Opinion Thomas Reese: Signs of the Times

Face to faith with Cardinal Blase Cupich

Cardinal Archbishop Blase Cupich leads Mass in Italy in November 2016. Photo courtesy of Catholic Extension Society/Rich Kalonick

(RNS) — The first time he had an opportunity to reshape the Catholic hierarchy in the United States, Pope Francis turned to an obscure bishop in Spokane, Wash., and in 2014 made him archbishop of Chicago, the third-largest diocese in the country, with about 2.3 million Catholics.

Francis famously said that he was looking for shepherds who smell like their sheep, and he found that in Blase Cupich.

In a recent “Face to Faith” podcast interview with Cupich, we get a window into the mind of the man that Pope Francis made a cardinal in 2016. (Excerpts that follow have been edited for length and clarity.)

Like any good journalist, interviewer Bob Herguth attempted to get the cardinal on the record on controversial issues like how many parishes and schools was he going to close, what he thinks of President Trump and how was he going to deal with the Chicago political machine.

What comes across in the interviews is a calm, happy and open person who is not trying to impose his views on others but wants to listen and work with people of various views.

“I take time to be with people,” he said, “and I learn a lot.” This appears to come naturally to him. “I enjoy people,” he concluded. “I like what I do.”

Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich, shown with Pope Francis in Rome on Sept. 2, 2015, has called for tough gun control laws. Photo courtesy of Catholic Extension Society/Rich Kalonick

When asked about parish closings, he said that the decisions were not going to be made simply on the basis of finances or personnel, although those would have to be part of the mix.

“For me, the real goal is how do we make vibrant and vital faith communities that are sustainable for the long run.” He wants people and parishes focused on the threefold task of “making disciples, building communities and inspiring witness so people live their faith in the world.”

But there is no prearranged plan; rather, he is asking the parishes to consider the situation and come up with a plan that he would have to approve. This may involve parishes cooperating in ways that they have not before. He is looking for new approaches, not simply preserving the status quo.

In talking about people who don’t go to church anymore, he was not condemnatory but acknowledged that people have “many more options with their free time. A lot of people are exhausted from having one or two jobs and caring for children.” He noted that participation in all volunteer organizations is down.

“At the same time, people do have faith issues. Do the communities that have been a part of their own family history continue to nourish them today?” He continued: “People are looking for a way in which their spiritual life can be deepened. They are finding it in some of our Catholic parishes and sometimes not in others, and that opens the door for them to go elsewhere.”

In response to a question about Trump, he diplomatically responded, “I like to talk about issues rather than people.”

Cardinal Blase Cupich led the Good Friday Walk for Peace on April 14, 2017, through Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, a community that has been scarred by gun violence. He was joined by more than 1,500 neighbors and interfaith and civic leaders as he walked the traditional Stations of the Cross. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

“We live in a democracy, and we get the leaders we deserve, because we elect them,” he said. Rather than complaining about leaders, he would like to see people get involved in the process. “We still have very low voter turnout, very low participation in the political realm by people. If people don’t like their leaders, they should become involved in the process.”

With regard to local politicians, he wants to help people trust and talk to each other. “We see a polarization, not just here in Chicago, but nationwide among the population, not just politicians.” He wants to be an instrument for bringing people together. “I want to be a partner with business, labor, civic leaders, foundations, other churches so that we can work together. … If I can talk to all of these people and have something in common, maybe I can get them to see that they also have something in common with each other when we come together.”

When asked about Springfield Bishop Thomas Paprocki’s decree banning funerals for those involved in gay marriage, Cupich said that was not the policy in Chicago.

What about Mafia funerals, asked Herguth. Cupich explained that funerals are not about honoring the deceased but about comforting the families of the departed. For a notorious person who has done great harm to the community, the proper response could be a simple, private ceremony that did not glorify his life. But “comforting those who mourn is an important work of the church,” he said.

When asked if he missed parish work, he described walking to work every day. “I don’t think a day goes by that somebody doesn’t stop me in the street and say hello, ask me to pray for them. I take time to talk to them,” he said. “So, while I don’t have a given parish with boundaries, I do have a parish in terms of the people that I meet through my own pastoral ministry.”

