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Chicago meets its new archbishop as the ‘Pope Francis effect’ sets in

Bishop of Spokane, Blase Cupich, welcomes Fast for Families on March 6, 2013, during an evening community meeting at Gonzaga University.

(RNS) When Spokane Bishop Blase Cupich got a call 10 days ago with the news that Pope Francis had chosen him to be the next archbishop of Chicago — the pontiff’s most important U.S. appointment to date — he was so taken aback that he couldn’t speak for a few moments.

Bishop of Spokane, Blase Cupich, welcomes Fast for Families on March 6, 2013, during an evening community meeting at Gonzaga University.

Photo courtesy of Fast 4 Families via Flickr

Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane, Wash., welcomes Fast for Families on March 6, 2013, during an evening community meeting at Gonzaga University.

“To say that I was surprised doesn’t come close to the word I would use,” Cupich said Saturday (Sept. 20) at a news conference in Chicago introducing him as the successor to Cardinal Francis George, who is 77 and battling cancer.

Asked by reporters how long it took for the reality of his appointment to sink in, Cupich smiled and said, “It’s still sinking in.”

A lot of other Catholics are trying to absorb the news as well, just as surprised that Francis picked the 65-year-old Cupich, who had been considered a long shot by many Vatican handicappers. They were also pleased, or concerned, that the pope had evidently chosen a bishop who shared his own emphasis on listening to the flock and caring for the poor.

“I think that he” — Francis — “sent a pastor, not a message,” Cupich told reporters.

But it was also clear that having a pastorally minded churchman like Cupich (pronounced “SOUP-itch”) at the helm represents a major shift not only for Chicago, but for the American church.

In his 17 years as archbishop, George won a reputation as a doctrinal conservative and a feisty culture warrior who pronounced liberal Catholicism “an exhausted project” while decrying the growing secularization of U.S. society and the grave threats posed by policies adopted by the Obama administration.

Cupich, on the other hand, has consistently taken a more moderate tone, seeking dialogue to resolve conflicts and advance the church’s mission. Like Francis, he also prefers to focus on promoting the church’s social justice teachings rather than waging divisive battles over abortion and same-sex marriage.

Pressed to contrast his approach with that of George, Cupich repeatedly deflected such comparisons and said he would try to be himself. “Everyone brings their own gifts and talents and experiences,” Cupich said.

Yet he also noted that when George was named in 1997 to replace the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who once embodied the hopes of a more progressive church, George joked that of course he would be different from Bernardin because the church does not believe in cloning.

“I think it is reasonable to expect different emphases and approaches” when he formally takes office on Nov. 18, Cupich said.

In fact, while addressing the rapidly growing Latino presence in Chicago — Cupich seemed comfortable speaking in Spanish — he made a strong plea for Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, an indication of how the tone and priorities may be shifting already. “Every day we delay is a day too long,” he said.

Blase J. Cupich of Spokane, Wash., far right, concelebrates Mass in 2012 with other U.S. bishops in the crypt of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. Pope Francis has named Bishop Cupich as archbishop of Chicago, succeeding Cardinal Francis E. George. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service

Blase J. Cupich of Spokane, Wash., far right, concelebrates Mass in 2012 with other U.S. bishops in the crypt of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. Pope Francis has named Bishop Cupich as archbishop of Chicago, succeeding Cardinal Francis E. George. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service

Cupich noted that his move from the Spokane diocese, which includes about 100,000 Catholics in 82 parishes in eastern Washington, to Chicago, a sprawling archdiocese with 2.2 million Catholics in more than 350 parishes, is “an enormous upgrade, so to speak,” and he will have a lot to learn and many challenges to face.

But the appointment to such a large and prestigious diocese also immediately makes Cupich a major player in the American church hierarchy.

Cupich is almost certain to get a cardinal’s red hat, and his identification with the more progressive wing of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops may signal the beginning of the end of three decades of conservative dominance.

Church sources said that Francis is not familiar with the American hierarchy and had been personally consulting bishops in order to pick someone who would reflect his own style. It appears that to some degree Francis went around the usual bureaucratic process to do that.

Cupich clearly seems to embrace the comparisons with Francis. As he concluded his opening remarks, he announced that he would bow his head to the crowd just as Francis did when he was elected pope in March 2013, “in hopes that everyone in Chicago will pray for me.”

As he did so, a reporter immediately interrupted the moment with a question, and they kept coming.

For his part, George praised Cupich even as he seemed to be coming to terms with the fact that he would soon be leaving office.

