Go Tell it in the Rockies

At 10:30 on a recent Friday morning at St. Vincent de Paul School in Denver, about 20 blue-and-white-uniformed fifth-graders kneel silently, fidgeting only slightly, in a small chapel lit only by the flickering of a thick red candle. Two floors down in the school building, a fresh- faced nun in full black-and-white habit paces the well of a large, bright auditorium. Smiling, moving her hands like punctuation marks, she gives a rousing talk to a sixth-grade class on the importance of learning how to make the “right” decisions.

In yet another St. Vincent’s classroom, down a long narrow corridor festooned with colorful paintings and construction-paper banners, students hunch in front of sleek teal-blue iMac computers, working the bugs out of their latest assignment: to create a multimedia presentation about their favorite saint, incorporating sound, text, graphics, and animation. In the principal’s office, another young nun in wire-rim glasses is explaining it all to a visitor. “In Denver, the faith is young and alive and being lived,” Sister Mary Jordan says. “It’s exciting here. The parents know their children are the future of the Church, and we’re working with them to try to make them good Catholics.”

Sister Jordan is a member of the St. Cecilia Dominicans of Nashville, Tennessee, a tiny but fast-growing religious order whose nuns are all in their mid-30s. She and four of her fellow sisters were invited to Denver four years ago to run this elementary school of about 500 students serving a middle-class parish. With their straight-backed gaits, full habits, rosaries, and devotion to the Eucharist, they seem right out of 1950s American Catholicism. But St. Vincent’s is no blast from the past. In fact, with its mix of old-time Catholic feeling, high-tech sensibility, and nuns talking about “mission” and “the new evangelization,” this seems like a school headed back to the future.

St. Vincent’s is a lively symbol of the new kind of Catholic Church that is emerging in Denver eight years after Pope John Paul II celebrated World Youth Day here and predicted “a new springtime of faith.” All across this sprawling 39,000-square mile archdiocese that spans northern Colorado are the signs of a young and energetic Catholicism that is trying to position itself along the cutting edge of the third millennium.

New religious orders like Sister Jordan’s have trans-planted themselves to Denver, as have more than a dozen missionary groups and spiritual renewal movements from Latin America and Europe. A new seminary has opened—the only one between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean—and already it is filled to capacity and drawing up expansion plans. More than $80 million worth of new schools, churches, and outreach facilities are being built to meet the demands of preaching the gospel in this boom town of the new global economy, with a population that is among the youngest, best-educated, most technologically “wired,” and wealthiest in the world.

A polyglot mix of races, classes, lifestyles, and spiritualities, Denver represents in miniature the culture that the Church will serve in the globalized 21st century, Catholic officials here say. Indeed, all the lights and shadows of the new global village can be found in the Denver archdiocese. Aspen—the ski resort, refuge of Silicon Valley billionaires, and second-most expensive city on the planet—is located here. The archdiocese is also home to a 25 percent Hispanic minority that is made up almost entirely of Mexican immigrants living below the poverty line.

Young City, Young Church

The Denver area itself is a study in spiritual and cultural contrasts. A leading center for evangelical Protestantism and Mormonism, it is also an unofficial capital of the New Age movement, boasts an increasingly influential gay community, and is headquarters of the Hemlock Society, the nation’s leading advocate of the “right to die.” Catholic officials say the 375,000 Catholics who live in the Archdiocese of Denver are a reflection of the culture around them—a farrago of rich and poor, white and dark-skinned, tradition-minded and progressive.

“Colorado by nature is a very young culture—the mean age is about 26 years old,” says Rev. Michael Glenn, a Denver native and former top diocesan official who is now pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Aspen. “Also, it’s a modern culture, one that is developing in the present instead of following along older, more historically established ways of life, as are some European dioceses and some older dioceses in the United States. There’s a vitality and a flexibility to the culture here—and that overflows into the Church as well.”

The Catholic Church in Denver is young. The first missionaries came here in 1860, not long after the gold rush that earned the region the nickname “the new El Dorado.” Roaming from mining camps to shanty towns, celebrating Mass on a makeshift altar in the back of a horse-drawn buggy, Denver’s first bishop, in 1887, was an adventuresome Frenchman, Joseph Machebeuf, close friend of the legendary evangelist of the American Southwest, Jean Baptiste Lamy. The pair was immortalized in Willa Cather’s 1927 novel Death Comes for the Archbishop (see “Willa Cather’s Archbishop” in the March 2001 issue of Crisis).

