Cardinal Cupich: Francis is giving new life to Vatican II reforms

  • Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago, left, and Fr. Jack Wall, president of Catholic Extension, pose with Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Sept. 2, 2015. (CNS/Paul Haring)
  • Pope Francis gives the red biretta to new Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago during a consistory in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Nov. 19, 2016. (CNS/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)
  • Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago distributes Communion during the Simbang Gabi Mass at Our Lady of Mercy Parish in this 2014 file photo. (CNS/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)
Vatican City

In his four years as the leader of the global Catholic Church, Pope Francis has been giving new life to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, says Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich.

In an NCR interview in advance of the March 13 anniversary of Francis' election, the cardinal said the pontiff is "reinvigorating that experience of the church" that people had following the reforms of the 1962-65 council.

"As I read the reaction of people to him I think back to how people were responding to the council with that same sense of hopefulness and joy, pride about the church that we saw at that time," said Cupich.

In the interview, which took place at the Pontifical North American College in late February, the cardinal spoke at length about the pope's leadership style of collaboration and consensus-building, and his efforts to reform the Vatican bureaucracy.

"I don't think Francis has a template with regard to what a reformed structure looks like, but I do think that his vision of seeing that Christ is the one who is leading the church, and we are to be attentive to that, will make clear what that structure should look like," said Cupich.

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"He's constantly going back to that question: Where is Christ calling us now?" he said. "And then let's build any kind of reform around that. He has to have that vision, but it's a vision about what Christ is wanting us to do, not what he wants to do."

Cupich also spoke about those who might find Francis' discussion-based style of leadership — evinced by the two-year synod process he underwent before writing his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia — discomforting.

"People are impatient with a process that doesn't give … immediate answers," he said. "We live in an age of immediacy, where we want everything now — our phone connection doesn't happen right away, the internet is down and we're not getting any information, we have problems with planes being late. We want it now."

"There is a temptation to have shortcuts and not put in the time and the effort," he said. "I think you have to be willing to talk to people and sit sometimes around a table and listen to other people."

Following is the full interview with Cupich, edited slightly for clarity and context.

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NCR: Is there anything that you think has been overlooked or underappreciated about what the pope is doing?

Cupich: Let me put it in a more personal way. I came into the seminary 50 years ago this fall. In 1967, I had just graduated from high school. It was right on the heels of the Second Vatican Council. And I don't think that I have had a sense of the freshness of the council more than what I do at this point.

In many ways, I find him reinvigorating that experience of the church, what we experienced during the Second Vatican Council. In many ways, [he] is giving new life to it. I find that very personal.

At the same time, I think that as I read the reaction of people to him I think back to how people were responding to the council with that same sense of hopefulness and joy, pride about the church that we saw at that time.

Plus, the fact that he now is emerging as a world leader and speaking about issues that have a global impact, probably more than any other leader today. He seems to have that reach across cultures, across language groups, national boundaries, that has a great appeal to people.

If you had to boil down the pope's vision for the church into a phrase or a theme, how would you do that?

Gaudium et spes. The hopes and the joys. But also, the struggles, the sorrows that people have. He is united with them. The church claims to be an expert in humanity, and an expert about humanity. I think that the pope is really trying to, in many ways, express the aspirations of humanity but also the challenges it faces today, much like the document Gaudium et spes did. That's how I would sum it up.

The pope has expressed a clear vision of what he thinks the church should be. We can point to Evangelii Gaudium or Amoris Laetitia. But he is also trying to do structural reform. How do you see him balancing the expression of his vision with structural reform?

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I don't see necessarily any tension between doing those two because I do think that you can't have a structural reform without a vision, because otherwise you're just moving the deck chairs on the Titanic.

I think that he does have a sense of purpose and mission about what he's doing. He's not doing reform just to do reform, he's doing it because of the vision that's there. He wants to situate the church for its future in order to live out that vision.

