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Chicago Cardinal Cupich unveils church-led anti-violence initiative

CHICAGO (RNS) Plans to aid the violence-plagued city will be underscored by a Good Friday procession using the traditional stations of Jesus' way to the cross to commemorate those who have been murdered.

The Rev. Michael Pfleger speaks to reporters after the announcement of an anti-violence initiative in Chicago on April 4, 2017. RNS photo by Tom Gallagher

CHICAGO (RNS) With the blessing of Pope Francis, Cardinal Blase Cupich unveiled an anti-violence initiative for this beleaguered city that will be underscored by a Good Friday procession using the traditional stations of Jesus’ way to the cross to commemorate those who have been murdered.

Cupich said he was inviting civic, education and religious leaders and “all people of goodwill” to take part in the April 14 “Peace Walk” through the heart of the gun-ridden Englewood neighborhood.

He said the pope had promised to include Chicago in his prayers when he leads the Way of the Cross procession that day at the Colosseum in Rome.

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“The causes of the violence we are seeing in our city are complex and deep-seated, but I have a strong belief, based on the goodwill and the many dedicated efforts of our civic and religious leaders, that these causes can be addressed and the suffering can end if we all work together,” Cupich said at a news conference Tuesday (April 4) at the Peace Corner Youth Center.

The organization is a church-sponsored community center in the city’s Austin neighborhood that provides a safe haven from gang violence and drug activity, as well as other services.

Cardinal Blase Cupich speaks at the announcement of an anti-violence initiative led by the Archdiocese of Chicago in Illinois, on April 4, 2017. RNS photo by Tom Gallagher

“Bolstered by the encouragement of the Holy Father, we are dedicated to creating a framework for peace building in our city,” said Cupich, who was personally chosen by Francis in 2014 to lead the Archdiocese of Chicago, one of the largest and most influential in the U.S. church.

Cupich, who is in the vanguard of a new wave of more pastoral-minded bishops in the mold of Francis, has from the beginning used his pulpit to bring attention to the gang and drug violence that has shattered many city neighborhoods.

READ: Chicago archbishop decries targeting of gays in Orlando attack

Chicago recorded 783 homicides last year, the most since 1996, according to data collected by the Chicago Tribune, and this year began with a spate of shootings that was even higher than the same period in 2016.

President Trump has frequently held up Chicago’s murders as emblematic of “out of control” violence in the nation’s cities and has blasted city officials as soft on crime. At one point he suggested he might send in federal authorities to take charge.

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Cupich on Tuesday offered a different remedy.

Flanked by priests and officials from Catholic social service organizations, the cardinal outlined plans for a major new philanthropy — with $250,000 in seed money from his archdiocesan discretionary funds — to promote programs that have proved effective in combating violence and lifting people out of poverty.

The fund will seek money from a range of donors and the archdiocese plans to partner with other social service organizations dedicated to “breaking the violence-causing cycle of despair, racism and poverty in the city.”

One of the programs the archdiocese cited for expansion is called Strong Futures and operates out of the St. Sabina parish on the city’s South Side. The largely African-American parish has been led since 1981 by the Rev. Michael Pfleger, who has been one of the most outspoken and controversial activists against violence and racism in the city.

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Pfleger has often been a thorn in the side of the church here, as well, and was briefly suspended in 2011 by then-Chicago Cardinal Francis George for his various statements and for defying George’s suggestion that he leave St. Sabina for another post.

Pfleger was even the subject of a lengthy magazine profile in The New Yorker a year ago that described him as “a showman of the first order.”

But he was part of the news conference on Tuesday and it’s clear that Cupich intends to incorporate Pfleger and his reputation into the anti-violence campaign.

Cupich has also linked the pope’s approach and initiatives to what he is doing in Chicago. On Tuesday the cardinal released a letter that the pontiff addressed to the people of Chicago assuring them of his prayers and support amid the difficulties and citing the example of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and praising his strategy of nonviolence.

King was assassinated 49 years ago on April 4, 1968, which is why Cupich chose this date to announce the initiative.

“Sadly, as you have told me, people of different ethnic, economic, and social backgrounds suffer discrimination, indifference, injustice, and violence today,” the pope wrote in the letter to Cupich. “We must reject this exclusion and isolation, and not think of any group as ‘others’ but rather as our own brothers and sisters.

“Walking the path of peace is not always easy, but it is the only authentic response to violence,” Francis wrote.