Exclusive: Chicago's new archbishop talks about 'stepping into the unknown'

This story appears in the Cupich to Chicago feature series. View the full series.
Bishop Blase Cupich (CNS/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

Bishop Blase Cupich (CNS/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Challenges facing the Catholic church throughout the U.S. require leaders to be "real" and to not "get caught up in living in our own little bubble of an idea," Chicago's new archbishop told NCR in an exclusive interview Sunday.

"You cannot base your decisions on a past era where things were different," said Archbishop-designate Blase Cupich, who was appointed by Pope Francis Saturday as Chicago's new Catholic leader. "I think that's where we're going to get in trouble."

Cupich, 65, bishop of Spokane, Wash., since 2010, will succeed Cardinal Francis George, 77, as Chicago archbishop at an installation Mass Nov. 18.

Describing himself primarily as the "son of my parents," Cupich also said he is someone who is "going to work with the system" but is also going to "look for a way in which things have to move forward and especially when feeling strongly about something, be willing to move forward with it."

The new posting will bring special prominence to the Omaha, Neb., native, as Chicago is the third most populous Catholic diocese in the U.S. and historically one of the most important, playing a major role among the American episcopate as well as in Rome.

Before serving in Spokane, Cupich served as the bishop of Rapid City, S.D., from 1998 to 2010 and is currently board president of the National Catholic Education Association.

Among topics the archbishop-designate discussed in the 20-minute NCR interview:

  • How Pope Francis is challenging him as priest and bishop:

The pope, Cupich said, "has forced me to boldly step a little further than perhaps where I was before." "He's enriching ... sympathies in a way that I could never imagine or have thought about," he said.

  • How Christians should be "stepping into the unknown:"

"We don't have all the answers to the vexing problems and challenges that we face," he said. "But that should not paralyze us from trying to move forward because it's in the very unknown that we really do encounter Christ."

Cupich spoke to NCR by phone from Omaha, where he was spending time on Sunday with his family. Following is the full interview.

NCR: I understand you were told about your appointment just about 10 or 11 days ago. What's been your feeling since then? What's been the mood?

Cupich: Of course, my initial feeling about it was shock because it wasn't really on my radar screen. We had just completed a pastoral planning process in Spokane and I was just on the cusp of issuing a pastoral letter, which now has gone out, and so that's where really my energy was focused.

This was an altogether unexpected surprise here and -- from that time, however, I've just tried to bring it in my prayer to Christ to calm me. And that morning that I had that press conference [introducing him in Chicago], I slept well that night and got up about six o'clock and had a good hour and half in the chapel and just realized that I should not be afraid of the fact that I'm probably going to make some mistakes.

But I've been asked to do this so there was a real freedom going into the news conference -- of course, the freedom that I had when I said yes.

At this point I feel kind of very at ease with everything. It's still overwhelming but I'm trying to just be myself and be at ease in this moment.

For you, of course, this is coming back to the Midwest, where you were born and lived in Omaha. What does that feel like to you? What does it mean to make a return to the region where you're from?

It is nice. I do have family very close in Milwaukee as well as Omaha and from that standpoint -- a human standpoint -- it really is consoling. I came to Omaha last night to be with family and we're going to get together today.

I had Mass in the parish where my grandparents came and [they] founded, Sts. Peter and Paul -- in fact, that's one of the reasons I chose the feast day of Sts. Peter and Paul [Nov. 18] to have my installation.

And so it's a time in which I can just find the support of people who walked with me from the very beginning and also where my vocation started. So, it was a good opportunity for me to do that.

Watching the press conference, when some reporters asked about your style or your reputation in the bishops' conference, you responded that all you could be was yourself. It's kind of an odd question, but who is Bishop Cupich? What do you see as your defining characteristics? How do people know you?

Well, I guess I'm the son of my parents. I think everything that I have learned in terms of working with people and taking on any responsibility are things that I learned from my parents: to work hard, to pray, to respect people, to realize that I don't have all the answers, that God will take care of the situation if we just trust. So I think that I am the son of my parents.

Can I give you two anecdotes?