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

He spoke of a young woman he met the day before who was having trouble getting through her last year at Loyola University. He encouraged her, “The Lord’s grace has gotten you to this point; he is not going to abandon you now.” On the other hand, “Sometimes people just want a selfie, and that’s fine too.”

Cupich’s response to the last question was perhaps most revelatory. “What do you say to people who have doubts about the existence of God or whatever it is?”

Since he sees faith as a gift from God, “when people are struggling or feel they have no faith at all, I shouldn’t say, ‘Well, it is their fault.’” Rather, what he says to them is: “There is still a hunger in your life for more. There always is. Be in touch with that, and be the best person you can be.”

He went on to recall that “some of the greatest Christians I know are people who don’t actually have a faith system that they believe in, but in their activity, in the way they conduct themselves, there is a goodness there.” What he tries to do is encourage that. “How God allows that to mature with his own way, that is up to God. I learn from people who say they don’t believe and yet are very good people.”

Yes, this is a man who likes people and enjoys his work.

About the author

Thomas Reese

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest, is a Senior Analyst at RNS. Previously he was a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter (2015-17) and an associate editor (1978-85) and editor in chief (1998-2005) at America magazine. He was also a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University (1985-98 & 2006-15) where he wrote Archbishop, A Flock of Shepherds, and Inside the Vatican. Earlier he worked as a lobbyist for tax reform. He has a doctorate in political science from the University of California Berkeley. He entered the Jesuits in 1962 and was ordained a priest in 1974 after receiving a M.Div from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley.

29 Comments

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  • A real “Francis” prelate, Cupich:
    1. fired archdiocesan employees Sandor Demkovich and Colin Collette after the former announced his marriage and the latter his engagement to other men.
    2. defrocked Fr. Marco Mercado because of his “inappropriate relationship with an adult man.”
    3. praised the governor’s pledge to veto abortion funding
    4. instructed his priests not to offer sanctuary to immigrants
    5. met with the governor to promote using taxpayer funding for his schools according to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Trump’s plan.

  • Looks like you need to study Pope Francis more. I don’t know how accurate your list is, but with the possible exception of no. 4 (and these issues are very complicated), Francis would almost certainly strongly support every item on your list.

  • Yes. Pope Francis would “strongly support” each item. That’s why I wrote Cupich is a “real ‘Francis’ prelate.”

  • “[S]ome of the greatest Christians I know are people who don’t actually have a faith system that they believe in, but in their activity, in the way they conduct themselves, there is a goodness there.” That is an absurd sentence. While Christians are called to serve, serving doesn’t make them a Christian. Faith is necessary. Why can’t people understand this? Jesus did not appear to start a social welfare program, but to change the world by introducing a new “way” that includes faith in Him and God.

  • The irony of the article.

    “What comes across in the interviews is a calm, happy and open person who is not trying to impose his views on others but wants to listen and work with people of various views.”

    So Cardinal Cupich is not trying to impose his views? Then the picture below it states that “Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich, shown with Pope Francis in Rome on Sept. 2, 2015, has called for tough gun control laws.”

    So, he’s IMPOSING his views on creating “tough gun control laws”.

    I wish journalists would take some philosophy courses to see how what they write is contradictory.

    “Cupich explained that funerals are not about honoring the deceased but about comforting the families of the departed.” Is this statement real or not? Because this is not the teaching of the Catholic Church. A funeral by happenstance “comforts” the families of the departed but it is not about comforting the families. The funeral is for the deceased. The funeral isn’t about “honoring” because but it is about PRAYING for the deceased so that God may have mercy on the deceased soul. At least I agree on what Cardinal Cupich said about someone in the Mafia. But this is for anyone who does an act of evil or immorality.

    Has anyone heard “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.” This is about the deceased this is nothing to do with “comforting” families of the departed.
    Why doesn’t Cardinal Cupich state first of all, there is no such thing as “gay marriage”. No, he can’t defend what has been known to human history for 5,000 years. “Gay marriage” is the fantasy of my brothers and sisters who have listened to the “ruler of this world” and I pray for them to come to realize how God created us. That God created us male and female and saw that it was GOOD.

