Cardinal Cupich shoulders Chicago's Catholic future

New Cardinal Blase Cupich greets Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel after a prayer service at which he took possession of his titular church of St. Bartholomew on Tiber Island in Rome Nov. 20. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Chicago — When Pope Francis named Archbishop Blase Cupich to lead the Chicago archdiocese, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke wrote to the prelate offering to help him get acquainted with his vast new charge.

To her surprise, Cupich emailed back within the hour. And when the archbishop moved to Chicago weeks later, the justice and her husband Edward Burke, a long-time Chicago alderman, began hosting dinners to introduce Cupich to a wide array of Chicago politicians and civic leaders.

It was a small decision, made quickly. But it was also one that said more than a few things about the new leader of Chicago's 2.2 million Catholics.

Other prelates might have been reluctant to associate with Burke, who years ago sharply criticized the U.S. bishops for what she saw as an insufficient institutional response to the explosion of the clergy sexual abuse crisis in 2002.

After serving as the head of the bishops' national lay review board for child protection, the justice resigned in 2004 because she thought the bishops were not taking the problem seriously enough.

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Other bishops might also have been reluctant to engage so quickly with civic leaders, preferring first to focus on getting a grasp of internal church matters for an archdiocese of nearly 350 parishes and an annual budget of some $353 million.

The episode illustrates how Cupich — who previously served as the leader of the much smaller dioceses of Rapid City, S.D., and Spokane, Wash. — has, in ways big and small, asserted a new vision for the country's third-largest diocese since his appointment to Chicago in 2014.

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Archbishop Blase Cupich speaks at a news conference Nov. 13, 2014, after arriving at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago. (CNS/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)

Overseeing a sprawling, historic bastion of U.S. Catholicism, the archbishop quickly took hold of the reins but is unafraid to let out some slack on the line and to empower others to help him as that stronghold faces an era marked by change.

Interviews with nearly two-dozen archdiocesan staff, advisers, and local civic and church leaders show Cupich, 67, as a leader willing to take risks as his archdiocese, facing the jarring demographic changes altering the traditional face of Catholicism in the Northeast and upper Midwest, contends simultaneously with falling numbers and greater diversity.

They also evince an image of an archbishop who sincerely sees the program laid out by Francis — one of mercy, acceptance, and a seeking of the lost sheep instead of a protection of the sheepfold — as the best way forward.

The centerpiece so far in Cupich's short tenure is something that will likely determine his legacy and place in Chicago history for decades to come: an archdiocese-wide initiative, launched in February, to consider the big questions of revitalization and reorganization for a local church that spans some 1,411 square miles and includes nearly six million people across Illinois' Lake and Cook counties.

At the heart of those considerations is a drastic decline in the number of Chicago's priests — the archdiocese projects going from 766 at the beginning of 2015 to 240 in 2030 — which makes parish and school closures or mergers, or even a total reimagining of local structures, almost inevitable. Cupich has faced the process with a determined style that observers say characterizes his leadership.

"This is my last run," the archbishop said in an NCR interview in October. Referring to the reorganizational initiative, he said: "This is the third time that I'm a bishop of a diocese. I feel that at this point, there really is no turning back. We have to address this if we're going to be vibrant and vital and ... sustainable in the future.

"This is not easy; this is not going to be easy," he admitted. "But I'm convinced that this has to be done if we're really going to be true to the mission of the church and the mission of Christ."

If Cupich is generally perceived as pursuing his goals in an open manner, preferring consultation and dialogue over mandates sent forth from the archdiocese's pastoral center downtown, he is not without his critics. Some say that he has acted in a heavy-handed manner at times, setting aside consultation in favor of quick decision-making.

He and his advisers, however, speak of desiring decentralization and of focusing on re-orienting seminary training to foster shepherds instead of autocrat-pastors. They also speak of maintaining an open and engaged stance toward civic and other religious leaders as all are struggling together against recent historic levels of gun violence plaguing Chicago.


