nations?
One of the great values of every Synod, including this youth Synod, is the exchange of experiences among bishops from very different environments. The friendships that result are very fruitful. Every Synod is an education in the global nature of the Church. It’s a good lesson in humility.
Were there one or two interventions at the Synod which particularly struck you?
Archbishop Anthony Fisher, O.P., of Sydney, Australia, gave a terrific intervention on the first day — the best of the Synod, in my judgment. Bridgeport’s Bishop Frank Caggiano also gave an excellent intervention, also on the first day.
How do you envision helping young people regain trust in the Church during this time of crisis? What concrete measures have you taken or envision taking to help restore hope in young Catholics?
As I’ve said in the past, there’s no quick fix to problems we behaved ourselves into. New programs and policies to attract young people are good as far as they go. But people are converted or won back to the faith by other people, not techniques. If we want to restore trust, the only way to do it is over time, by living the Catholic faith we claim to believe with a personal witness of purity and integrity. What we do matters much more than what we say. There’s no substitute for the witness of personal conviction and behavior. It never lies.
What does your own ministry look like for people on the margins of the Church? Who do you try particularly to reach out to, and how?
I’m a Capuchin Franciscan, so I’ve been formed throughout my life to love the poor. In Philadelphia, our archdiocesan social ministries are very good, very extensive, and very active across the region. A lot of our attention right now focuses on the situation of migrants and undocumented immigrants.
What do you see young people achieving in your diocese and abroad?
They’re our emerging leaders. We’re just doing a very poor job of providing the counsel and guidance they need to build a future worthy of human beings. The consumer culture our nation thrives on has a lot of appeal and many advantages. But it can also starve the soul by focusing us radically on our appetites of the here and now. God made us for more than that, for better and higher things.
What role do you see young people playing in the New Evangelization? What would you ask of young Catholics who want to support the Church in its time of need, but who may feel powerless?
For young adults, organizations like the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) and The Culture Project do great work in the evangelization of culture field. But many other good organizations and parish youth groups exist. I think everyone, especially young people, should spend time reading and studying faithful histories of the Church. History is a good antidote to despair. The Church has experienced very bad times before, including very ugly internal corruption. But God always sends the saints we need for renewal.
What saints do you think provide particularly good examples for today’s young people?
Clare and Francis. If you want an example of pure, unselfish and radical love that changes the world, at a time when the Church had a great deal of confusion and corruption, you can start with them.
What concrete efforts are being made to encourage vocations to the priesthood and religious life, both in your diocese and abroad? What do you see as necessary steps to continue these efforts?
Can I just say, first, that vocations begin with children? Married couples need to welcome new life and not be conned into the nonsense that the “socially responsible” limit for children is two. Good reasons to limit childbearing certainly can exist. But in too many cases, the motives are arbitrary, often rooted in fear, and distrustful of God’s love. We need more large Christian families. No families with children, no priests; no priests, no Eucharist; no Eucharist, no Church.
Beyond that, for a diocese, selecting the right priest to do vocation work — a man of integrity and energy — is crucial.
What would you say to a young man or woman who is discerning religious vocations in the midst of the abuse crisis?
Ignatius Loyola and Francis of Assisi both began their work at terrible times for the Church. I could name a hundred other saints who did the same. What I would say to a young woman or man is simple: the Church needs you; God loves you; trust in that love, and take the risk.
The life and mission of the Church are often caught up in politics — especially for young people, who are members of a polarized social media. How are young people to navigate a culture where politics and religion sometimes seem hopelessly entangled?
Politics and religion have always been entangled, and they always will be, because politics is about the application of power, and religion is about loving God and bringing that love into the world to transform it with justice and mercy. When Church and state get too close, the loser is usually the Church. But that doesn’t absolve Christians from bringing their faith to bear on their lives in the public square. That includes their political convictions and their voting. The key for all of us is remembering that politics can never produce pure justice. It’s always an ambiguous and double-edged tool. We belong to God first, not this world, and our real citizenship is heaven. We should act accordingly.
What makes you most hopeful about young Catholics?
They’re not as old as me. My generation — the boomer generation — has done a lot of good and also a lot of not-so-good. With a little patience and humility, young Catholics can build on the good we did, and learn from our mistakes, and sins, and failures. Our young people have extraordinary gifts and promise. And God never abandons those who love him. That’s a pretty good reason for hope.
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