Though less dramatic, the background of Denver’s current archbishop, Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., also has a bit of a storybook quality about it. A Potawatomi Indian who is part French and a Franciscan friar, he has a heritage that bespeaks the new multicultural and missionary image that the Church here wants to portray. At 53, Archbishop Chaput (pronounced SHA-poo) was the youngest archbishop in the country when he was installed in 1997. In nine previous years as bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota, he had established a reputation for solid teaching and a prayerful, simple way of life: He still does his own laundry and cooking, answers all his own mail, and twice a year goes fishing for walleyes and muskies in northern Wisconsin. Nationally, he is regarded as among the best and brightest of a new generation of Rome-minded bishops appointed by John Paul II.

In Denver, Archbishop Chaput took over an archdiocese that had been patiently refashioned during the ten-year tenure of J. Francis Stafford, a theologian and intellectual who is now a cardinal and head of the Pontifical Council for the Laity in Rome. It was then-Archbishop Stafford, observers say, who first identified Denver as an “emerging city” and set about building a local Church to match its energy and dynamism. He brought in top lay advisers, encouraged new religious orders and movements to relocate there, built close ties with Latin American Church leaders, and made the Church a respected voice on issues ranging from urban sprawl and “hyperdevelopment” to evangelization and the Internet.

Archbishop Stafford drew the scorn of Denver’s “progressive” Catholics, squeezing them out of parish and archdiocesan positions and refusing to permit them to use church grounds for their gatherings. They waged a bitter campaign against him, at one point staging a “church council” to nominate a replacement for him. But his efforts earned Rome’s respect. To the surprise of nearly every Church observer, Denver was selected as the site for the celebration of World Youth Day in 1993. Officials here point to World Youth Day—which attracted an estimated 450,000 young people—as a powerful turning point in the archdiocese’s understanding of itself and its place in the universal Church. “It was a special moment of grace—there was a dramatic change from before to after that visit,” says Anthony Lilles, associate director of liturgy for the archdiocese.

Archbishop Chaput describes his work as building on the graces of World Youth Day and the foundations laid by Archbishop Stafford. One of his first moves was to relocate the archdiocesan headquarters to a grassy 40-acre campus that includes two seminaries, his own small stone house, soccer fields, a baseball diamond, and a perpetual adoration chapel. Visitors to the complex are greeted by a life-size statue of the pope and a sign indicating Denver’s new attitude: the “John Paul II Center for the New Evangelization.”

Archbishop Chaput has been outspoken about the need for bishops to be “apostles” and not “managers.” Nevertheless, he is regarded as a shrewd and skilled administrator who delegates well and takes a hands-on approach to fundraising. He is said to prefer small-bore, mission-driven initiatives to bureaucratic structures and programs. “I think the role of the bishop is to try to discern and not get in the way,” he says. “We need to take risks all the time. Growth is never accomplished without trying new things. I don’t think I’ve ever been afraid of failure, because if it’s of the Holy Spirit, it will survive. If it doesn’t survive, it’s a good sign that we ought to try something else.”

Making Priests

Archbishop Chaput has also made a name for himself as a tenacious and effective recruiter of religious vocations. “You should see him work the crowds,” says David Warner, whose 20-year-old son is a first-year seminarian in Denver. “After every Mass, he’s saying to parents: ‘Well, is your son going to become a priest?’ That was so out of vogue for decades.”

In addition to talking to parents, the archbishop freely gives out his home phone number and keeps up a brisk email correspondence with those he meets at youth rallies and other diocesan events. A crack racquetball player, he regularly invites students and others to join him for a match and a postgame chat about their faith and their vocations.

“We joke that the crosier he carries is really a hook he uses to bring guys in,” says Tom Smith, a 30-year-old former Protestant minister in his second year at the seminary. Smith met Chaput after one of the youth Masses that he celebrates every Sunday evening at Denver’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

“Immediately upon meeting me, as he always does with any young man who isn’t married, he raised the question,” Smith recalls. “When he found out I used to be a minister, he said, ‘You had a pastoral call in your life, and it’s still here. Why not give your life to God as a priest?’ As we would talk in the weeks that followed, every excuse I had, he would just blow right through it.”