Related: "Chicago schools to hang peace banners after city's 300th murder" (June 21, 2016)


Cupich, who is said to have been appointed to Chicago personally by Francis, has already received something of a further stamp of approval from the pope, who made him one of three new American cardinals Nov. 19, skipping over other historic archdioceses such as Baltimore, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

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Archbishop Blase Cupich speaks to the media after celebrating Mass Oct. 9 at Holy Name Cathedral. He was one of 17 new cardinals named by Pope Francis that day. (CNS/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)

Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the only American on the pope's nine-member Council of Cardinals, told NCR that the pontiff had "greatly blessed" both the Chicago church and "the Church throughout the United States by naming [Cupich] to lead one of the largest, most complex archdioceses in the country."

Cupich also receives wide praise from Chicago's political community.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in an interview that the archbishop has made an "incredibly fast" impression on the city and praised his work organizing religious leaders to stand together against gun violence.

The mayor said the archbishop is helping Chicago's neighborhoods understand they have a common future, regardless of geography or ethnic background.

Toni Preckwinkle, president of the Board of Cook County, a 5.2-million-person municipality that encompasses Chicago, said she is "encouraged by what he says and what he's done."

"I think he's an impressive human being and seems to be a decent, humble man," she said, before adding: "And he's got a lot of work to do."

Being a different leader

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Those who worked with Cupich before his appointment to Chicago describe him as someone who would listen to others before speaking and who would engage and reach out to people even when they held opposing viewpoints.

Marti Jewell, an associate professor of pastoral theology at the University of Dallas, worked with the future archbishop in the early 2000s when she led the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership Project, a national research project to examine excellence in parish leadership.

Cupich, then in his first episcopal appointment in Rapid City, was the bishop liaison for the project, helping it navigate the tricky waters of maintaining relationships with the U.S. hierarchy while examining their parishes.

"I think what always struck me was the quality of his listening and his ability to on-the- spot synthesize and analyze," she said, calling him a "brilliant man" with a "laser-like intellect" who also knew how to listen deeply to those who were speaking to him.

"It's not like he told us what to do," said Jewell. "I never experienced that. It was he listened and then responded."

"I never felt like I had to censor myself," she added. "I felt that I could be totally honest about what we were learning, what we were seeing out there, and the pain that people are feeling in some places."

Anne Burke, who also knew Cupich in the early 2000s when he served as a member of the U.S. bishops' Committee for Young Adults that worked with the national review board, said he prefers teamwork.

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Justice Anne Burke makes an address at a SNAP meeting Aug. 2, 2014, in Chicago. (NCR/Brian Roewe)

"I think the word collaboration is probably number one in his vocabulary," she said. "He knows that it's important to collaborate and he does that very well."

In some ways that focus on collaboration provides one clear window into the magnitude of the change of vision Cupich has brought to the Chicago archdiocese, which had been led for 17 years by his predecessor Cardinal Francis George, who died in 2015 after a long battle with cancer.

A cerebral man, George was seen as someone who emphasized the rules over pastoral accompaniment and was a leader among some of the more conservative prelates in the U.S. church.

The difference in personalities between George and Cupich was on clear display from the start. At the September 2014 press conference announcing Cupich as the new archbishop, George swatted away questions from journalists, testily saying, "Hold on," and, "Give me a minute." Cupich took questions in turn and offered long answers.

The scope of the change of vision was also evident at that conference when Cupich referenced by name Fr. Michael Pfleger, an archdiocesan priest with whom George had frequently sparred. Cupich praised him for his work in stopping gun violence.

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Cardinal Francis George of Chicago introduces Cupich as the next archbishop of Chicago during a news conference Sept. 20, 2014, at the Quigley Center. (CNS/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)

Something of a legend on Chicago's South Side for his ministry in what was once one of the city's most dangerous areas, Pfleger has led the parish of St. Sabina for more than 35 years. Located in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood, the faith community is one of the largest and most active black Catholic parishes in the country.

The previously violence-ridden drug haven now boasts employment and health centers. When you approach the parish rectory, you are greeted with a simple sign that says, "Turn in guns anytime with no questions asked." The day NCR visited in October, a Chicago police officer stopped in to relieve Pfleger of two pistols and some ammunition he had collected.

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A sign at the parish rectory of St. Sabina Parish in Chicago's Auburn Gresham neighborhood​ (NCR photo/Joshua J. McElwee)

The pastor's work is so renowned that the parish was featured in Spike Lee's 2015 film "Chi-Raq," with a white priest who was an obvious homage to Pfleger played by star John Cusack.

