Archbishop faces fast-changing church

This story appears in the Cupich to Chicago feature series. View the full series.

by NCR Editorial Staff

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In the history of the Catholic church in the United States, the Chicago archdiocese has always been a big deal. Its Midwest character is projected in a hardy, common-sense approach relatively low on frills and formality, and with a deeply engaged laity that set it apart from many of its Eastern relatives.

So whenever Chicago gets a new archbishop, it's a big deal. Newly installed Archbishop Blase Cupich is no exception. The spotlight is even brighter this go-around because he is the first major appointment of the Francis papacy and, by all reports, was as personal a papal pick as there might be. All humble protestations aside, the church and the wider world understand that this appointment sends a signal as well as a pastor.

Though made a bishop by Pope John Paul II, Cupich is as much in demeanor and disposition a "Francis bishop" as his predecessor, Cardinal Francis George, was a "John Paul II bishop." Different popes, different times, different needs, different bishops.

George was a clear expression in the U.S. of the John Paul II view of church and world. We had some deep differences with him and, on occasion, strongly stated our opposition on this page. We take this opportunity, however, to state our respect and admiration, as he transitions to retirement, for the lifetime of work, dedication and fidelity he has given the Catholic community. He was, above all, an example of faith to be admired and emulated, an intellectual who engaged the major issues of the day. In important ways, he compelled us to think and to act.

For all the understandable buzz about the Cupich appointment and what it might mean in the grander scheme of the Francis papacy and the church in the United States, the new archbishop's primary obligation is to the people of Chicago.

It is engaging in useless nostalgia to view Cupich as representing a return to the era of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin or as the re-emergence of some progressive agenda. Chicago is a far different church today than it was during Bernardin's tenure in the 1980s and '90s. Cupich takes over a church with a fast-changing ethnicity -- from Irish and European to Hispanic. That latter group, hardly monolithic in culture, history or religious expression, now makes up nearly 50 percent of the Catholic population in Chicago.

Like other iconic sees of the Northeast and Upper Midwest, Chicago, with dwindling numbers of priests and nuns and forced to close parishes and schools, is evidence that the Irish/European Catholic project of the past 150 years is quickly coming to an end. The old model, dependent on rectories full of priests and convents full of sisters, is no longer sustainable. That old parochial model was a salutary but short-lived aberration in the long scheme of things. It served a growing Catholic population well for a few decades, but the church of the future requires leadership willing to imagine beyond those old categories.

Cupich may be, amid the current episcopacy, one of the best prepared to face such a challenge. By reputation, he is what we've come to call a pastoral leader. He understands not only the language, but the "art," as Pope Francis puts it, of accompaniment. He approaches the culture not with the scowl of a combatant, but with a certainty regarding what the Catholic community might offer, understanding that accompaniment requires not only patience, but a genuine love and regard for those with whom we're walking. He isn't afraid of the big questions of the day, in the wider culture or inside the church.

In a point of his résumé little discussed but perhaps most apt to the task, he was episcopal adviser to a multiyear study called "Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership." The study made a compelling case for greater use of the increasing thousands of trained lay ministers in the church.

Cupich, in a keynote speech at a 2008* gathering of mostly lay ministers -- a rare conversation in the church about its future -- grounded the emergence of lay ministry in the theology and tradition affirmed at Vatican II. "Lay and ordained all have a stake in the future of our church," he said.

Chicago will remain a really big deal, deserving of its storied past, if Cupich is able to truly empower priests and laypeople to stake their claim to the future and together lead the archdiocese beyond the prevailing ecclesial narrative of doom to its full status as a community of hope. Such a model of leadership could quickly spill well beyond the boundaries of the Chicago archdiocese.

*An earlier version of this editorial carried the wrong date for this gathering. The National Ministry Summit was held in Orlando, Fla., in April 2008. Read more here and here. 

A version of this story appeared in the Dec 5-18, 2014 print issue under the headline: Archbishop faces fast-changing church.

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