Archbishop Samuel Aquila, 71, is celebrating his tenth anniversary as Archbishop of Denver, the archdiocese in which he was ordained in 1976. He was born in Burbank, California, served as a priest in Denver for 25 years, and then served as Bishop of Fargo, North Dakota from 2001 to 2012. He returned to Denver in 2012. (He was interviewed in 2011 by Catholic World Report when he was Bishop of Fargo.)
CWR: How would you describe Denver’s people, culture and geography?
Archbishop Samuel Aquila:
Earlier this year, our state legislature passed the Reproductive Health Equity Act, one of the most progressive and liberal abortion laws in the country. It stripped away the rights of the unborn child, which they refer to as the embryo or fetus, and made it legal to abort the child in the womb up to birth.
When I was ordained in 1976, Colorado was a Red State, where family values were strongly reinforced. (Although it had already begun to change. Colorado was the first state that liberalized abortion laws under Governor Dick Lamm in 1967.) The recent decades have seen many people from the West Coast and East Coast come to live here, and their presence has changed our culture tremendously.
CWR: How receptive has the Denver population been to the message of the Church in the past decade?
Archbishop Aquila: Our church population is in decline, but not by a huge amount, maybe 2 or 3% in recent years. That said, we do see some real pockets of revitalization, particularly in the area of Catholic education. Our archdiocesan school system is very strong, an area I’ve emphasized in the decade I’ve been archbishop, continuing the work of my predecessors, Archbishops Stafford and Chaput.
We continue our work of evangelization by going out to the peripheries, inviting people to accept the truth of the Gospel and proclaiming Christ. We have strong Neocatechumenate communities here whose members evangelize. We’re also blessed to have Christ in the City to help and evangelize our homeless; they do incredibly good work carrying out the corporal works of mercy for them. And, we have other great groups. These groups go back to the basics, helping people experience an encounter with Jesus Christ.
We also have wonderful revitalization going on in our parishes, where it all boils down to the leadership of the pastor. We discover that when the Gospel is presented wholly, truthfully and charitably, and people are being accompanied in their encounter with Jesus Christ, we see tremendous growth. We need to ask these people: Who truly is my God? Have I surrendered my life completely to Jesus Christ? This means your entire heart, mind, will and soul.
We also need to help people encounter Christ in the sacramental life of the Church and the community of the parish.
CWR: How are vocations to the priesthood and religious life?
Archbishop Aquila: We have been blessed. In the years I have been archbishop, we have been ordaining classes of three to eight to the priesthood. We have between 50 and 60 seminarians, and have been as high as 70. We definitely need new priests; I have opened two new parishes because of population growth. Whereas parishes in years past had two, three or four parochial vicars, they are now fortunate to have one or two. Many parishes have one priest only.
As far as religious life, we’ve had men enter the Disciples of Jesus and Mary, the Jesuits and the Capuchins, who are present in the archdiocese. Our young women have been entering the Sisters of Life, the Nashville Dominicans, the Religious Sisters of Mercy, the Little Sisters of the Poor and the Benedictine Contemplative Nuns of the Abbey of St. Walburga. The Benedictines are a cloistered community, and they spend their lives praying, farming and ranching.
CWR: Do you have any major initiatives occurring in the archdiocese?
Archbishop Aquila: As an archdiocese, we’re really trying to understand what it means to be a disciple of Christ in today’s world. I asked our people to read an essay from the 2020 book From Christendom to Apostolic Mission from the University of Mary to start this discussion. The supports for Christianity in our culture have deteriorated. The culture no longer supports Judeo-Christian values. How do we evangelize? Our culture is similar to apostolic times, when Christians were confronted with a hostile pagan culture worshipping false gods. Today’s false gods are different, however. We see such false gods as secular humanism, atheism, materialism, and nihilism.
So our greatest initiative is seeking the conversions of mind and heart to Jesus Christ. That is what it means to have apostolic mission and to have a common mission within the archdiocese. Our mission is that in Jesus Christ all might be rescued and have abundant life for the glory of the Father. From there, we need to look at what it means to have a biblical world view. As Christians, we have to ask ourselves, do we really have a Christian world view? Are we completely surrendering all to Jesus Christ?
This past Advent, from Christ the King Sunday through Christmas, I asked our parish priests to preach on kerygma.
CWR: Can you explain that a bit more?
Archbishop Aquila: Kerygma is a Greek term meaning proclamation and herald. It sums up the basic Gospel message.
We are created by God. In His love, He has created us. Creation is beautiful. But there was the fall. Humanity was captured by the devil who entered into the world. Humanity listened to the father of lies. But, the Good News of the Gospel is that Jesus Christ has rescued man from being captured. In our encounter with Jesus Christ, we are freed from sin, death and the devil. It encompasses the basic Christian message….
The above comes from a July 8 interview in Catholic World Report.