Asked to describe his emotions, George said other retired bishops described that shift as a jarring one. “One moment you’re at the center of everything; the next moment you’re not.”

George also is clearly struggling with treatments that are trying to halt a recurrence of bladder cancer, an illness that appeared to hasten the pope’s decision to find his replacement.

KRE/MG END GIBSON

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.

14 Comments

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  • Chicago needs help. Not religious nonsense.

    The lack of jobs and the widening gap between rich and poor
    are destroying the major cities like Chicago. Crime is rampant.

    Thank the Christian Right Wing and the Tea Party
    for all the regressive no-tax policies which are still in place.
    Every dime spent on superstitious nonsense in Chicago’s churches is money wasted twice; first because paying for houses of superstition accomplishes nothing, and second because it is desperately needed on real projects.

    Abandon this nonsense.

  • Well, George is already two past the age when bishops are required to turn in their resignations to the pope. It will have been worth the wait if Bishop Cupich turns out to be like Francis, more like Bernardin, and very unlike George.

    Those who claim liberalism (freedom) is dying among the People of God are not taking into account the fact that the very great decrease of participating members in the church is what has made the church seem to be moving in a conservative direction during the destructive papacies of John Paul II and Benedict.

    Add to that that lack of action by John Paul II and Benedict relating to the horror of the sex abuse of young people by clergy and religious and you have a description of the church that is hardly holy. No one, not even “conservatives,” should be proud of that kind of a church.

    Do those who sit back and docilely accept the rape of our young people without demanding thorough, corrective action satisfied with the claim of being conservatives.

  • That should be: “to years past the age when bishops are required to turn in their resignations to the pope.?

    I wish RNS would provide an editing option to writers of comments.

  • It is the “spell-check” in this system that is overly sensitive and changing what is clearly typed.

    “…two years past the age when bishops are required to turn in their resignations to the pope…”

  • @ AMax, tiresome feedback loop. @gilhcan, speaking as a bedrock conservative, I support absolute accountability in matters of clerical trust and abuse. To quote an old colloquialism, spiritual and religious guides must be “clean as a hound’s tooth.” No excuses, no equivocation

  • The “Pope Frances Effect” i.e. fail to protect children against sex abuse, deny the victims a just compensation, never hold the prelates who aid, abet and coverup accountable, oppose affordable health care for women and human rights for gays – but say it nicely.

  • Betty Clermont, addressing your comment, in part …
    Re: those who “oppose affordable health care for women”

    Excerpt from …
    THINK PROGRESS
    Article by Ian Millhiser (September 22, 2014 @ 9:00)
    RELIGIOUS CONSERVATIVES FINALLY ADMIT WHAT THEY FINALLY WANT OUT OF HOBBY LOBBY

    “The court filing is a motion filed by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty — the same Becket Fund that represented Hobby Lobby in its successful lawsuit in the Supreme Court — on behalf of Ave Maria University, a conservative Catholic school which claims that “any action ‘specifically intended to prevent procreation’ — including contraception and sterilization — is morally wrong.” In its motion, Becket asks a federal court in Florida to grant Ave Maria a temporary exemption from the federal rules governing birth control coverage while its litigation against the government proceeds.”

    In looking at this statement: “any action ‘specifically intended to prevent procreation’ — including contraception and sterilization — is morally wrong.”
    …I must ask those who agree with this statement: Would this include CELIBACY? Would this not also be a form of “action” intending to prevent PROCREATION?

    Procreation- produce young, reproduce

    Peace

  • CORRECTION on Article Title:

    Religious Conservatives Finally Admit What They Really Want Out Of Hobby Lobby

    Thx

  • I don’t understand why these people oppose the sale of contraceptives: they won’t prevent any procreation among people who aren’t having sexual intercourse.

    -dlj.

  • @Diogenes,

    You said, “Tiresome feedback loop”

    But I’ll tell you what is TIRESOME:

    “Like Francis, he also prefers to focus on promoting the church’s social justice teachings rather than waging divisive battles over abortion and same-sex marriage.”

    Sure. Because nobody goes to church if you preach the old garbage so now its time to come up with more popular garbage. The empty coffers are going begging!

    So with the same old smoke and mirrors the church is reborn yet again.
    Fresh lipstick on a pig. Yet, you clearly defend it.

    But …Rebirthing the same dead baby
    for 2000 years – now THAT is tiresome.

    This primitive nonsense needs to be abandoned.

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