The first one would be: I remember when I was probably about eight years old or so it was a Saturday night -- and of course Saturday night was when we all got our baths and going to church the next day and my mother was preparing everything for Mass.

And my parents, this was in the ’50s or so, my parents had pledged to the church to donate $3 a Sunday, which was quite a bit because my father was a mail carrier and there were a number of kids, maybe seven of the nine already born.

And she just remarked: 'Well, your father gets paid on Monday.' It was her last three dollars and so it was a sense of that kind of trust, and also belonging to a community and making a commitment to a community that really impressed me. I have very good memories of that.

The other is my father. He was 48 and he got Parkinson’s disease and he had to quit his work. Then, after he was rehabilitated and started taking some good medication, he began to work, to volunteer, more with St. Vincent de Paul.

So he went door to door to visit people, especially on his old rural route, and noticed that their nutrition standards were very low. And there was just a new program in the ’70s coming out called Meals on Wheels. And that was available to states, so he went to the county board and asked them to buy into this program. There was some resistance because it would take some bureaucracy and they didn't want to bother with it.

So he did what any self-respecting Croatian would do -- and he was 100 percent Croatian, as I am -- and he got upset and decided to run for office against a man in his own party. So he did and he beat him by just a handful of votes and he served three terms, became the chair of the county board, and they had Meals on Wheels.

There's a practicality there, of saying I'm going to work with the system but I'm going to also look for a way in which things have to move forward and especially when feeling strongly about something, be willing to move forward with it. And I think that I've learned that from my father, too.

So those would be two anecdotes that stick in my mind about if people want to know who I am, they might know my parents.

In that story about your mother giving to the church, you said she had a sense of trust in the church. Hearing that, I'm thinking that we live in a time where that sense of trust in the church isn't quite as present as it used to be. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Yes, I think that's true. I think, though, that there's a general distrust in institutions because institutions seem to be failing us at times. But part of that is that the way that we have the 24/7 news cycles, they're always looking for things that are wrong with either individuals or institutions and so they're going to highlight those and I think that creates distrusts of individuals, of peoples, of leaders -- as well as institutions.

We used to be more distant from that in terms of allowing us to be more indulgent of mistakes of people or individuals. We do need to make sure we have transparency and clear reporting when major things are wrong, but sometimes it can get to be very nitpicky and we look at every little foible and erode the confidence of people in their leadership and in institutions. So I think there is today a general distrust of institutions and sometimes leaders.

In that vein, I know Chicago, just like many other dioceses in the U.S., is facing a number of issues -- downsizing, priest shortages, population changes. What lessons have you learned about those kinds of things in Spokane and Rapid City that you think might help you in Chicago?

I would say that in both Rapid City and Spokane we're dealing with more limited resources, human resources as well as financial and other. And I think you have to be real. You cannot base your decisions on a past era where things were different. I think that's where we're going to get in trouble.

If we really don't do a calculation of what the situation is from the present circumstances, we're going to get caught up in either an ideology about things or maybe an illusion about the way things should be because of the past. I think the pope has been very clear. One of the lines that he uses, he says, 'Realities are greater than ideas.'

I think that he's asking us -- this is one of things I brought up in my talk in the response to Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga at that conference that we had in Washington last June. I think the pope is giving us a new epistemology, a new way of learning, of knowing -- another way in which we're informed.

We can really get caught up in living in our own little bubble of an idea or an illusion of things the way they have been in the past.

It's important not to have just a 30,000 feet perspective on life but to really be there in the reality of the situation and pay attention to the observables right now around you.

For me, that ties into your recent pastoral letter in Spokane, 'Joy Made Complete.' Reading through that, I was struck by one of your conclusions at the end that Catholics should be 'stepping out into unknown and largely uncharted territory, and trusting each other to share responsibility and ownership for the Church.' What does that mean for you?

I think it means that we don't have all the answers to the vexing problems and challenges that we face. But that should not paralyze us from trying to move forward because it's in the very unknown that we really do encounter Christ, who is different.