There are 60 young men studying for the priesthood in Denver’s two archdiocesan seminaries. St. John Vianney Theological Seminary was opened by Archbishop Chaput in 1999. On the same campus is Redemptoris Mater, operated by the missionary movement Neocatechumenal Way, which has men from more than a dozen countries training to be Denver priests. The Neocatechumenate, as it is also called, is a Spanish spiritual renewal movement founded in the mid-1960s.

Denver’s future seminarians take classes from some of the world’s leading Catholic educators, who were attracted here by Archbishop Chaput’s invitation to help create a new model for priestly formation, based loosely on that developed by Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger in Paris. Along with rigorous coursework in philosophy, doctrine, Scripture, and spirituality, Denver’s seminarians are required to wear clerical attire at all times in public and to spend several hours each day in prayer and Eucharistic adoration. The program includes strong doses of pastoral experience in parishes, homeless shelters, Catholic schools, hospitals, and elsewhere. The young men also receive intensive instruction in the “spirituality of celibacy,” in the hope that they will be able to avoid the sexual confusion and scandals that have dogged the Catholic priesthood in recent decades. “When I was in seminary, celibacy just wasn’t talked about,” says the rector, Msgr. Samuel Aquila, who was ordained in the mid-1970s. “We want our men to be formed by the gospel, not by the culture.”

Some priests and lay observers here charge that the new crop of seminarians is overly concerned with rules and rituals and has the wrong temperament to minister in a culture in which most people, including many Catholics, ignore Church teachings on such issues as divorce, birth control, homosexuality, and abortion. But seminary officials say that fears of a generation of hidebound, doctrinaire young clerics are overwrought. “Based on what I’ve seen, these young men are going to be great priests,” says Mercy Sister Timothea Elliot, who teaches Scripture at St. John Vianney. “They are passionate about spreading the kingdom of God.”

She and others contend that the life experiences that many young men will bring to the priesthood—growing up in broken homes, time spent “seeking” their own religious identities, and powerful conversion experiences—will give them a unique outlook on the problems facing people today. “There are a lot of similar characteristics in each of our stories,” says 23-year-old Kevin Augustyn, a first-year seminarian at St. John Vianney. “A lot of us had kind of a wayward youth. We were reacting to the secularism, the emptiness, and the meaninglessness of so many things in our world today. We found the deeper meaning we were looking for in Christ, meeting Him in a very concrete way.”

Movements with Missions

Another expression of Denver’s missionary feel is the flourishing of international lay renewal movements and apostolates. Archbishop Chaput has encouraged parishes to welcome these groups, which typically stress a personal encounter with Christ and forming small faith-sharing communities. Older, better-known movements such as Opus Dei and the Legionaries of Christ have come to Denver, as have newer ones such as the Polish-based Families of Nazareth and the French-based Community of the Beatitudes, the latter a radical experiment in community living and contemplative prayer. The lay groups are a “gift of the Spirit” to help the Church deal with the aggressive forces of secularism and radical individualism in urban and suburban culture, says William Beckman, a member of the Neocatechumenal Way who serves as Archbishop Chaput’s special adviser and liaison to the renewal movements.

At SS. Peter and Paul Church in the suburb of Wheat Ridge, the Peruvian-based Christian Life Movement has been eagerly embraced by young parents looking for ways to deepen their prayer lives and share their faith journeys with other families.

“It’s been wonderful,” says Lorena Capone, who has been married for five years and has two children, ages three and one, and a third due in the fall. “There are a lot of young families in this parish who want to live the right way.”

Since taking up residence in an empty convent near SS. Peter and Paul Church two years ago, members of the movement, laywomen who have taken vows of celibacy, have been providing spiritual guidance and inspiration to about a dozen Denver-area families. They gather for weekly potluck suppers and picnics that mix serious Bible study, prayer, and devotion with personal conversation and mutual support. Capone and others say the newcomers have helped them find religious meaning and purpose amid their hectic, activity-crammed suburban lives.

Rosana Goñi, an energetic and cheerful Peruvian who belongs to the movement, explains: “We help them in the struggles they all share—how to pray, how to raise their children. The main thing is to have friendships centered in our Lord Jesus and to conform our lives with that of Jesus and Mary.”

