By Archbishop Charles Chaput
Charles Chaput was born in September 1944 in Concordia, Kansas, a small community in north central Kansas in the heartland of America’s Midwest, where farming is a tradition and family values are cherished. In his fourth book, Things Worth Dying For, the now retired Archbishop Emeritus of Philadelphia shares his wisdom born there in Kansas during World War II in a deeply spiritual book, rich in life-lived anecdotes and scholarly insight gleaned from his enormous library and media collection. This book is not scholarly and out of reach of the general reader trying to understand American culture today, but rather an intellectual exploration that shares his literary, historic and theological intelligence that gives the reader with an appetite to learn, plenty of food for thought.
Archbishop Chaput was named archbishop of Philadelphia in 2011 by Pope Benedict XVI, having served as archbishop of Denver (1997-2001) and Bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota, for nine years previously. He was ordained a priest in 1970 and is a Capuchin Franciscan, and when he was appointed bishop was only the second Native American to be named an ordinary bishop and the first ever to be named an archbishop. He is a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, a lineage from his maternal grandmother who was the last family member to live on a reservation.
His father was French Canadian and was a direct descendent of King Louis IX. More fascinating though, is that his father was a mortician in that small Kansas town where there were no strangers. “We knew and were known by nearly every other family in the community,” the archbishop writes. “We lived upstairs from the funeral parlor and for me that never seemed strange…. In our home, death and all of the complex emotions that surround it were a natural part of living. There was nothing dark about it.”
What makes this book the rigorous but non-tiring read is Archbishop Chaput’s homiletic approach to speaking about the sacredness of life and that there is no end to a life lived in faith and hope. He shares his experiences of traveling to the Holy Land and his insight is especially prescient given the renewed strife between the Israelis and Palestinians that has raged recently.
The book does not gloss over America’s evils either. He laments at our constant consumption mentality that threatens to destroy the nation if not curbed, he argues. He argues our media consumption is morbidly overweight and how we treat each other via social media will continue to divide us even more. Yet, the book never feels like a Sunday homily meant to harangue about what is wrong with the nation or world. Sin has been around since the Garden, he writes, and we should not be surprised humans fall short.
Arguably the greatest strength of the book is the archbishop’s liberal use of literary writings prove his points. From the ancient writings of Socrates or Aquinas or Augustine, to quotes form the classic secular writings of the last century and tracts like The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (a favorite of this writer), Archbishop Chaput highlights how important virtue, friendship, loyalty and family are and will always be. He even sprinkles in a few movie metaphors and pop culture icons to prove his Midwestern roots run deep to Hollywood and New York City.
“Heaven is real. And if we do not pursue God, he will pursue us,” the Archbishop writes in his final chapter. “We can elude him. We can refuse him. But until the last beat of our heart, the hound will keep following.”
Archbishop Chaput is a gifted storyteller and writer. And this book is a deeply personal reflection not about death at all, but rather about the fragility of life, and that we all need to have a renewed sense of what is worth living for.
Book Review by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness