On July 18, 2012, something happened to Bishop Samuel J. Aquila that he never expected — he was installed as the eighth bishop of Denver. What was most unusual about this is that the Archdiocese of Denver is the diocese in which Archbishop Aquila was ordained a priest nearly 40 years prior. It is exceedingly rare for a bishop to become shepherd of his home diocese — almost unheard of, in fact.
Looking back at the past 10 years of his episcopate here in Denver, however, it is increasingly clear that amid the many circumstances that led to Archbishop Aquila’s return to Denver, the hand of the Lord was at work, and indeed, this is where God wanted his faithful servant all along.
“The past 10 years have been a wonderful blessing to me, one that I never expected, but one that God the Father had planned for me in his goodness,” Archbishop Aquila told the Denver Catholic. “My heart is filled with gratitude to God to allow Mary’s words at the Wedding Feast at Cana — ‘Do whatever he tells you’ — be the guide in my life of faith in Jesus Christ and his Church. While my years as a priest and bishop have presented me with challenges and even heart-breaking tragedies, there have been experiences of great joy through the hands of the Father’s providential love. Through it all, I am grateful for God’s constant provision and the Blessed Mother’s accompaniment.”
Given his devotion to the Blessed Mother, it should come as no surprise that Archbishop Aquila has been heralded over the years as a courageous defender of the dignity of human life. As the archbishop alluded to in his recent interview with Catholic World Report, Colorado is a state that has all but abandoned respect for the dignity of the unborn and the aged, having recently codified the right to abortion up until birth and being an early adopter of physician assisted-suicide. Archbishop Aquila has repeatedly spoken out against these policies and others like them, and that’s because his convictions to defend life run deep.
In a 2013 pastoral letter, Archbishop Aquila recounted an experience he had as a college student determined to become a doctor that completely altered the course of his life. While working as a hospital orderly during one summer break, he witnessed the results of two abortions; one a preborn child lying lifeless on a table, and another where he held a basin under a mother while a doctor removed parts of an preborn child that remained in her womb.
“The memory haunts me. I will never forget that I stood witness to acts of unspeakable brutality,” he wrote. “I witnessed the death of two small people who never had the chance to take a breath. I can never forget that. And I have never been the same. My faith was weak at the time. But I knew by reason, and by what I saw, that a human life was destroyed. My conscience awakened to the truth of the dignity of the human being from the moment of conception. I became pro-life and eventually returned to my faith.”
Archbishop Aquila has also been outspoken about the need to re-capture traditional Christian values as a way to remedy many of the problems that plague modern-day society, and most especially in the realm of the family and human sexuality. His 2014 pastoral letter “Family: Become What You Are” called on families to be strongholds of faith and love, echoing St. John Paul II’s sentiments that the family is “the basic cell of society.” Then, In 2018, the archbishop issued a pastoral letter entitled “The Splendor of Love” re-emphasizing what Pope Paul VI wrote 50 years earlier in Humanae Vitae and calling the faithful to courageously stand up and live out God’s design for sexuality.
Another notable accomplishment was the archbishop’s 2015 initiative to restore the order of the Sacraments of Initiation in the Archdiocese of Denver. He borrowed a rule from his own playbook during his tenure as bishop of Fargo, N.D., where he implemented the restored order to much praise and success. His 2015 pastoral letter “Saints Among Us” laid out his reasons for doing so: “The world needs saints. Even as our society becomes more distant from faith and more forgetful of God, it still hungers for joyful witnesses who have been transformed by Christ. At the same time, new generations of Catholics need grace to sustain them in a non-Christian environment. To answer these needs, I have decided to restore the Sacraments of Initiation to their original order, that is, Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist. This will make available every sacramental grace the Church has to offer to children who have reached the age of reason.”
Of course, the archbishop’s passion and conviction for these teachings and many others flow from a single source: an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ. This has been a recurring theme of his time as bishop of Denver, and it is one that he has given even more credence to in the second half of his episcopacy. He has spoken and written repeatedly on the centrality of a relationship with Christ and receiving his body, blood, soul and divinity in the Eucharist in the life of the Church, and his fervor for these have only grown with time, it seems.
Over the last two years, Archbishop Aquila has shared his conviction that the Church no longer lives in an age of Christendom, but rather in a new apostolic age in which Christ is calling upon all Christians to go out and boldly proclaim the gospel, just as the first apostles did. In order to do this, the archbishop has been urging Christians to adopt what he calls an Apostolic Mindset.
More recently this year, Archbishop Aquila invited the faithful of the archdiocese of pray the Surrender novena during Lent as a way to fully surrender to the Lord’s will for their lives. In his pastoral note “It’s All in the Surrender,” the archbishop wrote: “One of the central mysteries of our faith, the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, reveals that God continues to surrender himself each time the Mass is celebrated. He has given himself to us completely — body, blood, soul, and divinity — until the end of time. St. Francis of Assisi, contemplating these mysteries, used to cry out in the streets, ‘Love is not loved!’ That is because our only response to what God does for us in the sacraments is to pour out our own lives completely to him in return.”
This encapsulates the way in which Archbishop Aquila has served the faithful of the Archdiocese of Denver over the last 10 years. We are grateful to our shepherd for his humble service and courageous leadership. May he and all the faithful of the Church continue to heed those wise and motherly words of Our Blessed Mother: “Do whatever he tells you” — and pray for the grace and the strength to do so.