But Pfleger can sometimes come off as bombastic. In a homily in 2008, he made fun of presidential contender Hillary Clinton for continuing in the Democratic primary race that year even after it seemed apparent that Barack Obama would win. In response, George temporarily suspended him from ministry.

In early 2011, George announced that he wanted to remove Pfleger from St. Sabina's and put him in charge of a nearby high school. Pfleger resisted and even told a national radio program he would consider leaving the Catholic church over the matter.

George suspended Pfleger from ministry after the interview, only to reinstate him about a year later after a series of mediated discussions between the two men.

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Fr. Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina Parish in Chicago, speaks to participants during a June 17 rally and march in front of his parish church to kick off the beginning of summer and call for an end to violence in their community. (CNS/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)

Fr. Clete Kiley, an archdiocesan priest who advises Cupich on relations with civic leaders, said that the archbishop's reference of Pfleger was an immediate signal to his new archdiocese, indicating: "I'm not going to get into whether his sermons are theologically precise ... but he's given his life and we're going to recognize that and work with that."

Cupich visited St. Sabina for the first time last March. He called St. Sabina and Pfleger a healing force in their community, saying: "I'm here today to give you a word of encouragement but also to let you know how much I admire you; I depend on you."

George first visited the parish in April 1998. In Pfleger's retelling, George told the congregation: "Many people have asked me, 'What are you going to do about Pfleger when you get to Chicago?' My philosophy is this: If you give people enough rope, they hang themselves."

Pfleger said the difference in the two homilies led one of his parishioners to remark to him: "All of a sudden, I feel bipolar because it's such a switch."

Others spoke about the differences between George and Cupich in less evocative ways.

Msgr. Richard Hynes, who served in several top-level roles in the archdiocesan administration from 2007 until earlier this year, said Cupich takes a more active approach in meetings, always looking to see how decisions made at previous meetings had been enacted.

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Msgr. Richard Hynes, director of the Department of Parish Life and Formation, points out staff from various ministries to the new archbishop. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)

"He was looking for the fruitfulness of last week's conversation or last month's conversation," Hynes explained. "He had expectations that conversations would go somewhere and something would happen and people would be contacted. Cardinal George, less so."

"Archbishop Cupich has the vision for why we're doing what we're doing, and he also has the structural follow-through of expectation," said the monsignor, who retired in May after serving as head of the archdiocesan Department of Parish Life and Formation.

Anne-Marie Finger, the head of the Archdiocesan Women's Committee, said the work of her group has become more oriented to practical issues since Cupich arrived in Chicago.

The committee, she explained, is an advisory group of 21 women from across the archdiocese that meets with the archbishop about 4-5 times a year.

When the committee was working with George, the cardinal would bring issues relating to women that he had been approached with and ask for advice, said Finger. Cupich asks them to come up with strategies they would like implemented, she said.

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"With Archbishop Cupich, it's actually much more practical," said Finger. "There's a task at hand that he wants handled and he brings it to us and then we discuss how we're going to approach it and we come back to him with whatever it is that he has asked for."

The committee leader pointed to an example. In advance of the 2015 Synod of Bishops, Francis asked for input on family life from every level of the church. Cupich asked the committee to come up with a plan to make sure women across the archdiocese could give their input.

"That was an enormous task for us; very satisfying," she said. "We really felt that was a good use of our time, and Archbishop Cupich had made that happen by coming to us with that request."

Finger said an air of openness marks the meetings between her committee and Cupich.

"We can bring anything to him, there's nothing that he would shy away from talking about or shy away from responding to with an honest answer," she said. The meetings have become so open, she said, that she has stopped making time on the agenda for a question-and-answer session with the archbishop.

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Anne-Marie Finger, head of the Archdiocesan Women's Committee, is pictured Nov. 29 near her parish, St. Benedict, in Chicago. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World) 

"He has made it so clear that he is open to questions," said Finger. "As they come up, people ask them and that's that."

Some said Cupich fits the mold of another of his predecessors: Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who led the Chicago archdiocese from 1982 until his death in 1996 from pancreatic cancer at the age of 68.

Bernardin, known as a centrist, preferred dialogue over confrontation. In speaking of the Catholic church's moral teachings, he advocated for a "consistent ethic of life" to unite the two sometimes disparate camps of social justice and anti-abortion Catholics.

