Charles J. Chaput, OFM, Cap.
(Henry Holt, 2021, 272 pages, hardcover, $25.99)
Reviewed by Brian Caulfield
When he began writing, Archbishop Charles Chaput could not know that Things Worth Dying For would be released in a time of pandemic, when public officials and many religious leaders would place “health and safety” above all else. While it may seem incongruous to address the higher meaning of death as millions worldwide have expired from the coronavirus, the great value of this book is found not in its connection to current events but rather in its expression of timeless truths. Indeed, in all of his writings, as well as in his role as a U.S. Catholic leader, Archbishop Chaput has been less concerned with keeping pace with his times than in preparing his people for life with God—on earth and in heaven.
This book is a twilight-of-life reflection, or Thoughts on a Life Worth Living, as the subtitle puts it. Chaput began writing in September 2019, having just completed his eighth year as archbishop of Philadelphia and shortly after his 75th birthday, the age when canon law required him to submit his resignation to Pope Francis. Describing these circumstances in the first chapter, Chaput seems to assume his resignation would be soon accepted, which it was—Francis announced his replacement in January 2020. There was much media speculation about the relatively quick action on America’s leading “conservative” archbishop, but Chaput does not delve into those issues. Thinking of his life of service and leadership in the Church, he writes: “Stepping down from that kind of life-giving work brings with it feelings of both gratitude and nostalgia.” Rather than longing to hang onto his high ecclesial position, he looks forward to “the time that becomes available for rest and reflection.”
We all should be grateful that the good archbishop chose to use that time to such good purpose.
The first reason to read this book is that Chaput is a master writer. His style is deep and eloquent but never showy. He explains difficult concepts without a hint of condescension, inviting the reader into his vast knowledge of theology, literature, history, and philosophy as a friend would bring you into his home. A Capuchin devoted to the spirit of St. Francis, he places the personal over the theoretical, yet always adheres to the true principles that make friendship with God and neighbor fruitful and, ultimately, salvific. In his mind, there is no conflict between doctrine and mercy; they complement one another.
Here is an example of his incisive writing, taken at random:
Liberal society is good at many things. Instilling moral coherence, and a shared sense of things worth living and dying for, is not one of them. As “I” has replaced “we” as the favored pronoun of Americans, opportunities for conflict have multiplied and abscessed—with the result that for the modern cynic, as much as for the modern ideologue, contempt for the interior peace and convictions of others is the emotional equivalent of crack cocaine.
There is a balance to his prose that reflects the balance in his world view and in his manner of thought. He can get to the heart of an issue with a gimlet eye and rapier wit, yet there is an admirable reserve in his style that belies a fundamental humility. It is a humility that tells the reader to cast aside quick judgments, question easy assumptions, offer others the benefit of a doubt, and seek to reason with opponents whether in person or in print. Ultimately, it’s a humility that says: Love your enemy, pray for those who persecute you; for even the most cogent social or political insight or argument is imperfect, and in taking sides too quickly or rabidly, we may easily be led astray.
A true shepherd of souls, Chaput fully acknowledges the serious earthly issues that each one of us must deal with, yet presents these in the context of a life worthy of eternity with God. He does not pretend that faith makes life easy, or that we can perfect ourselves absent the grace of God. He does insist that faith gives life its only true meaning, and that after all is said and done by the best and worst of humanity, God has the final word. The most an aging, wise soul can do is bestow a blessing on those who come after: “At seventy-five, my part in the tale is ending. But the Church, her mission, and the Christian story we all share: these go on. And so the greatest blessing I can wish for those who might one day read these words is that you take up your part in the tale with all the energy and fire in your hearts. Because it’s a life worth living.”
—Brian Caulfield writes from Connecticut.