We have the beautiful passage today from scripture that 'our ways are not God's ways.' Well, sometimes we're hesitant to move forward into the unknown because we don't have control of the situation -- when, in fact, it really is an invitation to respect the fact that the unknowable God is working in our lives and calling us into a future that we're not creating, but that he's creating for us.

But the way we do that is doing it together. We can't force things on people just because you have an idea it should go this way. We really do have to be a pilgrim people together. And so I'm confident if we do stay together and we do pray -- allow the word of God to move our hearts -- that God will unfold the future for us, and we shouldn't be afraid of it.

Reading that pastoral letter, I was struck by how much you quote from Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). On your own level, how has Francis changed influenced what you do as a priest, or bishop? How do you see his work influencing yours?

At first I usually say when the pope is saying these things that I've been saying these things for 40 years. But I think that's probably too glib. I think that I also have recognized that he's challenging me personally in terms of lifestyle, in terms of just being respectful for people who might have a different opinion about how we also see our role as leaders as not just telling them what the Gospel says but bringing them to an encounter with Christ and accompanying them.

I said at the news conference yesterday that I have learned over these 40 years as a priest that it's very true that people come to us as priests and ministers because they've already discovered that God is real. And they want us to confirm it, confirm that insight, that encounter -- but also to nourish it.

I think that that's a very important thing for anybody who serves to keep in mind. Or, as the pope said to those missionaries: 'God is already working -- the Holy Spirit was there before you arrived.' The pope emphasizing that has forced me to boldly step a little further than perhaps where I was before.

Maybe I had sympathies to the kinds of things that he's saying, but he's enriching those sympathies in a way that I could never imagine or have thought about. He's provoking me to really dig deep along the same veins.

I was also curious how you see what the pope is doing in terms of the wider U.S. church. I'm thinking of Indianapolis Archbishop Joseph Tobin saying in June that some U.S. bishops are finding the pope a bit difficult to understand, that they might even be a bit 'discouraged' or 'challenged' by him. How do you see that?

I did see his comments and I know that he's probably talked to a lot more people than I have about that. I have not heard of that. I have not heard criticism or the sense of struggle that other people are having.

I think that by and large, and least where I live in the West, there is a great sense of enthusiasm for what the pope is saying. And I find that in people -- priests as well as bishops -- in our area. So I guess he's [Tobin] speaking from his own experience.

You explained at the press conference why you picked Nov. 18, the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, as the day for your own installation Mass. You said you had that personal connection but then you also mentioned it was a way to honor women religious because there's a congregation that...

St. Philippine Duchesne, that's her feast day as well; she's a founder of the Sacred Heart Sisters.

You mentioned that and it made me think: How do you see the struggles facing U.S. women religious today, especially with the criticisms from the Vatican?

I guess I come out of, as I mentioned in some of my remarks, too -- I remember sisters who taught me. I can name each of the sisters who taught me grade school, and so I have a fondness. And so do my brothers and sisters. My mother was able to talk about the sisters who taught her. In the last years of her life, she remembered that.

So, there is a fondness there that is part of our own family and part of my own memory. And I continue to have really a fond affection for the sisters that worked in our area. I think that I want to just celebrate that wonderful memory in our family that was part of our own parish life experience. And so that's where it came from.

Obviously, you've got a couple months before that Mass when you'll be installed. What's the priority for you before that happens? What are you looking to do to prepare yourself?

I will go home and talk to people there who are back in Spokane when I finish. I'm going to be in Chicago this week for the Catholic Extension meeting of the bishops and then I'm going to go back and we'll see where it goes. I probably have to have a press conference there. Also, bring the staff together and look for a way of transition.

So I think right now it's setting up the whole transition, both in Spokane and in Chicago. I think that's my priority right now. I'm not going to make any major decisions about -- the cardinal is in full power as the archbishop until the 18th.

Both of us received special indults for that, to remain in our positions rather than just be an apostolic administrator who can't make decisions about significant matters.

The Holy See has made accommodation for both of us, given the fact that we still have some issues to tie up and will need the authority of the residential bishop. So, that transition I think is going to be on the front burner.

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

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