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For 50 years, Fran Maier has offered many gifts to the Catholic Church. One of them is his clear-eyed vision of things as they really are…..

For 50 years, Fran Maier has offered many gifts to the Catholic Church. One of them is his clear-eyed vision of things as they really are…..

In the past 25 years, few duos in the U.S. Catholic Church have been more dynamic and adept at identifying its problems and tackling its big challenges than Archbishop Charles Chaput and Francis X. Maier, his longtime senior adviser. 

The pair’s collaborations included launching dynamic lay apostolates, primarily during their time together in the Archdiocese of Denver; digging out the Archdiocese of Philadelphia from a deficit of hundreds of millions of dollars; and managing the fallout from the clergy-abuse crisis in both Denver and Philadelphia.

Archbishop Chaput, who went so far as to tell the Register in 2020 that “without Fran there’s no me,” says the key to their successful working relationship is their willingness to see things as they really are and proceed accordingly.

“The reason why Fran and I have worked together peacefully, joyfully and energetically all these years is because neither of us was willing to pretend,” Archbishop Chaput told the Register Feb. 27. “We wanted to face the issues as they really were, and articulate them, and act on them as we thought they needed to be acted upon.”

Since Archbishop Chaput’s retirement in 2020, Maier has become more visible — and vocal. 

As a widely published commentator and senior fellow of Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC) in Washington, D.C., and digital editor of First Things, the journal of religion and culture where he is mentoring a new generation of Catholic writers, he is free now to wade into controversial matters that were once off limits, like Pope Francis’ problematic and puzzling critique of U.S. Catholicism.

Fran Maier poses for a photo at his home in Pennsylvania.
Fran Maier poses for a photo at his home in Pennsylvania.(Photo: Sarah Webb)

The latest fruit of this freedom is True Confessions: Voices of Faith from a Life in the Church, published earlier this month. Featuring a foreword written by his former boss, it provides a snapshot of the U.S. Church, as seen through the eyes of more than 100 American Catholics working on the front lines, including bishops, lay diocesan leaders, pastors, professors and parents.

True Confessions comes at an inflection point for the U.S. Church. 

And so, as you might expect, Maier’s interview subjects have a lot to say about polarization, secularization, the enduring legacies of the abuse crisis and the COVID-19 shutdowns, rising government intrusions on religious liberty and the complex relationship between the American Church and Pope Francis.

These are all important data points, to be sure. But like the unstinting internal audits the Chaput-Maier partnership was famous for, they serve a larger purpose: to find out why this diverse group of Catholic leaders “love and stay in the Church at a time of external hostility and internal confusion.” So, while True Confessions may sound like a critique, it’s really meant to be a source of hope.

“The truth in True Confessions is the candor of faithful Catholic people who name the real problems we face inside and outside the Church,” said Maier during a panel discussion at a Feb. 28 book launch at the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C. 

“But the bigger truth, the redeeming truth in its pages … is the fidelity, the energy and the hope I found in so many of the persons I interviewed. The believing Church is filled with people of hope, because God is good, and he doesn’t abandon us. True Confessions witnesses to that.”

An Unusual Journey

The book’s launch also shines a spotlight on its author, a highly effective lay leader and strategist who is well known to Church insiders but previously mostly worked behind the scenes transmitting and defending the faith. 

His path to the U.S. hierarchy was highly unusual, to say the least.

Maier named his book True Confessions, in part, because the 1981 film True Confessions, an adaptation of John Gregory Dunne’s crime novel of the same name, remains one of his favorite movies. Indeed, the edgy book title is a nod to his early background as an aspiring Hollywood screenwriter who enrolled in film school after earning an undergraduate degree at the University of Notre Dame, before stumbling into a successful career in journalism covering the Church as editor-in-chief of the Register. 

Suann Malone Maier, his wife of over 50 years, embraced the twists and turns of these unscripted early years, after the two met during college.