"The Bernardin years are back," said Fr. Robert Oldershaw, a long-time pastor in Chicago's North Side suburb of Evanston.

"I think [Cupich] has that broad sense and understanding of the seamless garment of concerns," said Oldershaw, who retired in 2006. "I think he's very much like Cardinal Bernardin."

Riding along with the police

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Cupich has not hesitated to place the church squarely into the debate over gun violence. He's addressed the issue in homilies, and perhaps most provocatively in a 2015 commentary for the Chicago Tribune in which he said the Second Amendment had been "perverted" beyond its original intent.


Related: "Chicago archbishop: 'We must band together to call for gun-control legislation' " (Oct. 9, 2015)


The statistics across Chicago are grim. As of this writing, more than 4,000 people had been shot during 2016, resulting in more than 700 homicides. In the aggregate, that means a person is being shot about every two hours somewhere in the city.

Cupich says addressing the issue is a priority for him and he points to efforts he's taken to strengthen Catholic ministries on the city's South and West Sides, where much of the violence has taken place, and to talk with other religious leaders about how they can work together.

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Participants walk during a call for an end to violence in their community June 17 in Chicago. The march followed a rally in front of St. Sabina Church. (CNS/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)

Another step the archbishop has taken is a ride-along with Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, placed in the role by Emanuel in April after his predecessor faced criticism over a series of police-involved shootings.

Johnson said the time with Cupich during the police patrol gave the two a unique opportunity to get to know each other better and that the archbishop "has inspired me to know that I can help CPD get through the troubles that we're having right now."

"While we were out there and having contact with some of the street officers, he was able to sense their concern about how the public was scrutinizing law enforcement right now and he offered some comforting words," said the superintendent, adding that the experience led him to invite Cupich to come and speak to his entire command staff about how to deal with controversy.

Preckwinkle, the Cook County Board president, said that she too has found Cupich to be of help in addressing the violence. Mentioning that she first met the archbishop at one of the dinners with the Burkes, she said she noted that there were not many African-Americans, like herself, at the event.

Afterward, she asked several friends to host dinners for the archbishop and local African-American leaders. They did, and Cupich came.

"He was very open to the kinds of issues people were raising," said Preckwinkle. "Our next dinner he asked me to sort of focus on inviting people who might contribute to advice on how he, along with other religious leaders, could take the initiative in trying to deal with the struggle we're having around violence in so many of our neighborhoods."

Rabbi Yehiel Poupko, a rabbinic scholar at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, said he has also worked with Cupich and the archdiocese to find a strategy for religious leaders to work together against the violence that plagues the city.

Following a weekend this summer in which, according to Poupko, the number of people killed in street violence was "staggering beyond belief," the rabbi said he spoke to several African-American spiritual leaders and Cupich to see what they might do together. 

Cupich told Poupko he would have the head of Catholic Charities in Chicago, Msgr. Michael Boland, and the head of the children's charity Mercy Home for Boys & Girls, Fr. Scott Donahue, create an inventory of what the archdiocese is already doing in order to identify what it could be doing better.

"[Cupich] is not given to making big pronouncements," said Poupko. "He's a big believer in solid, methodical work."

"The reason he has moral stature and power is because he's humble, not because he's out there issuing clarion calls but because he goes about the task in a plainspoken, soft, thoughtful, studied, methodical way," said the rabbi. 

The head of the Episcopal church in Chicago, Bishop Jeffrey Lee, said he is "delighted" by Cupich's work against gun violence and that the two leaders "really hope to make common cause" on the issue. In a November interview, Lee said he was looking forward to taking part in an ecumenical evensong Dec. 4 at Holy Name Cathedral in celebration of Cupich's elevation to the cardinalate.

Cupich said his efforts to understand the causes of gun violence have made him feel "ready to now go to our ecumenical community and civic community with some proposals about what we can start doing together."

"There is a sense in the city that the problem is so daunting that we can't do anything," said the archbishop. "I think that's a mistake. I think that we have to see that just because we can't do everything doesn't mean we shouldn't do something."

Decentralizing operations

To help in his administration of the archdiocese, Cupich appointed the archdiocese's first chief operating officer in April 2015.