Getting Real with Youth

Youth ministry, too, has a decidedly evangelistic and missionary feel in Denver. “We want them to believe in Christ and know how to live that out as part of a worldwide Church,” says Bob Sherwin, who oversees the archdiocese’s outreach to an estimated 15,000 young people.

Youth ministers here are realistic about the serious hurdles the Church faces in a cultural climate that rejects moral norms and encourages sexual permissiveness and lifestyle experimentation. But, Sherwin adds, “realism” does not translate into a retreat from unpopular Church teachings. “Young people here are all over the place on these issues just like they are everywhere,” he says. “What they don’t want, though, is wishy-washy answers. They want the Church’s position, and they want it taught clearly so they can make a decision. I’ve found that if you’re real with them, they will listen.”

Denver’s young are “hungry for the truth,” agrees Curtis Martin, an energetic convert and founder of FOCUS, a national campus ministry program for Catholics. Archbishop Chaput invited Martin to establish his headquarters near the University of Northern Colorado. His two-year-old program—which sends recent college graduates back to campuses as missionaries—has been successful not only in winning converts but also in sparking vocations to the priesthood and religious life. “Students respond to the truth with intensity because they’re tired of the relativist drivel they get in the classrooms,” Martin says.

Rocky Mountain Grumbling

Not everyone is high on the changes that have taken place in the Catholicism of the Rocky Mountains. In Denver’s eastern plains, the followers of the late excommunicated Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre are building a $2 million complex. Neither the Lefebvrist church, called the Mission of St. Isidore, nor its pastor, Rev. Joseph Pfeiffer, are recognized as legitimate by the archdiocese. Father Pfeiffer did not return repeated calls in connection with this story. But in local press accounts, he has expressed grudging respect for Archbishop Chaput while criticizing Church leaders for not doing enough to discipline those who dissent from Catholic teaching.

Muted grumbling is also heard from priests and lay leaders disaffected by what they describe as an increasingly rightward turn in the archdiocese’s direction. They concede that there has been a flourishing of new ideas, movements, and ministries under Archbishop Chaput. But they complain that these initiatives, as well as the circle of lay advisers with whom the archbishop has surrounded himself, are all cut from a narrow mold. They charge that the lay movements Archbishop Chaput has encouraged are elitist and divisive, threatening parish unity.

John Kane, editor of Leaven, a tiny-circulation independent Catholic newsletter in Denver, says the archbishop needs to encourage a greater “diversity of spiritualities and theological interpretations and understandings” and a “broader level of lay participation” in diocesan decision- making. “The dominant concern for authoritative teaching and the magisterium runs the risk of equating unity of the faith with uniformity of practice,” says Kane, who also chairs the religious studies department at the Jesuit-run Regis University in Denver.

Other critics fault Archbishop Chaput for speaking with what they say is a muted voice on social issues. “There is no deep commitment to the poor—the priority now is with these very conservative theological efforts,” complains Loretto Sister Anna Koop, who has run a Catholic Worker house for Denver’s needy and homeless for nearly 25 years. Sister Koop complains that Archbishop Chaput has done little to protest gentrification and development efforts in Denver or the skyrocketing cost of living, all of which have displaced hundreds of poor families and made housing unaffordable except for the very wealthy. The archdiocese’s “only legislative interest is in pro-life and in anti-gay and lesbian things,” she says.

Archbishop Chaput’s supporters do not deny that he has been staunch in his defense of Church teachings on abortion and homosexuality. But charges that he has abandoned Denver’s poor are way off the mark, says Francis Maier, chancellor of the archdiocese and a close adviser. The archdiocese, Maier notes, is by far the region’s largest private provider of social services, and its charitable work is extensive—ranging from Head Start and job-training programs to AIDS ministry and farm-worker advocacy. Furthermore, “the gentrification issue bothers the archbishop very much,” Maier says, adding that Archbishop Chaput has responded with concrete initiatives aimed at helping the poorest urban dwellers. The archdiocese maintains seven grammar schools in Denver’s inner city, where the student body is largely black and non- Catholic. In addition, the archdiocese has raised more than $5 million from local business leaders for an endowment that funds scholarships so that disadvantaged families in these neighborhoods can send their children to Catholic schools.