The Maiers all dressed up heading to an annual event hosted by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
The Maiers all dressed up heading to an annual event hosted by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.(Photo: Courtesy photo)

At the time of their first encounter, he had drifted away from Catholicism. Suann, a strong Catholic and emerging pro-life activist studying at nearby Saint Mary’s College, liked him immediately but said they couldn’t go out until he returned to the Church.

Maier followed her lead and soon found himself “falling in love” with his cradle faith, as well as his new girlfriend.

“The Church provides a framework for meaning that is plausible and true for one’s whole life,” he said. “I just ate it up with a spoon.”

They married in 1970, Their first child, Matt, arrived in 1973, and the couple adopted their second child, John, after Suann struggled with several miscarriages and feared they would not be able to have another child.

Maier family.
Maier family. (Photo: Courtesy photo)

Two more children arrived while Maier served as editor of the Register: Molly and then Dan, who was diagnosed with Down syndrome. 

Shaped by JPII

Maier’s years at the Register, from the late 1970s through the early 1990s, drew him deeper in the faith. During that time, he guided the paper’s coverage of Pope St. John Paul II’s pontificate and the excitement and tensions it generated across the globe and in the U.S., where a mostly liberal U.S. hierarchy opposed the new Pope’s interpretation of the Second Vatican Council. 

The Church in the U.S. “was predominantly liberal in terms of leadership at that time, and so the Register was suspect,” said Greg Erlandson, who was the paper’s news editor before serving as publisher of Our Sunday Visitor and then director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service.  

“Yet we felt we had this really dynamic Pope who was not afraid of engaging the world and the culture — not only doing battle, but accompanying and empowering.”

Fran Maier at work in his home office.
Fran Maier at work in his home office.

Maier invited budding reporters from Europe and Latin America to spend time at the Register, sharpening their skills, and he developed his own contacts with leading European theologians who shared John Paul II’s vision for the Church. 

In 1993, he accepted a new position as director of communications for the Archdiocese of Denver. 

The move allowed Suann to leave her teaching job and care for Dan and underscored the special role that the Maiers’ youngest son, who continues to live with his parents, would play in the family.

“Danny breathed new life into our family and brought us all together,” Molly Maier Griffin told the Register. 

“Danny brought my dad out of himself; he is an intellectual and can be lost in his own world, and Danny forces you to be flexible, understanding and patient.”

Archbishop James Stafford was at the helm in Denver and had just orchestrated a game-changing World Youth Day when Maier took up his new post.

When Archbishop Chaput succeeded him in 1997, Maier immediately clicked with his new boss, who asked him to stay on as chancellor.

The pair developed a working relationship that tapped their individual strengths.

“Fran would rather run a campaign than run for office,” said the archbishop, referring to his friend’s tendency to avoid the limelight while executing on strategy. 

Looking back, Maier views the archbishop’s plan to back lay-founded apostolates as the most “consequential” decision of their time in Denver, citing the launch of FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students), the Augustine Institute, and Endow (Educating on the Nature and Dignity of Women).

When Archbishop Chaput was appointed to lead the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 2011, Maier continued to serve as senior adviser, and another important lay apostolate, The Culture Project, took flight.

But while Denver provided time and space to experiment with fresh ideas for proclaiming the Gospel, Philadelphia was in the throes of a major crisis, following the release of two explosive grand jury reports detailing allegations of clergy abuse against minors.

The archbishop and Maier had already grappled in Denver with the deep wounds of abuse victims, the need to help them find healing, and the urgent necessity of tightening protocols that safeguard minors.  

Maier worked with Scott Browning, the Denver Archdiocese’s outside legal counsel, to set up a structure that distributed funds from a financial settlement directly to victims. 

The emphasis was on spiritual healing: Archbishop Chaput extended an open invitation to victims to meet with him, and counseling was offered to anyone who requested it.

But the clergy-abuse crisis in Philadelphia was of a different order of magnitude. 