    He wants to comfort those who mourn? Well, I’m mourning over Cardinal Cupich’s false pastoral approach and the state of how weak Catholic Bishops are when confronting the evils of this day.

    Everyone deserves mercy and forgiveness. The problem is people want it without repentance. They want the Catholic Church to acknowledge that what they do it isn’t sin and to show false compassion.

    “How God allows that to mature with his own way, that is up to God. I learn from people who say they don’t believe and yet are very good people.”

    Cardinal Cupich, ever think that God whats to use YOU to mature people? Wouldn’t that be God’s own way? Isn’t this your job as a shepherd of the Church and a direct descendant to the Apostles themselves?
    I know I’m not perfect but when I see Bishops go against the Traditional Teachings of the Church, I mourn. How are you Cardinal Cupich going to comfort me? I’ve prayed the rosary for you and will continue to do so.
    St. John Vianney, pray for us to have good and holy priests and bishops. Oh and COURAGEOUS also.

  • “some of the greatest Christians I know are people who don’t actually have a faith system that they believe in, but in their activity, in the way they conduct themselves, there is a goodness there.”

    This is where the conciliar church is under the modernist occupation. A man so absolutely confused is elevated to cardinal. His statement isn’t even Catholic (surprise). It is neo-Pelagianism. Where are the Catholics in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church?

  • Even Bergoglio utters the truth here and there. You have to throw some truth into the mix every now and again. One truth amidst a hundred lies and the Betty’s of the world will stay on board with your program, and even defend you. I wonder where they learned that trick?

  • I agree that this is a most absurd statement. Without faith, it is impossible to please God. And according to Jesus, out of the heart of man comes all sorts of evil. Goodness based on one’s own activity (or faith in one’s own activity) is totally misguided and misplaced, not to mention pelagian. This is an embarrassing statement coming from a successor of the apostles.

  • This statement sums it all up where this Cardinal is concerned. Apparently he isn’t clear on what makes a Christian?????????? I want to pull my hair out when clerics like this further confused the laity!

  • The bishop’s statement is sophomoric. “Greatest Christians”, please.
    A One World Religion. He and Francis pray for it to somebody, somewhere.
    I’ve stopped caring.

  • Yes – this is absurd. We should pray for this Cardinal that he finds the strength he needs to guide people without faith to the Lord. As without that faith there is no salvation. And this would be his only mission – to save souls. By not letting souls know this to begin with, without confusion, that soul might already be on the path to conversion. What would St Theresa of Avila have said to these people? What would Venerable Archbishop Sheen have told them? Keep on keeping on? Or come to the faith that can save you – for only in the cross is salvation.

  • Yes, I must agree. He has done good – and he will be rewarded for that good. But not advising a soul of their choice and the ultimate result of that choice when given the opportunity is a sacrilege.

  • Earthly dialogue without Heaven…Man centered, not God centered…Most of the clergy talk like Jesuits, but Loyola did not teach them that…God seems mostly ignored…I hope I am wrong…but what ever happened to zeal and courage and real masculine love???

  • That’s nice, Cardinal Cupich. We get it. But, would these same people approve of your calling them Christian?

  • A Christian is a follower of Christ. Well meaning non-Christians do not become Christians because they have a natural disposition toward helpfulness or niceness. Christianity is a specific path set by God for salvation. Both the nasty and the nice can become Christians and mold their lives to the will of God and obtain salvation. All people began at different places and have different battles to fight. The child of parents suffering from, for example, mental illness my not appear as pleasant as the child who was born to comfortable surroundings, but they both have need of conversion to Christ. What is sad about Cupich is that he fails to understand the unique place Christianity has in God’s plan.

  • Never take moral advice from a man who trivializes abortion, the greatest evil in human history. Never trust him whether he is a cardinal or a pope.

  • That’s true, but not applicable here. I understand the Neo-Platonic history and philosophy. This has nothing to do with that. It is one thing to say that all humans are oriented toward God, their final good, for which they are made. This is the Neo-Platonism apparent in Augustine and Aquinas’s theology. But it is a *completely* different thing to call people “the greatest Christians” who do not have that faith but base it on their “activity.” Frankly, that is bizarre. (And I am being generous to the Cardinal, who in many respects I admire.)

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