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Archbishop Chaput: “Things Worth Dying For”

Editor’s note: The following address was given at St. Francis De Sales Seminary, Milwaukee, on April 4, 2022. 

Our theme tonight is “things worth dying for,” and I want to talk about what those words mean for us, here and now. But I hope you’ll bear with me for a few preliminary thoughts. I think they’ll make sense in the end.

A month before I retired in 2020 I had a conversation with a friend. I told him how I was looking forward to retiring but that I also had mixed feelings about stepping down from active ministry. I was, and I am, very grateful to Pope Francis for his choice of my successor in Philadelphia: Archbishop Perez is an excellent priest and bishop, a man of personal warmth and great skill as a pastor.  But I spent more than 40 years in leadership roles in the Church; first as a provincial minister in the Capuchins, and then as a bishop in three different dioceses.  I loved the work.  The burdens never outweighed the joys.  So the idea of having nothing to do each day, of having a blank agenda, struck me as a new kind of adventure I would have to learn to live with.

Three weeks after I retired, COVID hit. And for the next 15 months I really did have nothing to do each day but pray, and think, and Zoom with a few friends. Which I did. Quite a lot. And here’s what I learned.

Retiring forces a man to focus on his most pressing personal duty: preparing for death and accepting the promise of eternal life. It returns a bishop to his most basic identity: being a baptized child of God. It teaches us that none of us is very important, although the work we do is. But even then, it’s God who really does the work. We’re his instruments and cooperators. Retiring is an act of trust in God’s providential care for the Church. And the Church is finally ecclesia suahis Church, God’s Church. She’s our mother, but she’s his bride. We don’t own the Church, and we have no right to treat her as a lab for theological experiments, or a fortress against changing pastoral needs.

All of us have a limit to what we can see and understand, and the energy we can bring to a task. Letting go of authority to another person opens the way to new and more creative ideas from younger and sharper minds. And there’s still vital work to do in retirement: praying for the Church and the world, and sharing the wisdom we learned so that others don’t make the same stupid mistakes.

Now why am I telling you this? February 28 marked the ninth anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI’s retirement. Joseph Ratzinger is one of the greatest minds the Christian faith has produced in the last 100 years. I remember admiring him for resigning the papacy.  At the same time I feared that his retirement could lead to a lot of unhealthy confusion in the Church, and in some ways it has.  But I understand why Benedict did it. You come to a point in your ministry where age weakens your ability to do what needs to be done, even if you refuse to acknowledge your weakness; even if you have an iron will.

Old age has enormous value for its experience and prudent counsel — but not for command. The final years of the John Paul II pontificate were painful to watch. There’s no reason why even the papacy should be a life sentence. And likewise in the secular world — quite apart from all of their other deficiencies — the very last thing we need as a nation is another four years of Joe Biden or Donald Trump. They’re simply too old. And that’s dangerous.

The world has always been a dangerous place. But it’s especially so now. We’re living through a kind of global, cultural re-formation that hasn’t been seen, at least here in the civilization we call “the West,” since Luther and moveable type, the Wars of Religion, and the Enlightenment. We can’t afford sclerotic leaders — and that applies to every form of public leadership, both political and religious. Age diminishes the willingness to sacrifice, to risk, to see things clearly, and to face conflict. And in a time of unavoidable conflict, ambiguity and feebleness are toxic.

Because there are, in fact, “things worth dying for.”

Read more at Catholic World Report

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