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The order that shaped Philadelphia's next archbishop
[August 15, 2011]

The order that shaped Philadelphia's next archbishop

Aug 15, 2011 (The Philadelphia Inquirer - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- In minutes, it would be lunchtime at St. John's Hospice for homeless men in Center City.

"Some of them won't want to speak to you," the director told three young men wearing small wooden crosses. "So just smile." Thursday was the first day of ministry for the fledgling Capuchin friars, who considered the shelter's locked metal door and all that might wait beyond and wondered: Could they live the life of St. Francis of Assisi? It is a question that Archbishop Charles Chaput, a Capuchin Franciscan priest, asked himself at 13 as he entered seminary.

Though his Capuchin brothers shake their heads at "Charlie's" unfriarly career path -- leading on Sept. 8 to the helm of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia -- Chaput, 66, says his order's simplicity, community, and devotion to the poor still define him.

"If people want to know me," he recently told an interviewer, "they ought to know the Capuchin tradition." Founded in Italy in the 1520s, the Capuchins were a reform group that sought to restore the values of St. Francis, the mystic visionary who had established the Order of Friars Minor, or "little brothers," three centuries before.

The new "hermit friars" begged for alms, lived in small groups, never touched money, and went barefoot as they lived among the poor, feeding the hungry.

They took their name (pronounced CAP-uchin) from the pointy hood, or cappuccio, of their brown robes. (The word was appropriated for the Italian coffee drink cappuccino.) Today, the Capuchins, who number 11,000 priests and lay brothers worldwide, are the fourth-largest religious order of Roman Catholic men.

About 800 live in the United States, with 13 in Philadelphia. Here, they run four parishes -- St. John the Evangelist in Center City, Holy Redeemer in Chinatown, and St. Callistus and Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament in West Philadelphia -- and serve in prison and homeless ministries.

"Charlie is an exception to the Capuchin way of life," said the Rev. Paul Kuppe, pastor of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament and Chaput's friend since they were 13-year-old seminarians.

Though proud that their fellow friar has attained honors and fame -- he is universally expected to be made a cardinal -- "very few Capuchins ever become bishops" outside missionary dioceses, Kuppe said. "Francis was not a priest. He didn't want his brothers in hierarchy." Nonetheless, the order's four-state Province of St. Augustine, based in Pittsburgh, has produced not just an archbishop in Chaput, but a cardinal in Boston's Sean O'Malley. Both graduated from St. Fidelis Seminary in Herman, in Western Pennsylvania.

O'Malley still wears Capuchin robes, but Chaput traded his for a black suit and Roman collar in 1988, when he became bishop of Rapid City, S.D. He has worn "blacks" for 14 years as Denver's archbishop, arguing that, as such, he is a diocesan priest.

Chaput will not be the first Franciscan to don a Philadelphia bishop's miter. That distinction goes to Irish-born Michael Francis Egan, who became the city's first Catholic bishop in 1810.

A member of the Potawatomi tribe of American Indians, Chaput grew up in Kansas, where as a ninth grader he entered a high school seminary. He took lifetime vows as a Capuchin in 1968, and after ordination in 1970 spent four years as the Pennsylvania seminary's spiritual director. He later served as provincial secretary and communications director, then as a pastor of a Colorado parish in the Province of Mid-America, where he was elected provincial minister, or chief executive, in 1983.

Capuchin priests and non-ordained brothers identify themselves as "friars," and call one another "brother." Although they no longer beg, they are expected to live communally with "the minimum necessary," said Kuppe, who serves as provincial director of postulants -- men just starting to discern whether they are called to Capuchin life.

Since 2005, the local province's aspiring friars are sent to Philadelphia, where they live communally in Blessed Sacrament's 12-room former convent. The province comprises Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, and West Virginia, as well as Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and Papua-New Guinea, where most of its missionaries work.

Dress is casual: T-shirts and shorts mostly. Each postulant has his own bedroom, but the group of nine shares three cellphones. Computer time is 90 minutes a week.

"It's pretty amazing that we're here just as a Capuchin is coming in as archbishop," said postulant Tal Baron, 23.

His peers hail from as far away as Jordan and Puerto Rico, but Baron grew up on the Main Line and studied English and philosophy at Temple University.

Yet his path to the postulants' residence at 63d and Callowhill Streets was a detour. Baron grew up Jewish, began reading the gospels and praying to Jesus during a spiritual crisis at 16, and was baptized on Easter 2009.

"From that moment, I wanted to devote myself to my religion," Baron said last week. "I thought, 'If Christianity is true, what are the implications of that in my life?'. . . I wanted to see if I could live the gospel radically." Wearing a crew cut, jeans, glasses, a gray T-shirt, and the postulants' T-shaped wooden "tau" cross, Baron sat at one of the long dining tables at the Capuchin residence in West Philadelphia.

He was attracted at first to the intellectualism of the Jesuit and Dominican orders, he said, but at a conference for Catholic college students in Florida, the only religious-vocations director who took an interest in him was a Capuchin: the Rev. Thomas Betz.

"He was very proactive. A fisher of men," said Baron, who was elated to learn Betz was also pastor of Holy Redeemer parish in Philadelphia's Chinatown.

"As I met more Capuchins, I saw how much they loved each other," Baron said, and decided to test the waters of Capuchin life.

On Wednesday, all the postulants were asked to select one of three ministries in which to work for the next eight months.

Three chose St. John's Hospice, operated by the archdiocese's office of Catholic Social Services; three chose the Bethesda Project, an independent Catholic nonprofit that provides services to the homeless; and three -- including Baron -- chose Don Guanella Village, an archdiocesan home for mentally challenged teenage boys in Springfield, Delaware County.

Baron chose Don Guanella, he said, because working with the youths there "had no utilitarian value." Just as St. Francis once famously kissed a leper, he explained, "it's just about loving them and being with them." In conversations last week, postulants and older friars alike touched on community and service when asked what drew them to Capuchin life.

"Working together, living together -- that's what attracted my heart," said Friar Brian Newman, 76, on break from 48 years as a missionary in Papua New Guinea.

"I saw all this inner joy they had," said postulant Ryan Gebhart, 23, of Newark, Del. "I asked myself, 'What about their lifestyle made them this way?' " For Kuppe, the turn came in seminary, when he realized he finally belonged to a community. "I thought: 'What if I really gave my life to the Lord? What are the possibilities?' "I think Charlie would probably say it was the same thing." Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or [email protected].

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