For his part, Archbishop Chaput professes to ignore the carping on his left and right. “If you’re watching your backside you’re never going to be moving forward,” he says. “There’s a line in Don Quixote where he says to Sancho Panza something to the effect that, ‘The dogs are barking. We must be moving forward.’ If people are yapping about what you’re doing, sometimes it’s a sign that you’re doing the wrong thing. But oftentimes it’s a sign that you’re moving forward.

“This is not the Church of the 1940s,” the archbishop adds. “Nor is it the Church of the 1960s and `70s. It’s the Church of the new millennium. And all of those kind of loyalties to past paradigms—whether they’re conservative or liberal—get in the way of the freedom to look at things in a new way.”

The Future Looks Latino

As he looks forward himself, Archbishop Chaput sees the face of his archdiocese rapidly becoming Hispanic. The ordination in March of Auxiliary Bishop José Gomez, a 49-year-old Mexican priest of Opus Dei, marked another turning point in the archdiocese’s understanding of itself, Archbishop Chaput says: “We will begin to see ourselves as a diocese that is inherently bilingual, inherently multicultural.”

Denver’s Latinos—almost all of them immigrants from poor villages in Mexico—now make up 21 percent of the Catholic population, says Maria del Mar Muñoz-Visos, director of Hispanic ministry in Denver. And their numbers have risen dramatically in the last five years. At Queen of Peace Church in Aurora, a Denver suburb, Rev. John Toepfer says that his Spanish-language Masses used to draw 300 worshippers. Today, 1,500 show up. Furthermore, he has 700 Hispanic youths in his religious education program, up from 130 three years ago. Throughout the diocese, parishes are trying to keep pace. Two years ago, only eight of the diocese’s 114 parishes offered Masses in Spanish. Today, 41 do. Anticipating continued growth, every seminarian now being trained in Denver will be expected to be able to celebrate Mass, preach, and hear confessions in Spanish. Despite the growing pains, Archbishop Chaput sees the newcomers as part of God’s plan to maintain a vibrant Catholicism in Colorado. “The immigrants from Mexico,” he says, “are a new infusion of fresh blood into the life of the Church.”

Telling It in the Mountains

On a radiant peak in the Rockies just outside of Denver, a shrine sits on property once owned by St. Frances Cabrini, an Italian immigrant nun who died early in the last century and was the first American citizen to be canonized. Mother Cabrini, something of a roving missionary herself, came here in 1912 to establish an orphanage for the large numbers of children left fatherless by fatal accidents in the region’s mines. Pilgrims still climb a steep path to draw water from a spring that is said to have started flowing when she struck a stone with her walking staff. They also come to pray near a large image of the Sacred Heart that she fashioned from several hundred white stones.

From up in the mountains, the Denver skyline looks like a tiny, shiny flint in the distance. Catholics here say that the Cabrini shrine reminds them that Denver is still a young Church, still an immigrant Church, a mission territory, a place where saints can be made. When Joseph Machebeuf first arrived here as a missionary priest before he became bishop, Denver was a lawless frontier town with no churches but plenty of rum shops, saloons, and dance halls. Pistol duels were common, livestock roamed the streets, and settlers lived in tents and log cabins, hoping to strike it rich in the mines.

No longer a wild western outpost served by circuit-riding priests, Denver today is the hub of a sophisticated, outward-looking culture. But the challenge facing the Church remains in many ways the same—to preach the gospel in an indifferent and at times hostile culture. And despite the signs of growth and vitality here, success is far from a foregone conclusion, Church administrators say. “There are plenty of dead parishes still in Denver,” notes one.

But Church leaders in Denver say they at least have a clear sense of what their mission is: to create a new brand of Catholicism, one capable of speaking to and compelling the loyalty of this highly secularized, dizzyingly diverse and wealthy population, a people flush with success and yet still hungering for meaning and community. That mission, they say, is the same as it was when Machebeuf preached here and Mother Cabrini walked these paths—to tell the good news in the glorious Rocky Mountains.


  • David Scott

    David Scott is an author with a special interest in religion and culture. He has published several books, including studies of Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Dorothy Day. Hundreds of his essays and articles have appeared in journals and periodicals throughout the world, including the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, as well as National Review, Commonweal, Crisis, Inside the Vatican, National Catholic Register, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Beliefnet.com and elsewhere.

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