The job went to Betsy Bohlen, the diocese's former chief financial officer. She has been given wide berth to oversee archdiocesan initiatives and was placed at the same level organizationally as the archdiocese's vicar general and its moderator of the curia, both priests.

Bohlen's appointment was one of many moves Cupich has taken to decentralize and to empower lay people to take a more active role in decision-making.

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Betsy Bohlen, chief operating officer for the Chicago archdiocese, is pictured Dec. 2 at the Archbishop Quigley Center. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)

Those affected say he has redirected energies away from the pastoral center downtown toward the archdiocese's vicariates, six diverse regions inside the archdiocese that are each put under the responsibility of one of the city's six auxiliary bishops.

Hynes said Cupich takes a more "ground-up" approach to governance than George did. Whereas before the archdiocesan chancery would direct the vicariates by issuing specific plans for ministry, Cupich prefers that the local regions come up with their own ideas and suggest them, said Hynes.

"His instinct is the desire needs to be named before the structure is provided," said Hynes. "In these almost 24 months he's shifted the focus from initiatives coming from the archdiocese to initiatives being responded to by the archdiocese."

"Cardinal George had a phrase he would use on occasion," the monsignor explained. "He saw the bureaucrats and all the agencies and departments as extensions of his governance, whereas Archbishop Cupich sees ... the departments and the agencies responding to parishes rather than extending his governance."

Cupich wants parishes to be "the lead agents" of the archdiocese, said Hynes, and he wants them asking questions such as: "Are you growing? Is there vitality here?"

"It's kind of expecting the pastors and the parish staffs to think that through and not the bureaucrats at first," the monsignor explained.

At the same time, Cupich faces a number of obstacles in decentralizing the administration.

Patrick Reardon, a journalist who has written extensively on the Chicago Catholic church and previously served on the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, said one problem Cupich must deal with is encouraging his auxiliary bishops to take more active roles in archdiocesan administration.

Many of the auxiliaries, Reardon said, did not train to be administrators and are used to focusing on direct pastoral needs, such as celebrating confirmation ceremonies.

"What he's doing is telling guys who are bishops ... to be heavy-duty managers," said Reardon. "They're not managers. They're clerics."

Cupich has also been criticized for changing the structure of the archdiocese's ministries to ethnic groups, which in the past had included separate offices for Asian, Black and Native American Catholics.

In June 2015, Cupich announced that those offices, which had been based at the archdiocese's Cardinal Meyer Center on Chicago's South Side, would be relocated to local parishes. Instead of being led by archdiocesan staff as before, they are now led by different local pastors, each assisted by a part-time coordinator and an advisory board.

Hynes said that Cupich made the shift in the ethnic ministries because he wanted them to be "living within a parish setting" and preferred the people leading the ministries be "in the middle of that dynamic rather than [working] from an office and a computer."

Evaluating the change, Hynes said, "It's still growing in its fruitfulness, but there is some fruitfulness."

Some critics of the move said they were worried that the pastors taking over the duties of the ethnic ministries may not have as much time to devote to the work as the former archdiocesan staffs. They also raised concerns about the way the staffs had been told about the decision to close their offices.

The last head of the Office for Black Catholics, who had served on the archdiocesan staff since 1999, said there had been no discussion about the matter with him.

"There isn't much I can share with you about Archbishop Cupich," former director Andrew Lyke said in an email. "Though I worked under him for seven months, I had very little contact with him. The Office for Black Catholics was closed without any consultation with me."

Cupich said he did not consult with those holding the jobs he was considering eliminating in order to treat everyone fairly. Everyone who was eliminated, he added, received a "very generous" buyout package.

Cupich and his chief operating officer said relocating the ethnic ministries was among a number of changes aimed at helping the archdiocese control its budget. Bohlen said the archdiocese has gone from a $40 million operating loss in 2015 to a $4 million loss in 2016.

They also said the changes were made as much for ministerial reasons as budgetary ones. Bohlen said that discussions were about trying to "think harder around what's important to be at the archdiocesan level versus what's important to be at the more local level."

"We found that there's a bit of [creep] in what the archdiocese would do," she said. "So sometimes we would look at what we do and said, 'Why is it being done here? In fact, some things should be done more effectively at the local level.' "

"I think there was a sense with the ethnic ministries that ... it's better run at the local level," said Bohlen. "I think that was when we also thought you can get a lot of volunteer support to really run those vibrant ministries. It wasn't clear you had to have staff positions as much."

