Cardinal Blase Cupich, one of Pope Francis’ first big appointments in the United States, leader of the Catholic Church in Chicago, raised in Nebraska, people often “ask me to pray for them” — or want “a selfie.”

With hundreds of schools, churches and other charitable institutions to oversee in Cook and Lake counties, home to more than two million Catholics, Cupich says he’s still able to do “the pastoral things.”

“I walk to work every day, and I don’t think there’s a day that goes by that somebody doesn’t stop me on the street and say hello, ask me to pray for them.

“Sometimes, people just want a selfie, and that’s fine, too.”

He also visits a lot of congregations, so he’s “in contact with people in a different way” than when he was a parish priest, but says that still “invigorates me.

“I try not to reduce everything to a matter of the business of the church. . . . I enjoy people. I like what I do.”

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What does he tell people who doubt their faith, or the existence of God, or the after-life?

“I always tell myself . . . that the faith I have is a gift, so I shouldn’t take that for granted. And so when people are struggling and feel they have no faith at all, I shouldn’t say, ‘Well, it’s their fault.’

“What I just say to people is there’s still a hunger in your life for more, there always is, be in touch with that, and be the best person that you can be.

“Some of the greatest Christians I know are people who don’t actually have a kind of faith system that they believe in. But, in their activity, the way they conduct themselves, there’s a goodness there.

“It might not be articulated in a faith context like my own, but there’s a goodness there that is a witness that encourages me. So I try to find that and encourage that in people. If that’s happening in their life, that’s worth encouraging.

“How God allows that to mature with His own way is really up to God. I do learn from people who say they don’t believe and yet are very good people.”

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Does his own faith ever waver?

“I think my faith wavers in a sense that I become impatient because things aren’t done according to my timeline. And I say, ‘If I were God, I would do it this way.’

“I’m most often — I think all the times — proved wrong, that if I’m patient, that something comes out better than I anticipated. And so that’s how my faith wavers: through impatience.”

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Entering Holy Name Cathedral in August 2015 to receive the Pallium blessed by Pope Francis. |  Kevin Tanaka / Sun-Times

Among the reasons there are fewer churchgoers these days, there are “many more options that people have with their free time.”

How much of that involves the explosion of youth sports that often consumes family time? While a bishop in South Dakota, he says “there was a general rule” about no sporting events for kids on Wednesday nights and Sundays, which were set aside as times for church.

“We began to see that break down . . . a little bit, and there was kind of an outcry . . . So I think that it does invade that time that’s there on Sunday.”

Many folks also find “they’re exhausted from maybe having one or two jobs, caring for children. And so there are a lot of demands made on people, and so people guard their free time.”

Thinks there’s been a general “lessoning of community life or volunteerism” and that some people “do have faith issues. Do the communities that have been set up over the years and been a part of their own family history continue to nourish?

“We can do a better job, but I think that we shouldn’t become paranoid” to a point where “we put all the blame on ourselves as churches. There are other factors.”

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There’s a new, long-range planning initiative underway in the Archdiocese of Chicago on Catholic parishes and schools in Cook and Lake counties. But he says it’s too soon to say whether there will be more closings or consolidations as a result and, if so, how many and in what form.

There’s no “prearranged template or footprint . . . on the process,” which is to rely heavily on feedback from parishioners.

Money is tight in many parishes, and there are fewer and fewer priests.

Still, Cupich says the planning is not going “to be driven by those kinds of material things, whether it’s finances or personnel.

“We can’t ignore them,” he says of those factors, but the goal of the current initiative is to make “vibrant and vital faith communities that are sustainable for the long run.”

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Future Cardinal Blase Cupich (left) helping Cardinal Francis George from the lecturn on Sept. 20, 2014, in Chicago after being named by Pope Francis to succeed George. | Getty Images

Cupich — who was named to lead the Chicago archdiocese in 2014 after Cardinal Francis George retired, with cancer claiming him in 2015 — has spoken out about street violence.

In recent years, some Catholic school and church closings have come in areas plagued by violence that seem to desperately need physical and spiritual institutions. Is there a disconnect there?

“We don’t want to create deserts, but at the same time, maybe we need to rethink how we are ‘church’ in particular areas, maybe by having the presence of the church not so much in a big building that’s very tough to maintain but in terms of services and outreach to people that we’ll have an impact on their life.”

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Historically, the institutional church here has been cozy with the local political establishment. How does Cupich, whose father was a county board member where the cleric grew up in Nebraska, see the church’s interaction with political powers?

“We have to be, I think, of service to help people who are elected officials do their job effectively . . . If we can get people to trust and to talk to each other, we will have achieved a lot.”

The church is backing a legislative effort to create tax credits that ultimately could help ease the tuition burden for many lower-income families sending or wanting to send their kids to Catholic schools or other private schools.

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What are the cardinal’s views on President Donald Trump?

“I always like to talk about issues rather than people . . . . We live in a democracy, not under a totalitarian government. And we get the leaders that we deserve because we elect them . . . . It’s very easy to criticize, and some of that criticism may be merited . . . . My hope would be that, if people are dissatisfied, that they’re going to become more involved, rather than just criticize the situation.”

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In a move that’s been seen as out of step with Pope Francis’ more inclusive tone, Downstate Bishop Thomas Paprocki caused a stir in recent months when he said people in same-sex unions should be denied communion and Catholic funerals unless they’ve repented.

Cupich says, “We have a different way of approaching things along those lines,” but “it’s not for us to make a judgment about some other diocese.”

Paprocki was involved in the controversial decision in the mid-1980s to deny Catholic funerals to slain Chicago mobsters Anthony Spilotro and Michael Spilotro, according to news accounts. Can Cupich see a circumstance in which a Catholic funeral or burial should be denied today because of a person’s criminal conduct?

It’s hard to make a blanket statement for me with regard to people who have been involved in criminal activity . . . So I think that it has to be done on a case-by-case basis. But if somebody is really notorious” and lived “in a way in which society has been harmed greatly by their own activity, there would be reason, I think, to say that a different kind of church service” is warranted.

Still, he says one of “our corporal works of mercy is burying the dead. And so it may be that, instead of some sort of big, public funeral for them that could turn into a glorification of their life . . . there could be something done to comfort the family . . . . You’re not doing too much against those who have died by making a decision” to deny a Catholic service.

“Many times, the funerals are for the survivors . . . Sometimes, we have to take that into consideration because they’re innocent in all of this.”

Cardinal Blase Cupich

Cardinal Blase Cupich: “We have to be, I think, of service to help people who are elected officials do their job effectively . . . If we can get people to trust and to talk to each other, we will have achieved a lot.” | Sun-Times files

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