Tea Leaves in the Windy City

by Michael Sean Winters

View Author Profile

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

Last week, Archbishop Blase Cupich took the reins of the Archdiocese of Chicago, catapulted from the relatively small Diocese of Spokane (Catholic population of around 100,000) to the largest and most important diocese of the Midwest (Catholic population of around 2.2 million). The archbishops of Chicago also have played a significant role in the life of the Church in the entire United States and in the world. The installation of a new archbishop, therefore, has everyone scrutinizing the tea leaves to figure out what it means.

One meme was whispered more than any other at the receptions, the hotel bar, and on the bus to and from the cathedral last week: Did +Cupich’s appointment represent a return to the vision of Cardinal Bernardin? Was this in fact a kind of restoration?

The simple answer is no. History does not work that way. When Joseph Bernardin was ordained a priest in 1952, Blase Cupich was three years old. The country and the Church have changed since +Bernardin died in 1996.  Then, political polarization was mostly a D.C.-phenomenon, and even that was not as bad as it is now. Today, millions of people watch Fox News every night and different millions watch MSNBC, indicative of a polarization in society that is reflected in demographic trends as well as television viewership preferences. And, the Church, too, is more polarized than it was in 1996. Some changes are less edgy but no less significant: the Catholic population of Chicago is almost 50% Spanish-speaking today.

The more complex answer is also no. +Bernardin was a southern gentleman whose gentility won the hearts of the priests and people of Chicago. +Cupich is a native of the Midwest, a part of the country where I have never lived but one which seems to me to value common sense more than we Northeast Corridor-types do. As well, +Bernardin had served as a priest and bishop in the south, as General Secretary of the bishops’ conference in Washington, and as bishop in Cincinnati when he was elevated to Chicago while +Cupich served as pastor in Midwestern parishes in Omaha, as rector of a seminary in Ohio, the nunciature in Washington, the largely rural diocese of Rapid City, South Dakota, with its large population of native Americans, and in the western diocese of Spokane. The Catholic Church in the West and Southwest are light years ahead of the Churches in the Northeast and Midwest in terms of lay involvement and leadership.

Cardinal Bernardin was known above all, in Chicago and at the bishops’ conference, as a firm believer in process. In Chicago, he followed Cardinal John Cody who was widely seen as someone who consulted himself and himself only on most issues. Still, +Bernardin’s commitment to process was seen by some as a little too emphatic. A joke went around the chancery about a year into Bernardin’s tenure that, from the grave, Cardinal Cody’s voice could be heard asking: “Sure, you loved all this process at the beginning, but now, a year later, have you had enough of it?” +Cupich is widely seen as a good manager but also as decisive. He was one of very few bishops who, despite the advice, the mistaken advice, of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, had the employees of Catholic Charities in Spokane trained to serve as navigators for the Affordable Care Act, helping people enroll in the exchanges and get access to health care. While it took +Bernardin about eleven months of consultations to begin re-making the Chicago chancery, +Cupich named a new vicar general on his third day in office. The selection also made the point: The new vicar general, Fr. Ronald Hicks, is not an old +Bernardin hand, but a forty-something priest who spent five years working in Central America.  

+Cupich, like both of his two immediate predecessors, is a man of the conference. As noted above, Cardinal Bernardin had served as General Secretary of the conference and President before coming to Chicago. Cardinal George served as president of the conference during his tenure in Chicago. +Cupich has served on a variety of committees, including Child Protection, Central and Eastern Europe, Communications, Liturgy, Review of Catechetical Texts, Scripture translations, and Vocations. Earlier this month, he was selected as an alternate delegate to next year’s Synod of Bishop on the family.

In contemplating the +Cupich appointment and what it might mean, I am reminded of an earlier predecessor, Cardinal Samuel Stritch. In the 1950s, at a dinner with Fr. John Courtney Murray, S.J., Murray was explaining the stance taken by the late Cardinal James Gibbons on the issue of church-state relations. In the 1950s, you will recall, Murray’s theories on the subject were under a cloud at the Holy Office. Cardinal Stritch listened to Murray and then opined, “Well, of course, none of us can go as far as Cardinal Gibbons went.” Murray, in a letter to his friends Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, said he wanted to blurt out, “Why not?” +Gibbons had been the preeminent American churchman for half a century, starting with his appointment to Baltimore in 1877, until his death in 1921. It was during that time that the Romanization of the American hierarchy began in earnest, with the appointment of William Henry O’Connell to Portland, Maine in 1901 and to Boston as coadjutor archbishop in 1906. By the time +Stritch and Murray were dining together, long gone were the days when priests in a vacant diocese and bishops within the province submitted their ternas to Rome for episcopal appointments.

