Archbishop Blase Cupich, the view from Spokane and Chicago

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Ahead of Archbishop Blase J. Cupich’s installation here Tuesday, those who worked with him in the diocese of Spokane, recalled how he traveled throughout the diocese seeking and gaining donor support for Catholic schools, effectively speaking as passionately when appealing to a handful of people as he did when addressing a thousand.

They shared stories of how he helped enhance fraternity by inviting every single diocesan priest into his seminary quarters in groups of four or five, where Cupich, a good cook, prepared dinner and did all the clean up.

And they praised the man who they credit with helping lead the once bankrupt diocese out of some dark days in the wake of a priest sexual abuse scandal.

The Rev. Robert McNeese, rector at Bishop White Seminary, where he lived with Cupich in Spokane, told the story of a recent trip Cupich took to the Ukraine. While there Cupich, 65, was asked if he wanted to do some sightseeing.

“He said, ‘Would you take me to meet young people,’” McNeese said. “‘I want to go meet young people and talk to them about how this war is affecting their lives,’ and then he said, ‘Take me to a hospital where I can visit those who’ve been hurt.’ That’s what he does.”

Spokane City Councilman Jon Snyder, a gay rights supporter, who participated in a Rotary Club debate with Cupich in 2012 when gay marriage was on the ballot, signaled Chicagoans are getting a man who speaks with conviction without alienating his audience.

“I didn’t feel like I was hearing heated rhetoric; I was hearing reason, belief, even if I didn’t agree with those beliefs,” he said of the debate.

“Both of us were dedicated to creating a very civil discussion on the matter and to leaving the hyperbole behind. That was the thing I most enjoyed about working with him. I think we really were able to do that.”

In Cupich, Chicago-area residents will see an inclusive archbishop, who listens not only to people in power, but also to those in the pews, said Joe Boland, vice president of mission with the Chicago-based Catholic Extension. The organization raises money to help Catholics in the nation’s poorest communities. Cupich has served on the organization’s board since 2009 and as archbishop now becomes chancellor.

Boland pointed to Cupich’s work in Rapid City, S.D., where he once served as bishop and where one-third of the population is Native American.

“Cupich was very intentional from the moment he arrived, not only was he going to try to welcome these people, but he really wanted the Native American community to have a voice in the church and invest their gifts and talents for the whole church,” Boland said. “I think [he] really did energize the church’s efforts [there]… He will bring that same wisdom to the archdiocese of Chicago.”

Cupich, an Omaha native and one of nine siblings, is not one to lose sight of the big picture, those who know him say.

He is a “mission bishop,” who understands “that faith should not only transform our hearts, but societies and communities,” the Rev. Jack Wall, president of Catholic Extension said.

“I anticipate he’s going to be calling the Catholic community in Chicago to be that transformative agent [exploring] …how can the Catholic community be a deeper blessing to the city, how can we work together with others to lift up the community…to get to this level of saying there’s something powerful going on in our life in which God is calling every one of us to become a blessing to the world in which we live.”

That was his track record in Spokane, where despite some controversy centered on the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate, Cupich focused on making sure people without health care gained access to it, said Ann Hurst, chief mission integration officer at Providence Health Care in Spokane.

“We partnered with Catholic Charities . . . and enrolled thousands who previously had no health care insurance,” she said. “We were able to partner with the diocese on expanding that access.”

Cupich, who came to the diocese after it emerged from bankruptcy in the wake of a priest sex abuse scandal, is credited with ridding the diocese of a $6 million post-bankruptcy debt by getting some lenders to forgive the debt and others to renegotiate loan terms that included reducing the interest rate, according to the Rev. Mike Savelesky, who serves as moderator of the curia for the Spokane diocese and has served as vicar general.

“He’s really been a gift to our diocese, his savvy with the financial matters of the diocese,” said the Rev. Patrick Kerst, who has also served as vicar general. “When he arrived here, the debt that the diocese owed was really overwhelming. We’re in a much more secure position financially than we were when he arrived four years ago.”

“All that external debt is now gone, which is phenomenal,” Savelesky said.

As parishes were being threatened, Cupich made the decision to pursue mediation and succeeded in getting those issues resolved, Savelesky said.

Cupich played a key role in helping the community heal, according to Snyder, the Spokane councilman.

“The abuse scandal in Spokane was really intense,” he said. “I had a friend whose brother committed suicide. It just really tore this community apart. It was really, really hard. I would describe the bishop as being a stabilizing force in the wake of that.”

But Cupich has drawn criticism by some for pursuing a malpractice lawsuit against the law firm that represented his predecessor, William Skylstad, and the archdiocese in the bankruptcy.

Cupich has declined comment on the ongoing litigation.

Chicagoan’s can expect a deliberate decision maker, said Savelesky, noting, “That’s one of his great strengths. He’s not afraid to make decisions and to make tough ones, but he’s always fair, and he listens. He doesn’t shoot from the hip. They’re always well thought out and well planned [decisions], and he walks three to four steps down the road. So he’s thinking always ahead of the future and the results and the impact of his decisions.”

“He’s very collaborative. Before he acts in any major way he’s always consulting, and he likes to join ministries together in working toward a common goal, mission and focus.”

Savelesky pointed to the Nazareth Guild, a foundation Cupich launched, which raises funds for Catholic schools, as an example of that. The guild has raised more than $1.5 million that has gone directly to the schools, said Andy Robideaux, executive director.

Cupich worked with pastors and their parish schools and helped find donors throughout the diocesan community, Robideaux and Savelesky said.

That’s a key part of his Spokane legacy, Hurst said.

“He’s established a foundation for sustaining Catholic education into the future,” she said.

“He came in at a very difficult time with the bankruptcy that was going on here. He provided a way forward. There was a lot of upset within the Catholic community as well as the larger community. People had kind of lost faith in the church here. He set a direction and [the church] did …strategic planning and visioning for the next couple of years called, “Know, Love, Serve,” to get people back focused on what the church should be in the community.”

But some questioned the need for that strategic plan, since one had never been done before, Kerst said.

“For us it was something that was out of the box, but he approached that with a lot of sensitivity,” Kerst said. “He was able to gently move people to coming to a place where people were in favor of and many even excited about going through that kind of process.

“I think it was prophetic in that it sort of gave people an opportunity to adopt the attitude that we’ve had these tough things face us as a diocese. We went through bankruptcy, and it kind of took a lot of the wind out our sails, but we’re now at a point of . . . looking forward and dreaming for the future, making some major steps to try to make our witness to Christ in our parish and other Catholic organizations and ministries something that’s very real and powerful and life giving.”

Spokane’s loss is Chicago’s gain,  Savelesky and others note, adding given Cupich’s gifts and skills, they never expected to keep him for long at their small diocese.

“It’s great for Chicago,” Kerst said. “I’m happy for him, and I think God kind of made him to be archbishop of Chicago.”

Contributing: Lauren FitzPatrick

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