Blase Cupich of Spokane named archbishop of Chicago

  • Bishop Blase Cupich (CNS/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)
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UPDATE: Press announcements Saturday from the Vatican and the U.S. bishops' conference confirmed what NCR reported Friday evening: Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane, Wash., has been named the new archbishop of Chicago. 

Archbishop Carlo Vigano, the apostolic nuncio to the U.S., said in a statement Saturday that Cupich would be installed during a Mass in Chicago Nov. 18.

On Saturday, the Chicago archdiocese scheduled a press conference for 9:30 a.m. central time Sunday. The topic of the news conference was not announced, but presumably, Archbhishop-designate Cupich will be introduced at that time.

Holy Cross Fr. John I. Jenkins, president of University of Notre Dame, released the following statement Saturday morning as soon as the announcement was official: "Having first met Bishop Blase Cupich when I was an eighteen-year-old backpacker in Europe and he was a seminarian in Rome, I can say with confidence that, as Archbishop of Chicago, he will be a pastorally dedicated, theologically astute and visionary leader in line with Francis's transformative Papacy.  We thank Cardinal George for his dedicated service, and we welcome Bishop Cupich to the great Archdiocese of Chicago."

NCR's earlier story follows.

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The Vatican is to announce Saturday the appointment of Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane, Wash., as the new archbishop of Chicago, NCR has learned. He will succeed Cardinal Francis George, who has been archbishop of Chicago since May 1997.

Cupich, 65, has been bishop of Spokane since September 2010. He served as bishop of Rapid City, S.D., from 1998 to 2010*, and before that he was a priest with the Omaha, Neb., archdiocese.

At 77, George is two years past the usual retirement age of bishops. He has also been battling cancer. In May, the archdiocese announced that the Vatican's representative to the U.S. had begun the vetting process to find a replacement and suggested the announcement would be made this fall.

Chicago is the third most populous Catholic diocese in the U.S. and is historically one of the most important. Since the election of Pope Francis in 2013, church watchers have been saying the replacement for George would be the pope's most important U.S. appointment because it would be interpreted as sign of the direction Francis wants the American church to take.

Patrick T. Reardon, a lifelong Chicago Catholic and a member of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council in Chicago, told NCR in an interview that the greatest challenge facing the next archbishop of Chicago “is how to serve a modern American society that isn’t much interested and doesn’t want to listen to a religious and moral leader.”

“The archbishop of Chicago,” Reardon said, “is a leader not just for Chicago but for the whole church and the world, really. The tone he sets will have an effect, positive or negative, it will have an effect.

A hint of the pastoral sensibilities Cupich will bring to Chicago could be found in a pastoral letter he released last month in Spokane, “Joy Made Complete.”

The letter spells out a four-year pastoral plan for the Spokane diocese. The basis for the plan is a list of priorities established by the Know Love and Serve (KLS) Leadership Summit, a weekend conference for 50 Catholic leaders, lay and clerical, from the Spokane diocese that Cupich hosted last spring.

To prepare for the summit, Cupich had participants read Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” which he said “beautifully articulates a vision for the Church in our time.”

Cupich’s pastoral letter begins with a Scripture quote, 1 John 1:1-3, and then says:

“The brave souls who wrote these stirring words nearly 2,000 years ago were facing dark threats from within and without. Divisions were tearing at community life. Public persecution throughout the Roman Empire threatened their very survival. Yet, these first disciples of Jesus of Nazareth did not fix their attention on the crisis of the present moment, nor on their own personal interests or impulses of self-preservation.

“As daunting as these concerns were, the life-transforming experience of encountering the Risen Lord compelled them to set their sights higher. Jesus spoke to them in a way that left their hearts burning for more, and that “more” was sharing Him with others. Nothing else mattered."

Cupich offers this challenge in his letter: “Are you ready to join me and your fellow parishioners and take personal responsibility for the work of renewing the Church? Simply put, this is about making sure that Know Love Serve are not just three words on a page or a catchy slogan, but that they are the distinguishing actions which define each of our lives as believers, as intentional disciples of Christ.”

Reardon said, “The new archbishop must be a shepherd to believers and non-believers -- and a good shepherd, not one that scolds, but one that guides and takes care.”

Cupich has served as an associate pastor and pastor in Omaha and the director of worship for that archdiocese. He has a doctorate in sacramental theology and wrote his dissertation on Advent. He studied at the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., the North American College and Gregorian University in Rome and The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Last March, after national bishops’ conferences from around the world had turned in reports to the Vatican on a 39-question survey about issues such as contraception, same-sex marriage, divorce and other topics touching on family life as preparation for the a synod of bishops on the family, many lay Catholics were wondering if the synod, which opens Oct. 5, may presage a change in church teachings. Many bishops and other church leaders tried to tamp down expectations.

In an interview with NCR, Cupich took another tack. The church "must allow the Holy Spirit to move us," he said.

Citing the change in hearts of church leaders following the Second Vatican Council, he said that ordained leaders must take seriously the "joys, sorrows, heartaches, and challenges of laypeople."