“There was more anger and more reason to be angry,” said Maier, who was dispatched by the archbishop to work on legal, financial and political matters during this period, including the reduction of a $350-million deficit that required staff cuts and the sale of property. 

The work was crushing and often sparked public criticism.

Yet Browning, who was asked to assist the Philadelphia Archdiocese during that time, witnessed Maier’s ability to establish trust and credibility with important stakeholders despite his newcomer status. “He’s remarkably intelligent, but also caring, and won over people quickly,” said Browning. 

Fran and Suann Maier take a walk in their neighborhood.
Fran and Suann Maier take a walk in their neighborhood.(Photo: Sarah Webb)

During the most grueling moments, prayer sustained Maier. 

“We say morning and evening prayer together; we say the Rosary together,” Suann Maier told the Register. “And in horrible times, we walk in the neighborhood as we pray. We call this the ‘loud Rosary.’”  

The Burdens of Bishops

Mary FioRito, a longtime personal assistant to the late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago and an EPPC colleague, told the Register that Maier has witnessed the crucible of episcopal ministry firsthand, and True Confessions helps convey that to Catholics who don’t understand what it’s like to be a faithful bishop in these times.  

“A bishop has 500 or 600 priests, and at the end of the day, he is responsible for all of them and has to take ultimate blame for all their crimes and sins,” said FioRito. 

“That weighs heavily on a holy man.”

True Confessions includes commentaries by Maier and Archbishop Chaput. There are interviews with 30 bishops, whose names have been withheld so they would be free to address sensitive subjects honestly. And committed lay Catholics explain why they love and remain in the Church, despite the headwinds of hostile political forces, tensions with Rome, and personal struggles that test their faith. 

This desire to communicate the perspectives of others is characteristic of Maier.

George Weigel, a friend of Maier’s for 45 years, said his decision to “work for and through others for over a quarter-century … rather than becoming a ‘personality’ in his own right” proved to be extraordinarily fruitful, even as it spoke to “his humility and his sense of himself as a servant of the Gospel.” 

fran maier 2024
(L-R) President of the Augustine Institute Tim Gray, Senior Vice President of Evangelization and Faith Formation for the Knights of Columbus Jonathan Reyes, Bishop Jim Conley of Lincoln, Neb., and Curtis Martin of FOCUS sit with Fran Maier during the 2023 Napa Institute. (Photo: Courtesy photo)

“Fran knows the Church from the inside and the outside,” noted his friend Bill McGurn, an opinion writer for The Wall Street Journal and a past contributor to the Register.

McGurn, who described True Confessions as “temperate and on point,” suggested that Maier’s rich life as a Catholic husband and father provides ballast to his book’s incisive portrait of modern Catholicism, with all its frustrations and unexpected joys. 

This perspective is featured in True Confessions’ chapter on “special people.” Parents raising children with special needs, like Matthew and Ursula Hennessey, offer candid remarks that reveal sacrificial love, but also the trials, that comes with their special charge.

This moving and engaging chapter points to Maier’s commitment to truth-telling at home, as well as in the chancery, in service to the Church. 

“You have to be honest with yourself about your feelings, as long as you do the right thing,” said Maier. 

“The Hennesseys are very honest about themselves, but their devotion completely dwarfs that. It’s a powerful witness.”

Maier similarly referenced the importance of witnessing with truth in his remarks at the Feb. 28 book launch, noting there that he had The Confessions of St. Augustine in mind as he chose its title.

“Like Augustine, we confess our sins, but we also confess our faith,” he said.

“The central question of a Catholic life is whether we’re true to what we claim to believe, or if we’re lying to ourselves and everybody else when we call ourselves Catholic.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the daughter of Gerardine Ann Frawley, the publisher of the Register during Fran Maier’s tenure at the paper.

READ MORE TRUE CONFESSIONS – Voices of Faith from a Life in the Church | EWTN Religious Catalogue

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