Cupich said he sees the pastors running the ministries now as spokesmen who can bring together people interested in the work. "That's the best we can do now given our resources," he said. "We have to be honest about that."

Facing budget shortfalls and parish closures

The Chicago archdiocese is one of the nation's largest. Depending on the statistic cited, it's either the second or third biggest in the country, behind Los Angeles and rivaling New York in both size and Catholic population.

Spanning 1,411 square miles over the two most populous counties in northeastern Illinois, it stretches along the shores of Lake Michigan from the state's eastern border with Indiana to its northern border with Wisconsin.

Archdiocesan statistics show that Cupich is responsible for 346 parishes that serve 2.2 million Catholics, with some 30,000 baptisms a year and more than 1,600 Masses celebrated each weekend. The territory includes 193 elementary schools, 46 cemeteries, 36 secondary schools, 15 hospitals, four colleges and universities, two seminaries and two houses of formation.

The archdiocese reported total assets in 2015 of $353 million, including the value of its landholdings and investments, and had nearly $19 million in cash on hand.

Yet, like many dioceses across the country, Chicago has faced significant changes in population and use of Catholic institutions in recent decades. Parishes that were once vibrant, pivotal parts of their communities are now not as central.

Reardon described how many of Chicago's parishes were set up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as ethnic enclaves, each acting as a home base for different immigrant communities in the city.

The pastor was more or less a city councilor, advising new immigrants on how to get jobs or put their children into schools. The parish was so vital to its surrounding area that locals, even non-Catholics, would describe where they lived in the city not by the name of the neighborhood but by the name of the church.

But after World War II, many of the immigrants' children moved out of the city and their traditional enclaves for the suburbs springing up to the city's north and south. The people who moved in were often not of the same immigrant community and not Catholic.

Decades later, many of the parishes still exist but with decreasing numbers of Mass attendance and weakened impact on their wider communities.

"There are too many of them ... and they're often in places where they're not as needed anymore," said Reardon, who covered urban affairs for years for the Chicago Tribune and wrote a book about the 100-year history of his own parish, St. Gertrude.

Changes in parish use have occurred alongside a drastic decline in the number of archdiocesan priests, which has fallen from a high of 1,264 in 1980 to 766 at the beginning of 2015.

With the average age of the priests now 61, the archdiocese is projecting that by 2030 there may only be some 240 priests to serve those 346 parishes.

To address the changing landscape, Cupich launched his archdiocesan-wide revitalization and reorganization program in February.

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Called "Renew My Church," a nod to the words St. Francis of Assisi is said to have heard Jesus say to him about a small church in rural Italy, the initiative is first placing Chicago parishes in "groupings" to undertake joint evaluation of and planning for the needs of Catholics in their local areas.

The process, expected to take several years, will likely lead to a number of parishes closing or merging with their neighbors. Cupich and his staff have sought to reassure Catholics that nothing has been predetermined, holding consultative meetings with archdiocesan priests, parish personnel and other invested groups.

Hynes said Cupich wants the process to be open-ended and focused on asking broad questions about how the church can plan to use what resources it has to better serve the communities it is in.

"He's asking the grassroots to have that conversation," said the monsignor. "It's not going to happen overnight, and there's no metric that says, 'These three things or you close or these four things so you stay.' "

"That's maybe a good business model," he said. "But that's not this. This is a little bit more eclectic, a little bit more Holy Spirit-driven, a little bit more trusting that people of good will hear what God is asking in that particular location of the diocese."

Cupich and Bohlen said the decision to reevaluate the archdiocese's overall structure was simply necessary because of budgetary realities. Beside the $40-million yearly budget shortfall Cupich inherited, the archdiocese had also been subsidizing its schools to the tune of $16 million a year and its parishes to the tune of $7 million.

Deficits, said Bohlen, "were putting us in a dangerous situation." Many of the archdiocese's assets are illiquid, she said, such as landholdings or properties, or are already dedicated to some sort of mission activity.

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Cupich put it bluntly. "We're going to go broke if we don't do something," he said, adding: "We're not only going to go broke, we're also going to not do the mission."