But I think that central to the vision — and you see this in Amoris Laetitia — is that there is a divine pedagogy, not just for the individual but for the church. So not only is there a need for discernment for the individual about his or her life, but there is a need for a discernment about where Christ is leading the church.

I don't think Francis has a template with regard to what a reformed structure looks like, but I do think that his vision of seeing that Christ is the one who is leading the church, and we are to be attentive to that, will make clear what that structure should look like. He is following a divine pedagogy that way.

This is what he's doing with the Council of Cardinals that's helping him. They're not there just coming with their own ideas about how the church should operate with its various offices, structurally. But he's constantly going back to that question: Where is Christ calling us now? And then let's build any kind of reform around that. He has to have that vision, but it's a vision about what Christ is wanting us to do, not what he wants to do.

That's where I think that he really gets his confidence. And he's not daunted by critics or people who in some way misunderstand him. Because he's free enough to be able to move forward, simply because he's pursuing the call of Christ.

I think he's free not in the sense of ignoring other people and doing what he wants, but he's free in order to be responsive to where he sees the call of Christ beckoning the church. That's the freedom that he enjoys, and that's the blessing that I think that he is to us.

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Pope Francis raises the Book of the Gospels during the closing Mass of the Synod of Bishops on the family in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Oct. 25, 2015. (CNS/Paul Haring)

The pope has focused a lot on collaboration and consultation. In Laudato Si' he cited many different bishops' conferences. Amoris Laetitia was released after two Synods of Bishops. Is the way he is doing that consultation something new, a shift for the church?

Yes. It's a synodal model. The synod is not just an office, but it's a way of being church.

That's something that I have always tried to do when I've had positions of leadership, whether I was at the seminary or pastor of a parish or the head of a diocese, no matter how small or large it was.


Related: Cardinal Cupich shoulders Chicago's Catholic future (Dec. 5, 2016)


I find that it does two things. First of all, it gives you insight into what the issue is by hearing other voices. And secondly, it keeps you from the temptation that you have to in some way make all the decisions, and the weight falls on you.

Or even worse, that you make your work an exercise in your own ego being affirmed. Because there is a temptation at times to make your whole work an exercise in narcissism, where you want to in some way prove yourself by the decisions that you make.

That's very tempting to people who are in positions of authority. You want to build this building, you want to do this particular task that you want to leave behind as a legacy. I think that if you do that you're really not going to be free to address the issues that are there because you're going to be blinded by the task that you think is going to affirm your own ego.

I think that he has that kind of freedom to be able to get the insights of other people but at the same time make sure he's free from that temptation.

I'm wondering what you might say to people who aren't comfortable with this discussion-based style of leadership and maybe want more clear answers, or want the pope to say something very clearly.

I think that it's not just clarity. It's immediacy. People are impatient with a process that doesn't give not only clear answers, but immediate answers. We live in an age of immediacy, where we want everything now — our phone connection doesn't happen right away, the internet is down and we're not getting any information, we have problems with planes being late. We want it now.

But I think the other thing is, and I've said this before, for all of us, this is hard work. Dealing with people is hard work. Raising a family is hard work. Parents have a tough job when they raise a child. It's the earn while you learn program and you have to be patient with the fact that some of the skills are learned as you raise the child.

There is a temptation to have shortcuts and not put in the time and the effort. The real temptation is sloth. You know, sloth is still a vice and that can impact the life of a leader sometimes. You don't want to do the hard work. You don't want to read. I think leaders have to continually read. I think you have to be willing to talk to people and sit sometimes around a table and listen to other people.

You've got to in some way get the advice of experts. That's hard work. I think it is a temptation against impatience about wanting things immediately, but also the hard work that has to happen, that has to be a part of it.

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I was speaking to someone else who said they thought the two pillars of how Francis proceeds in his life is with prayer and discernment. What do you think he might be teaching the church about how to go through a process of discernment?

I would say another element of that is real trust. I think that the more that you do prayer and discernment, there's a point, too, in which you just have to say, "I trust this is going to go forward."

