Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia hosted Pope Francis in his highly-anticipated first visit to the United States. As the dust settled after the departure of nearly 1 million participants in the final Mass for the World Meeting of Families, CNA had the chance to interview Archbishop Chaput, who offered his take on the historic papal trip, the challenges facing family in the U.S., and the upcoming Synod of Bishops in Rome.
You have spent many months preparing to host the World Meeting of Families. What were your impressions of the event? Would you consider it a success? What was the highlight?
Both the family congress and the papal visit were very successful – about 18,000 attendees at the congress and somewhere between 800,000 and 900,000 for the final papal Mass. The numbers would have been even higher except for the intense security. The spirit of the whole city was strikingly positive. But obviously the Pope’s personal presence was the highlight. Despite a very heavy schedule on this trip, he seemed to draw energy from the hundreds of thousands of people who greeted him. I was with him in the Popemobile, and he clearly gathered strength from the joy of the crowds.
What struck you most about Pope Francis’ visit?
The enthusiasm of the whole community, from ordinary persons in the street to TV journalists, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. It was a magic week. People in Philadelphia were hungry for something to feel good about, something to give them an experience of joy and hope, and they got it.
One other thing: Francis got to see the reality of American faith and life on this trip in a uniquely powerful way. In Washington he experienced our political center. In New York he encountered our greatest financial and international city. But in Philadelphia he saw the face of a great city built and sustained by ordinary Americans – the face of nearly a million everyday working people enthusiastically in love with him. I think he’ll remember that.
What do you hope that the U.S. Church – and the country as a whole – will take away from the Pope’s words?
Francis had important things to say about immigrants, human dignity, religious freedom and other specific issues. But his greatest skill is his ability to help people encounter the core elements of the Gospel in a simple, accessible way. He’s a healer and a guide, not a polemicist. People are eager for that kind of voice.
Some media reports have debated Pope Francis’ words in terms of liberal or conservative. Is this a good approach to viewing the Pope?
It’s a big mistake. He doesn’t fit easily into political categories. People bicker over his comments on climate change, but they miss the deeper implications of his remarks. Nature, including human nature, is a gift. We’re stewards of the world we’ve inherited. Creation – from the oceans and forests to our own sexuality – is not just dead matter we “own” and can manipulate with technology. When Francis talks about man’s abuse of the environment, he means not just the chemical waste we dump into the air but also the poison we pump into our bodies to suppress our natural fertility. His words are more subtle and more far-reaching than simple left/right divisions. That’s easy to miss if we’re too quick to draw partisan conclusions.
Pope Francis told the U.S. bishops that family “is the primary reason for my present visit.” What is the significance of the Pope making his first papal visit to the U.S. in the context of the family?
Family has been a constant theme of his pontificate. It’s the basic cell of society. Because of the global influence of the United States, problems here have an impact around the world. Given all the current issues in our country related to the nature of marriage, the breakdown of families and the purpose of human sexuality, the timing of the papal visit seems pretty logical.
What, in your opinion, is the state of the family in the United States? What are some of the greatest challenges that it faces? What are the greatest causes for hope?
The biggest challenge is the hyper-individualism encouraged by our mass media and the dynamics of a consumer economy. Francis touched on this when he was in Philadelphia. Our country was built on individual rights and dignity. That premise works very well as long as individuals understand that they’re part of a larger community and honor their obligations to other family members, neighbors and God. But the more radically we focus on ourselves, the more our links to other people break down. American culture tends to promote a distorted set of individual appetites and illusions. The family and religious faith inevitably suffer.
Entering now into the Synod of Bishops, is there any part of the Pope’s message at the World Meeting of Families that you think should carry over and set the stage for the coming weeks’ discussion on family in Rome?
The human family is a natural reality that pre-exists politics and states. It’s organic to creation. It needs to be strengthened, not re-engineered. It cannot be redefined by judges or lawmakers. I think that message will resonate throughout the synod.
By Michelle Bauman