Cupich to media: 'It's just important for me to put aside my ego'

Archbishop Blase Cupich addresses the media during a news conference Saturday at the Quigley Center in Chicago. (CNS/Catholic New World/Karen Callaway)
This article appears in the Cupich to Chicago feature series. View the full series.

The press conference that introduced Bishop Blase Cupich to the Chicago archdiocese Saturday was broadcast live over Chicago airwaves and streamed live online.

Cupich, who will succeed Cardinal Francis George as archbishop of Chicago on Nov. 18, began a bit nervous but warmed up by the end of his 27-minute exchange with journalists.

Below are some of the highlights.

Cupich's first comment was directed at the members of the media assembled for the press conference:

I want to say, first of all, thank you to all of you in the media for being here. I can imagine you treasure your time with your families on the weekends, so coming on Saturday is something you probably would avoid doing. I do appreciate your coming here today because your service allows me to be present to people throughout the archdiocese and allows me to communicate to them, so I welcome you and am very grateful.

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He next addressed Latino Catholics of the archdiocese, speaking in Spanish for about two minutes. Then, in English, he said:

The Holy Father's appointment of me to Chicago humbles but also encourages me. I am grateful to God for giving me this blessed opportunity to be his servant in this city and this great local church. As Pope Francis began his pastoral ministry in Rome by asking people to pray for him, so too, now, I bow my head in hopes that everyone in Chicago will pray for me in the days ahead.

The pause was very brief -- he was in a room full of journalists, after all, who wanted to know who he was and what he would bring to Chicago. Media reports had already described Cupich as a moderate. Did he see himself as a moderate? he was asked.

I just try to be myself, and I try to learn from great people. You've had great people here in this archdiocese pastoring to you. I am following a great man. So I am going to learn from him and just try to pick up from other individuals that have really demonstrated great leadership in the life of the church. It's not my agenda ... I am going to try to be attentive to what the Lord wants. Maybe if there is moderation in that, then maybe I'm a moderate.

With his appointment, was Pope Francis sending a message? a journalist asked. Was the pope signaling a change of direction for the U.S. church?

The Holy Father is a pastoral man. I think his priority is not to send a message, but a mission. That is what he has sent, somebody to serve the people. I wouldn't want to in any way overly politicize or put this in a different context. He cares a lot about people and he took his time and he wanted to provide a pastor. I think he sent a pastor, not a message.

There were also questions about how he would handle tough issues facing the archdiocese, such as a shortage of priests and financially ailing parishes and schools. On finances, he said: "I've always learned that money follows mission. I think if you get the mission right, the money will come. People will be supportive of that."

For the most part, he demurred from answering questions about "pressing issues," pointing out that he had only been in Chicago for 18 hours and had only a couple conversations with George.

"I think because I don't know the details of the pressing issues, I will have to delay a response to [those kinds of questions]," Cupich said. He also noted that the move to Chicago "is an enormous upgrade, so to speak." His previous dioceses -- Spokane, Wash., and Rapid City, S.D. -- have 100,000 Catholics and 30,000 Catholics, respectively; Chicago, the third most populous diocese in the United States, has 2.2 million Catholics.

"My first priority is to get know people. ... I want to get to know each and every one of you. So I hope that you will be patient with me."

Addressing the media again, he said, "I will be available as time goes on to address these questions when I really do find myself in a position to address them intelligently. I really can't do that today."

Then, he gave a hint of his administrative style.

What I have learned in both my experiences as a diocesan bishop is that there are willing people who want to help, who are competent. It's just important for me to put aside my ego and my agenda that comes from me and to be open to how God's working through them to help me carry on the responsibility.

The mistakes that I have made over the years have begun with the fact that I have decided in my own mind about the way things are to go. It is only after I have consulted with people and prayed about it that the right answer comes. I think it is very important to remember that it isn't my church. It's Christ's church. I have to be attentive to his voice in the lives of the people and in the word of God and the way he communicates to all of us and the pointers that he gives.

He made reference to Spokane diocese's bankruptcy filing, brought on by sex abuse claims against the church there, some of which are still in litigation.

We had some very complex issues in the state of Washington with the bankruptcy. There are still some issues that have to be resolved. We have resolved a good number of them. We made progress with the help of God and the great ability insight of a many people. I am going to make sure I tether myself to the advice of good people.

In answering a follow-up question, he echoed the idea of taking "the advice of good people": Cupich repeated that he hadn't had the chance yet for in-depth talks with George on pressing issues, "but I know that he is served by a really great staff. People who have proven very experienced in their own capacities, so I think we are going to get into the weeds eventually. I anticipate that will come sooner rather than later."

Questioned about clergy sex abuse, he said he served on the 2002 bishops' committee on child protection that drafted the Dallas Charter, the rules that govern church response to clergy sexual abuse, then chaired that committee until 2008. Cupich praised George, giving him credit for acceptance by the U.S. bishops and the Vatican for a zero-tolerance policy toward abusing priests.

George "was the one who pressed for it more than anyone, against some formidable opposition," Cupich said. "So not only do we have that in the church in the United States, we have it universally now."

Overall, he said, the church has made progress on the issue of clergy sexual abuse. "We have done a great deal. ... It's always going to be imperfect. It is never going to be enough, but if we do the best we can with our limited resources," keep the focus on protecting children and bringing "healing to people who have been victimized by clergy ... I think if we do that on a regular basis, we will get it right."

"I am committed to doing that," he said, then added: "I am not asking people to say that all of a sudden they find me a credible individual because they really don't know me. I will just say that I will work hard at this and make it an important part of my ministry."

During the news conference, Cupich was asked what his priorities and agenda are.

My priority as a priest and now as a bishop for the past 16 years is to recognize that God is already at work in the lives of people. People come to us as priests, as ministers of the church, because they have already experienced God. And what they want us to do is to confirm, support and nourish them in that call.

So my priority is to really be attentive to what is already happening, the great things that God is already doing.

He talked about a recent address Pope Francis gave to some missionaries preparing to depart for new assignments. Cupich said Francis told them, "When you go to those missionary lands, remember that God, the Holy Spirit has already been working there. So pay attention to that."

"So," Cupich said, "my first priority, main priority, is just to be attentive to all that God is doing already."

Cupich took one question in Spanish. He asked a translator to step forward, but ended up not using him. As the question finished, Cupich told the translator, "I got this," and answered the reporter's question.

My priorities for the Hispanic people are my priorities for all the people. I have learned over the years ... that every culture brings its own deep spirituality. That is true for the Hispanic people and it's true of the Native American people I served in western South Dakota. The Native American people ... for them, the curtain between time and eternity is much thinner, and that is a trait that they have in their spiritual life. With Hispanic people, it's their own family life, their own experience. So I have always tried to relate to Hispanic people in such a way that lets them know that I am part of their family.

This segued into his strongest statement of the day: the need for comprehensive immigration reform. "Our bishops' conference has called for that," he said. "It's time that our political leaders put aside their own agendas and take up this issue. I want to take this opportunity to urge that again. Every day that we delay it is a day too long."

Cupich will be installed as Chicago's ninth archbishop Nov. 18, the feast day for the Dedication of the Basilicas of Sts. Peter and Paul in Rome. (Cupich's grandparents helped build Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Omaha, Neb.) Nov. 18 is also the feast day for St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, a sister of the Society of the Sacred Heart who came to the United States from France in 1818 and operated schools for Native Americans.

[Dennis Coday is NCR editor. His email address is dcoday@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dcoday.]

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