Mentioning the funds being used to subsidize the parishes and schools, the archbishop said he isn't averse to dedicating such resources, but, "I want to make sure that we're doing it for parishes that really are going to be vibrant, vital, and sustainable in the future."

"I think that if we do not have this process, we're only going to continue to spin our wheels," he said. While the archdiocese had closed about 70 parishes in the last 20 years, he said, those closures did not necessarily happen as part of an overall plan of continued vibrancy for the whole archdiocese.

"We're not any better off," said Cupich. "I don't think that's a smart way to move forward in the future."

Pfleger said one concern he hears from parishioners about the Renew My Church initiative is a skepticism that although the archbishop is using a consultative process, the decisions about which parishes will close have already been determined.

"I keep running into this skepticism," said the priest. People ask: "Are we really being consulted, or is it already designed and we're just having a conversation about what's been decided?"

"I don't believe that the decisions have been made," he said. "I believe that the consultation is real, and I hope that I'm not proven wrong."

The stakes are high, Pfleger said: about the very purpose of Christian ministry. "Are we abandoning the poor?" is the central question, he said.

"Will the wealthy and the financially strong survive and everybody else fall?" is another question he said he hears in conversations with parishioners and among priests.

Cupich says he understands the stakes. "There are going to be some parishes that we're always going to have to support," he said.

"The people of God in this archdiocese know that and don't care; they're willing to invest in that," said the archbishop. "But they want us to be smart about how we use those resources and that's the issue for me."

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"We know also that there are parishes that are financially stable that are not stable with their mission because there's no outreach to people around them," he continued. "They are not a 'field hospital.' "

"Everybody has skin in the game here," said the archbishop. "Everybody has to go through this process."

Bohlen describes the process as balancing concerns about the bottom line with those about mission vitality.

"We, even in the worst of our financial struggles, would invest significant dollars in something still if it showed a lot of vitality or was in a low-income area," she said. "There are some schools I can think of now that have very strong enrollment in very low-income communities that we've never once thought about closing."

Cupich is emphatic: No decisions about parish closings have been made.

"The only decision I've made is that we have to make sure that when we end up through this process, we have a stronger church life than we have today," he said. "That's what's driving this. So the actual decisions at the middle and lower level have not been predetermined."

Cupich has no illusions that the process won't anger some people, or perhaps even seriously injure his own standing in the archdiocese.

"People are going to get angry, are going to misunderstand," he said. "We're going to have to go back and backfill. We're going to have to re-explain. We're going to have to move forward. But I'm convinced that this has to be done if we're really going to be true to the mission of the church and the mission of Christ."

So far at least, it seems that Chicago Catholics are expressing support for Cupich's approach. Shortly after the archbishop's interview with NCR, the archdiocese announced that it exceeded its goal of raising $350 million in funds during its "To Teach Who Christ Is" capital campaign. Final numbers of the total earnings have not yet been made available.

Teaching seminarians about 'gray areas'

Like any other diocese in the country, the future of Chicago's archdiocese may ultimately rest less in which parishes are eventually closed or merged and more in the style and manner of its future priests, now in training at two archdiocesan seminaries and two houses of formation.

If current archdiocesan projections are on target, Chicago will lose about 500 priests to retirement or death by 2030. In 2014, the archdiocese reported 111 Chicago-area priests in training at its two seminaries.

Cupich has taken an active role in shaping how the archdiocese's seminaries are run. In his first year, he appointed new leaders to both: St. Joseph College Seminary at Loyola University and the University of Saint Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary.

For the leadership at Mundelein — a historic seminary that at its 1844 founding was the first institution of higher education in Chicago and is named for the city's first cardinal — Cupich turned to Fr. John Kartje, an archdiocesan priest who has doctorates in both theology and astrophysics.

Kartje replaced Fr. Robert Barron, a conservative Catholic media darling and the head of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. Francis appointed Barron as an auxiliary bishop in Los Angeles in July 2015.

In a conversation in September, the new seminary rector said the Renew My Church initiative has special relevance in his work. He called the initiative a "re-envisioning" of the archdiocese as it goes from having a turn-of-the-century, 20th-century immigrant population to a very different kind of demographic.