For instance, I think back at the synod in 2015 there were some real moments in which we had no idea where this thing was going to go in terms of the vote, the two-thirds. But the way the process was going, people were coming up with different ideas and saying things and there were all these other things that were going on.

And he seemed unflappable; wasn't fazed by this at all. He didn't seem like he was losing any sleep over anything. It was, yes, he prayed about things and he discerned, but he also trusted. I think that was very revealing, that this was a man who really was like Abraham, who would look at the stars of the sky and trust that it was all going to work out.

We learned from a theologian by the name of Juan Alfaro, who taught the course on faith. He used the phrase all the time, "appoggiarsi a Dio," to lean on God. That comes to mind when I think of the pope. He's somebody who not only prays and discerns but he's leaning on God. He has this appoggiarsi a Dio.

Under Pope Benedict XVI or John Paul II we talked about a new evangelization or about doctrine. Francis talks about accompaniment, or being on a journey together. Do you see during his papacy a change in how we think about the church?

I think it's very much in tune with the Gospel of Luke, where the church is called away. I think that he does see us moving through history as a people on pilgrimage, which is a theme of the Second Vatican Council and of Lumen Gentium.

This is another reason I say he is reinvigorating what we experienced of the council because he's picking up those themes. And I think that's really key and important. I don't think this is anything new.

This is one of the first sons of the council who is pope. So, I think that the council formed him in that approach to the church and he's retrieving that.

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Archbishop Cupich gestures as he arrives for a session of the Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican Oct. 24, 2015. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Is there anything you hope Francis might tackle more attentively in coming years?

I think one of the things that he has already expressed a willingness to be sensitive to is the real importance going forward for the church of inculturation. I really believe that we're just beginning to understand what that means.

We go to the peripheries not because people need us but we need them in order to have a full understanding about humanity. Other cultures can teach the church. It's always been that way.

You look at the Roman liturgy today and it is not a liturgy that was made up totally of Rome, but it had a lot of influences from the East, from Greece, from northern Europe.

But we still need to in some way allow the way we worship to be more inculturated. I think that goes from the whole notion of the translation of prayers into other languages. Is there not the possibility of having some of the prayers originate in the language groups that are there, faithful to the Roman tradition but at the same time not springing from Latin immediately, but maybe springing from the cultural experience where those languages are used and enriching the life of the church.

I think inculturation in the way that we do things in the church, the way we govern, to inculturation to the language we use in theology, to inculturation in the way we worship. I think inculturation is going to be — we're just beginning to, I think, unpack this.

For instance, during the synod one of the bishops from an Asian country said the term indissolubility ... was a term that was so hard for them to wrap their minds around, that it really was too juridical and legalistic of a term to describe the sanctity of the relationship of marriage.


Related: Chicago's Cupich on divorce: Pastor guides decisions, but person's conscience inviolable (Oct. 16, 2015)


I think that kind of discussion revealed to me that so often in the West we come with our thoughts and our patterns of speaking that in some way could be alienating people from the Gospel, and that we need to hear those other voices tell us why the Gospel in some way is hindered from being received.

Is there some other way in which they would express it, that commitment that we have that is more in tune with the actual reality that people are living?

Indissolubility as a word did not relate to the experience that they had of their intimate relationships. It was too foreign to them. Well, that's worth hearing. And maybe it should tell us as we use that term that maybe we have diminished the understanding of that relationship by using a word that is possibly nonsensical or even offensive to people.

I think inculturation is a big area that is yet to realize its full impact and I think the pope is sensitive to that.

Is there anything I didn't ask about that you wanted to say?

We're in these days now of the fourth anniversary, too, of the final days of Pope Benedict. He announced his resignation during the Year of Faith. That was probably the biggest act of faith that he left us as a legacy to the church.

I think it would good to remind everybody that we're here because of a man called Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict XVI, who had the same kind of vision about Christ leading the church because he realized it didn't depend on him. He could step back and he knew the church was going to be OK.

It's a reminder to me that we could have Francis because we had Benedict.

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

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