Archbishop Blase J. Cupich, the first major U.S. appointee of Pope Francis, assumes his post Tuesday as archbishop of Chicago, leading 2.2 million Catholics here.
In a Sun-Times interview before his installation, he talked about his first-year priorities, what’s key to keeping more inner-city Catholic schools from closing and his parameters related to transparency and priest sexual abuse.
He also shared his thoughts on the recent synod on the family in Rome, where more welcoming language for homosexuals and divorced Catholics did not attain a two-thirds consensus, and discussed the impact Pope Francis has had on the culture wars among U.S. Catholic bishops.
Cupich, who previously served four years as head of the diocese of Spokane, leading 90,000 Catholics there, also talked about the role he wants Chicagoans to play in the family synod process, his approach to social justice issues and shares why in his new higher-profile post, he’s not worried about sleepless nights.
Year One Priorities — “Trying to get to know the diocese and the people. What I mean by that is not to get to know ‘about’ the diocese or the people, but to get to ‘know’ the diocese and the people. There’s a difference because you can sit in an office and read all sorts of reports. [But] I see myself as being actually physically present to various communities, [getting] to various places throughout this year. I asked my people who do the schedule to do everything possible to limit my time outside of Chicago because I want to focus on what’s happening in Chicago. I don’t know the church [here.] I have to learn that and to be patient with myself. It’s taken three to five years in any diocese that I’ve served or any parish to really come to a point where you say, ‘OK, I know these people. I know the situation.’”
His message to Chicagoans — “I know how to pray, and I know how to work. Coming back to the Midwest that is something that I know is very present in the lives of ordinary people. Whatever their background or religious tradition, people in the Midwest pray and they work hard.”
Priest sexual abuse and transparency — “I’ve always tried to be transparent as much as I can, [while] respecting the rights of victims and survivors, who many times want us to make sure that their identity is protected. The important thing here is the information that’s put out has to be done with the understanding that it helps us as a church but also as a society to protect children. We get it right if we put the child in the middle of the room and focus on the child, what’s best for the child.”
Catholic schools — “It’s not about buildings. It’s about people, it’s about families, and it’s about children. Whether it’s poor, inner-city communities or wherever, we know there’s great demand. We know that we have a great product. We have a solid record of making sure that we use the resources, financial, human, other resources for those who are most in need, whether they’re Catholic or not. I’m very committed to doing that. But we have to be realistic that we don’t have a bottomless pit of resources. If we [make] decisions in such a way that expands our ability and strengthens our ability to be present to families, we’re going to get it right. Doing that is an art, it’s not a science.”
Social justice priorities — “I don’t cherry pick. Whenever the rights of human beings are threatened, whether it’s in racism, people who are on death row, the child in the womb, the immigrant who has to live in the shadows, the person who is on a death bed, the people who need health care, all of them are on my radar screen, and I look for the right opportunity to say something about [those] issues, but always within the framework of defending the principle of human dignity.”
The culture wars — “The Holy Father has had an enormous impact on people worldwide and on Catholics and also the bishops. I hear from bishops they’ve indicated in conversations with me that the Holy Father is a game changer. He is prompting us to look at the way that we address critical issues of the day not by backing off of them but by speaking of them in a way that helps people understand what we’re saying, but also in which we listen to other people in a respectful setting and dialogue. The Holy Father is asking for that kind of dialogue that makes us both teachers and learners, and I think that’s very important. I have always understood that there’s collateral damage in society that’s very toxic, when we use language that is harsh, offensive, not engaging. I like that line from [the late Archbishop] Fulton Sheen, who said if you’re only interested in winning an argument, you’ll never win a convert. That’s a great phrase for all of us to keep in mind.”
The family synod — “The Holy Father was very clear that the synod was not to decide particular issues [but] to set a process by which people were encouraged to speak their mind freely and to make sure that nobody was told, ‘You can’t discuss that.’ We now need to … replicate that in our own dioceses, in our conferences, so that we have the opportunity to talk about these issues, to hear each other out and create that kind of dialogue that’s going to benefit the church. I think that’s revolutionary about the synod.
“The three proposals that did not get the two-thirds vote got a simple majority. So there is an arc here that is tending towards listening to the issues and addressing them. Now this is not a democratic process. We don’t decide truth that way. But we do believe that people are gifted with the Holy Spirit and that we need to listen to how as leaders the Spirit is working in the lives of people and be attentive to that and then make sure that how we address these very sensitive and complex issues does take into consideration what we have heard in that process. So I’m going to do that in Chicago. I haven’t figured it out yet how we’re going to do it logistically, but we will have a means by which we will continue the synodal process in the archdiocese of Chicago.”
On seeking Cardinal Francis George’s counsel — “I have had numerous conversations with him. He’s been more than gracious to me and pledged his full support and willingness to be an adviser, which I very much value and will accept. I want to be respectful of his own needs, given his health, so we’ll have to see how that moves forward. But he has knowledge about the archdiocese and issues [that] is really encyclopedic. It’s something that has been accumulated over 17 years. I’m very respectful of that and look forward to really calling on him as a confidante.”
The communion question for divorced Catholics — “I would be in favor or looking for a way to treat people in their individual circumstances. So could there be the occasion of some people for one reason or another, who have a particular difficulty with regard to their status in the church and looking for a pastoral solution to that, I would be…for that. But it’s not a slam dunk. It’s not going from point A to point B in a straight line. We have to be aware of what’s important for the good of the church but also for the care of souls. I’m open to hearing proposals that accomplish both ends.”
The annulment process — “I think it can be simplified…I’m open to looking at reasonable ways. I do however have to say that I heard [recently] a woman recount how she went through the annulment process. She didn’t want to do it at first but then she found as she went through it how healing it was, how therapeutic it was, how freeing it was because she allowed the hurts in the past to be healed, and [it] gave her the freedom to move forward. So we have to make sure that we’re very clear the annulment process is a pastoral solution and can be a very effective way in which people not only are declared free to marry but that the hurts of the past are healed. That is something that we can’t lose focus on.”
Not expecting sleepless nights — “I like that phrase of St. John XXIII, who always ended his night by saying, ‘Okay Jesus. It’s your church. I’m going to sleep.’ This is not about me, about what I can do or can’t do. My main task as the [archbishop] is to try to focus on where Christ is leading right now, what Christ is doing and how Christ is active, and I get that. I go to bed usually about 9 o’clock, and I get up about 4, 4:30. I have about seven hours of sleep and usually sleep through the night. I get my rest. I get my exercise. I get my prayer and then I work hard. My life is pretty simple. I have a very routine, simple kind of life, and I think as long as I maintain that, I’ll be fine.”