In the winter of 2013, when the U.S. bishops conference and the Obama administration had locked horns over the contraception mandate in the health care reform law, Cupich wrote a letter to church employees who might have become worried that their ministries would be shut down or their health insurance cut off. He wrote:

In visiting with many of you about the issue of insurance coverage, I know you have been concerned by calls for the Church to shut down her organizations or withdraw health coverage to those who serve in our various institutions as a protest to regulations that may infringe on our religious freedoms. These kinds of scare tactics and worse-case scenario predictions are uncalled for and only unnecessarily disturb the hardworking and dedicated people who are employed by the Church. I am confident that we can find a way forward, and this latest response of the government appears to provide some new openings, which we need to explore and for which we should express appreciation.

Cupich’s homily for a Prolife Mass in January 2013, seemed to have echoes of another Chicago archbishop, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who spoke of a “seamless garment” or consistent ethic for life that embraced equally anti-abortion, anti-poverty and anti-war strains of Catholic social teaching. In the 2013 homily, which fell on President Obama’s second inauguration and the Martin Luther Kin Jr. holiday, and came a month after 20 schoolchildren where shot to death in Newton, Conn., Cupich seemed to stitch together the prolife, anti-violence and anti-poverty themes in a similar way.

The Gospel today gives us the image of the futility of trying to patch a torn old cloak with new unshrunken cloth, for “the fullness of the new eventually will pull away.” That is an apt image for what we want to say to our fellow citizens on this day, a day that offers so much promise. The tear in the fabric of our nation wrought by no defense of the children of the future cannot be fixed with a patchwork of defending only those fortunate to see the light of day, permitted to take that first breath or enjoy the work of their own hands. No, we are saying that we need a new cloak that covers all.

He then adds:

We should not be disheartened or bitter if many of our fellow citizens do not heed us at this moment, nor should we pull back on our efforts to join hands with others to improve the lot of suffering people in need just because they don’t fully agree with us on everything. The truth will win out and we have to believe that a nation whose collective heart can break and grieve for babies slaughtered in Newtown has the capacity and God’s grace to one day grieve for the babies killed in the womb.

Reardon said that the new leader in Chicago will need to rebuild a working relationship with legislators and government officials “so that we’re not banging our heads between our beliefs and laws.”

An effective leader “will listen to people  -- even when he has an answer they don’t want to hear -- but they will know that he heard them.”

A 2012 NCR editorial cited Cupich as a good model for how bishops should conduct themselves in the public square. Cupich, NCR said, “wrote a letter to all Catholics in his diocese on the issue of same sex-marriage. Without vitriol, without mischaracterizing the positions of those who disagree, with a presumption of good faith, Cupich set forth the teachings of the church clearly but not obnoxiously, and affirmed the innate human dignity of all people, including gay men and women. We disagree with his conclusion, but not his approach.”

Cupich served on the U.S. bishops’ ad hoc committee on sexual abuse from 2002 to 2005 during the time the bishops wrote the Dallas Charter for youth and child protection, which set guidelines for dealing with the sexual abuse of minors by clergy.

He served on the bishops’ Committee on Protection of Children and Young People in 2005 and 2006 and chaired that committee 2008- 2011

In April 2011 Cupich was a speaker at a two-day conference at Marquette University law school titled "Harm, Hope and Healing: International Dialogue on the Clergy Sex Abuse Scandal."

At the conference Cupich said that church officials need to maintain a “visceral connection” to the pain and damage done to those abused by priests, and that bishops need to remain “at that soul-searching level” or risk “regression or complacency.”

After hearing wrenching stories from victims and stinging critiques of their handling of the crisis, the bishops in Dallas in 2002 placed healing as the top priority and that was “a public admission that an entirely new direction was needed.”

As part of that new direction, Cupich said, the bishops recognized “that we cannot respond to the crisis by ourselves; we need a community of learning.”

While bishop  of Rapid City, S.D., Cupich was the episcopal adviser for the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership Project, a collaboration of the six national Catholic groups: the National Association for Lay Ministry, Conference for Pastoral Planning and Council Development, National Association of Church Personnel Administrators, National Association of Diaconate Directors, National Catholic Young Adult Ministry Association and National Federation of Priests' Councils.

At a gathering of the group in Orlando, Fla., in 2008 he spoke of the expanding  role for professional lay ministers. Cupich said laypeople who were increasingly involved in ministry were answering the call to holiness that is part of their baptismal heritage. (More here.)

"Lay ministry is not about filling in the gap because of a shortage of ordained ministers and it's not about a struggle for the rights of people," he said.

The growing emphasis on lay involvement is a sign of maturation and ongoing conversion in the church that "flows out of a call to holiness in which we see ourselves as the body of Christ."

[Dennis Coday is NCR editor. His email address is dcoday@ncronline.org.]

*An earlier version of this article had incorrect dates for Cupich's service in Rapid City, S,D.

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