Perhaps it was a coincidence. Last night, watching the fifth installment of Ken Burns’ “The Roosevelts,” Jon Meachem was explaining that, as happens at key moments in history, in FDR and Churchill, the moment had found the men it needed. Also last night, my cell phone and emails were on fire as the news broke that Bishop Blase Cupich was to be named the ninth Archbishop of Chicago. Again, the moment found the man.
Let’s start with the moment. In a little more than a year, Pope Francis has completely changed the public face of the Catholic Church. Instead of Vatileaks, we have people, including many non-Catholics, who feel good about the Church, who love the pope, and who demonstrate time and again their responsiveness to the Gospel call to be with the poor and the marginalized. Instead of a Church closed in on itself, fighting over the liturgy, and more interested in ferreting out heretics than in seeking converts, we have a Church that is urged, repeatedly, by Pope Francis to go to the peripheries and encounter Christ by encountering the poor. Instead of a culture war style, we have a Pope who is calling the Church to engage the culture, accompany people, not uncritically as his comments on socio-economic realities make clear – “This economy kills” – but with love. Just last Sunday, we heard in the Gospels that God so loved the world He sent His only Son. We did not hear that God was so appalled by the secularization in the world that He filed a lawsuit. Pope Francis has brought the joy of the Gospel back.
Not everyone in the United States has been thrilled with Pope Francis. How many times in these past eighteen months have we heard his conservative critics undertake their “What Pope Francis meant to say” routine. We have seen prelates adopt a grudging tone, that Francis is the pope we need even if he is not the pope we want. (And, thank you very much, Francis is very much the pope some of us want!) We have heard the sneer that Francis is blinded by his parochial, Argentine experience. The divisions within the American episcopate, already obvious, have become more pronounced, not less, by Francis’ revolution.
That revolution came to Chicago this morning. Let us be clear. The person selected, Bishop Cupich, had no role in his own selection. That is not how the process works. He is smart. He is competent. He is faithful. But, so are many other bishops who could have been selected for this prestigious see. The cardinals and bishops whom Pope Francis consulted before making this choice clearly advised him to not only send a bishop to Chicago, but to send a message, +Cupich's comments at the press conference notwithstanding. This is not an incrementalist choice. This is not a balancing choice. The selection itself tells us a great deal about what the leaders of the American Church felt was needed at this moment, not just about +Cupich’s obvious suitability for the job.
+Cupich has been out front, repeatedly, in voicing his enthusiasm for the pope. +Cupich’s response to a talk by Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez at a conference sponsored by Catholic University’s Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies (full disclosure: this was a conference I helped organize), showed him to be wrestling with the pope’s teaching, wrestling in a good way, trying to get to the root of it. This summer, when wildfires destroyed the homes of many migrant workers in Washington state, +Cupich was there to comfort those who had lost what little they had. When most bishops refused to let Catholic Charities employees serve as Navigators for the Affordable Care Act, +Cupich bucked the trend: Whatever problems the USCCB had with Obamacare and its contraception mandate, he was committed to using the infrastructure of the Church to help poor people access health insurance. Earlier this week, I called attention to Bishop Cupich’s latest pastoral letter and commended it as a model of episcopal leadership, encouraging, inclusive, forward-thinking leadership.
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Chicago is a challenging appointment in many ways. The archdiocese has over 2 million Catholics and 35,000 employees. There are 356 parishes. 80,000 Catholic school students. 17 Catholic hospitals. The city has been beset by violence and the Catholic Church is one of the few institutions that crosses racial, socio-economic and ethnic lines. +Cupich will have his hands full in the years ahead. That said, he is the ninth Archbishop of Chicago, not the first and not the last. He will build on the work of his predecessors to say nothing of the on-going work of the people of God in the Windy City. People will seek to compare him to Cardinal George and Cardinal Bernardin, but such comparisons miss the mark. He is his own man who, like his predecessors, brings his own strengths and limitations to the tasks ahead.
The selection of an archbishop of Chicago perforce has national implications. None of us knows how Pope Francis will distribute red hats in the years ahead, although the smart money says there will be fewer in the affluent North and more in the global South. But, it is almost inconceivable that Chicago and Los Angeles will not receive them in due time. Bishop Cupich is also a conference man, committed to the collegiality that body represents. He has served on many USCCB committees. His is a much listened-to voice in the plenary sessions and that voice will be even more listened to now. This is all for the good. Again, I can think of very few bishops in the U.S. who have shown themselves to be more allergic to the culture war model than +Cupich. I can think of few bishops who have been more seriously engaged with the deeper themes of Pope Francis’ many allocutions, who sees the links between Francis and his predecessors, and who sees all through the lens of Sacred Scripture and the experience of the local Church. Certainly, in his response to Cardinal Rodriguez, +Cupich showed this deeper level of perception and insight. His courageous article in America magazine about the role of racism in the 2008 presidential election shows him to be not only a critical thinker but a pugnacious defender of human dignity.
Some have sought to label Bishop Cupich a “moderate.” As he said in his press conference, labels always do a bit of disservice to the person to whom they are applied. Charles Camosy has penned a column at CatholicMoralTheology.com which debunks the idea that moderate is mushy and points to the many and varied ways that +Cupich is anything but a moderate. There is nothing lukewarm about this man.
None of us knows what the future may bring. But, in March, 2013, when Pope Francis asked the people in the square to pray for him as he began his ministry, already we had the sense that there was a new breeze blowing in the Church. That breeze has been crossing the Atlantic and other oceans for eighteen months now. It has come to Chicago in the person of Archbishop-elect Blase Cupich. There is this morning a sense of possibility that I did not discern yesterday morning. It is a great day to be an American Catholic.