The centralization of ecclesiastical authority in Rome was not driven exclusively by ideological ultramonstanism. It was also a function of emerging technologies. With the telegraph, then the telephone, then the fax and now the internet, the sayings and doings of popes reached people worldwide. No longer did Rome issue a papal bull in Latin, which was sent to the bishops of the world who would then translate the text into the vernacular and issue their own pastoral letter to their clergy, who would, in turn, apply the teaching in the pulpit and the confessional. There were layers of pastoral application that vanished in the course of the twentieth century. By 1968, when Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, the New York Times had the headline “Pope Bans Pill” before any bishop anywhere had a chance to read the encyclical and make some sense of it. I am not sure we, as a Church, have adapted to that kind of difference in how the teachings of the Church are communicated or received.

This centralization has been a decidedly mixed blessing. On the one hand, the Catholic Church stands alone among the world’s religions in having a central focus of our identity and mission. On the other hand, Roman minutanti may not always know the local situation of the various churches as well as the pastors on the ground. And, many, though not all, bishops seem emasculated, which is different from being obedient, more like branch managers of Vatican Inc than bishops in their own right. +Cupich is many things, but emasculated is not one of them.

Now, for the first time in a long time, we have a pope who seems committed to some degree of decentralization of authority away from Rome. So, in thinking about the impact of +Cupich’s tenure, perhaps we should not be looking to the +Bernardin years but to the +Gibbons years. Will he become a model for a new kind of bishop, one who is not always looking over his shoulder to make sure the CDF isn’t listening? Will leadership in the USCCB have a different character, and different outcomes, as the body increasingly becomes the focus for any devolved authority from Roman curial congregations? If, as Pope Francis clearly wants, bishops are now being encouraged to speak frankly, even to disagree in public, will +Cupich be the kind of national leader who can keep the bishops unified even while they search for consensus? The smart money says he will.

It is a great compliment to any bishop to be compared to Cardinal Bernardin, as it is to be compared to his successor, and +Cupich’s predecessor, Cardinal Francis George. In the event, all three men have towering intellects and, in different ways, a keen pastoral sense. Like Cardinal George Mundelein, but without the patrician, Hudson Valley accent, +Cupich may be a builder, not of brick and mortar institutions, but of relationships in a culture that celebrates a hyper-individualism that has banished the common good from our political discourse and a sense of social justice from our economic life. Like Cardinal Albert Meyer, I anticipate that Archbishop Cupich will be a leading intellectual prelate on the world stage. Like Cardinal John Cody, well, I haven’t come up with anything on that score.

In the final analysis, though, +Cupich is going to be as different from his predecessors as he is like any one of them, not just because his personality and life experiences have been different, but because the times are different, and the Church is different. Happily, he seems excited at the prospect of writing a new chapter in the life of the Church of Chicago. In this, perhaps we are all overlooking the most obvious comparison: Archbishop Cupich seems a lot like the guy who picked him, Pope Francis. The installation homily he delivered last week showed the obvious influence of the pope’s approach to ecclesiastical leadership on +Cupich’s vision. Like the pope, +Cupich strikes everyone who knows him as a born leader. And, like the pope, he does not seem afraid to get his hands dirty in the effort to shed the bunker mentality that has afflicted too many U.S. prelates and adopt, instead, a field hospital paradigm of accompaniment and engagement and healing.

Chicago’s new archbishop also has Pope Francis’ knack for grasping the power of gesture to convey this different style of leadership. Yesterday, he made his first parish visit and he chose St. Agatha’s parish, a largely African-American parish. Eight years ago, the church’s pastor, Fr. Daniel McCormack, abused children. He is now defrocked and the victims are still coming forward. The choice of this parish as +Cupich’s first stop sent the signal that he grasps the harm caused by the clergy sex abuse crisis. But, then came the gesture: at the end of Mass, +Cupich sat with the congregation and asked the gospel choir to bless him by singing “Order my steps in Your Word,” a beautiful gospel hymn that you can listen to here.

So, in a nutshell, +Cupich will be his own man in Chicago, not a re-tread of any of his predecessors, reflecting the influence of them all to be sure, but charting a new course. And, in terms of his approach to pastoral leadership, I suspect the most relevant model is the one provided by Pope Francis.  My advice to those who want to discern the tea leaves in Rome or Chicago these days? Buckle up.

Latest News


1x per dayDaily Newsletters
1x per weekWeekly Newsletters
2x WeeklyBiweekly Newsletters