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Archbishop Blase Cupich at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception Sept. 2 to celebrate the Mass of the Holy Spirit. Fr. John Kartje, rector of Mundelein Seminary, is on the left in the front row. (Courtesy of the University of St. Mary of the Lake)

"As I see it, if we're talking about the future of the church, or I would say the present of the church even, the seminary really needs to be at the heart of that process," said Kartje. "A question that I've been turning over certainly in my head and heart with prayer and thinking has been, 'What does that look like?' "

The rector said an immediate concern is that because of the priest shortage many of the seminarians will become pastors soon after ordination with little practical experience of parish ministry. Some will even be expected to take on several parishes at once.

He said the circumstance raises urgent and new questions about the spirituality of parish governance and leadership, and shows a need for greater collaboration in the future between clergy and laypeople.

Consequently, Kartje said the seminary has begun placing seminarians in parishes earlier in formation than was previously the case. One of the hopes is that seminarians will begin to understand, before ordination, the real-life needs of Catholics and the day-to-day problems pastors deal with.

The rector added that a parishioner might tell the seminarian: "These are things that we need and appreciate from our priests. These are things that maybe aren't so helpful."

Kartje spoke in the interview a short time after Francis' words to Jesuit priests in Poland had become public.


Related: "Francis asks priests to learn that life isn't black and white, but shades of grey" (Aug. 25, 2016)


During a session with confreres of his religious order in July, the pontiff had asked them to help young priests recognize that decisions Catholics make in their everyday lives are rarely ethically clear-cut, but rather exist on a spectrum between good and evil.

The rector said that acknowledgment of the "gray areas" of everyday life is part of his vision for the seminary, meaning that sometimes in terms of moral decision-making, "You can read about it, you can talk about it; it's not until you've encountered it face-to-face that it really takes on a reality for you."

Cupich has other ways of introducing seminarians to everyday life, according to Finger, the head of the Archdiocesan Women's Committee. She recounted that at a committee meeting a few months ago her group told him that sometimes women "felt maybe not as valued" in parish life as men.

She said Cupich turned around and said simply: "Would you like to speak with the seminarians at Mundelein?" They had a meeting last April. About 40 women came to speak to the seminarians. It's now going to be an annual event.

"It was a give and take," she said. "We had questions for them. They had questions of us. It was an amazing experience."

Kartje called it eyeopening. "It wasn't just a cheerleading session," he said.

"People could also say, 'These are the struggles that we see. These are times when we felt hurt or marginalized maybe by priests,' " said the rector. "Students could say, 'Well, here's where I have felt intimidated,' or 'I didn't quite know how to deal with this situation.' "

The experience, he said, "is very different from reading a book called Parish Life, or something like that."

Looking for a 'more adult' spirituality

Last year, Francis personally appointed Cupich to participate in the 2015 Synod of Bishops at the Vatican on family life, adding his name to the bishops elected to do so by the U.S. bishops' conference.

In a press conference he gave during the synod, he said the church has to respect decisions divorced and remarried people make about their spiritual lives after they examine what their conscience is telling them to do.

"We have to treat people like adults," said Cupich, re-examining that discussion in the October interview. "We have to get people to take responsibility for their lives."

"I've always found it much more demanding personally to have someone say to me, 'You better take responsibility for that decision,' " he explained, "as opposed to somebody coming in and saying, 'No, you can't do this and I don't give you permission.' "

"When you put it on me as an adult to take responsibility before God, that's more onerous than anybody coming at you telling what you should do," said the archbishop. "That's a more adult spirituality."

While training priests to help people discern what their consciences are saying to them might take some effort, Cupich said it's worth it.

"It's going to take making sure that our priests feel confident and skilled in doing this," said the archbishop. "It's kind of like Renew My Church or [addressing] violence — it seems so daunting."

"[But] there are so many who could benefit from this [that] I'm not afraid of that," said Cupich. "I think that I'm willing to say, 'I'll do what I can. This is the right thing to do.' "

Mentioning that he grew up in a family of nine children, he said, "There was never anything that was perfect."

"Somebody's room or a part of the house was always a mess," he explained. "But you still went ahead and you did the best you could. The important thing is how are we going to live together in society [or] in the church that's going to make sure that people at least have the possibility of moving forward?"

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is jmcelwee@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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