Emails show Cardinal Blase Cupich helped Mayor Lori Lightfoot shape COVID message

‘You might want to rethink this sentence,’ the cardinal tells the mayor at one point, according to their pandemic correspondence, obtained by the Sun-Times.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Cardinal Blase Cupich.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Cardinal Blase Cupich.

Sun-Times file

In May 2020, Mayor Lori Lightfoot was drawing considerable flak over her stance against churches and other places of worship reopening for services amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

But she found a behind-the-scenes ally to help her face the backlash from faith communities: Cardinal Blase Cupich, the top Catholic cleric in the Chicago region.

Newly obtained emails between Cupich and Lightfoot show the cardinal advised the mayor on May 13, 2020, about how to craft a letter she would send the following day to “Members of the Chicago Faith Community.” Citing the need to curb the spread of the virus, the letter urged faith leaders to abide by government restrictions on gatherings of any kind, including those at churches, synagogues and mosques.

Many houses of worship had closed temporarily because of the pandemic or were offering only virtual services, though some clergy were starting to defy the pandemic prohibitions, in effect daring City Hall or Gov. J.B. Pritzker to try to stop them from holding in-person services.

“I know that as faith leaders you take the health and well-being of your community with the utmost seriousness and further that you put the health and well-being of your congregants first,” Lightfoot wrote. “I urge you to continue speaking to the pain and fear that ripples through our city in waves. Lifting up the broken and the downtrodden and help them find peace and salvation. In sum, to do all the things you have been doing for years that are needed now more than ever, but to do it from an appropriate distance because we know with certainty this virus ravages us when we gather in groups.

“Yes, limiting services and other important religious convenings like funerals, baptisms, bat and bar mitzvahs, breaking fasts and weddings is hard. Very hard. But it remains every bit as important now as ever.”

Cupich was sent a “working draft” of the letter by Lightfoot after the cardinal sent her a “confidential communication to my clergy” and other documents outlining the Archdiocese of Chicago’s plans to gradually reopen churches in Cook and Lake counties.

In Cupich’s letter to his priests, he summarized the “multi-phased reopening” and assured them that “state and local authorities and public health officials have approved this plan,” City Hall records show.

Lightfoot wrote back, “Thanks. I will review and keep confidential until I know that it is public. I have attached my working draft. Welcome your thoughts as to tone and content. Thanks again.”

Two hours later, Cupich emailed back, telling Lightfoot: “I have read you [sic] letter and find your account of how this situation has impacted you to be both compelling and moving. It will speak to a pastor’s heart as you reveal your own. It is because your own witness is so strong, and out of a desire that you take every precaution that your message is not be open to easy distortion and misinterpretation, that I offer the following suggestions which you may want to consider:

“1. I would suggest cutting these two sentences: ‘I do not have the luxury of looking away, of thinking that this horrific reality is someone else’s problem. To the contrary.’ I suggest the cut only because it could be misread as suggesting that the letter’s audience does have such a luxury, when many likely know someone who has been infected.

“2. This sentence, too, could be misread: ‘I firmly believe that our faith is measured by what is in our hearts and how we live each day, not the physical surroundings of where we gather.’ Thinking defensively, I can see some using this to claim the mayor doesn’t understand the sacramental life of the church. Catholic critics of stay-at-home orders complain less about not being able to gather in a church structure than they do about not being able to receive Communion. I think the Gospel quote from Matthew sufficiently does the job.

“3. Given that the Plan of the Illinois Bishops of reopening for services with 10 attendees will be announced today and effect later this month, you might want to rethink this sentence: ‘When the doors of the churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship re-open, those vulnerable populations will still need to take extra care and stay home, but opening those doors now, in this time, would put all those who gather at risk and all the people they come into contact with at risk, particularly those in their homes.’ Perhaps the following edit might make the point clearer: ‘When churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship begin the process of re-opening, those vulnerable populations will still need to take extra care and stay home. But lifting gathering restrictions now, in this time, would put congregants at risk, as well as all the people they then come into contact with, particularly in their homes.’

“4. You may want to reformulate the section that begins: ‘And what is asked of you?’ This may be too direct and cause those digging in and claiming ‘government overreach’ to be inclined to read this as an elected official telling them how to minister. One way to sidestep this would be to couch these sentiments in affirmations such as, ‘I know that as religious leaders you take the health and well-being of your community with the greatest seriousness.’ And so on and so forth. A small thing: In the final sentence of the penultimate paragraph, I think it should be, ‘I cannot simply look away from’ – not ‘at.’

“Apart from those edits, I think the letter comes off as persuasive and heartfelt. I hope its audience finds it as compelling.”

Lightfoot wrote back an hour later: “Very helpful. Thanks.”

One of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s exchanges via email with Cardinal Blase Cupich.

One of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s exchanges via email with Cardinal Blase Cupich.

Lightfoot’s final version included some changes along the lines of what Cupich suggested.

Neither the cardinal nor other church officials would comment.

Cupich’s close relationship with Lightfoot differed from that of many religious leaders in the Chicago area and elsewhere who criticized worship restrictions during the pandemic, saying government shouldn’t interfere with faith institutions.

Lightfoot, who isn’t Catholic but whose daughter has attended Catholic school, wouldn’t discuss her relationship with Cupich or the emails.

In a written statement in response to questions, a spokesman says: “Mayor Lightfoot actively consulted a wide variety of community leaders and stakeholders during the city’s fight against COVID-19. The mayor has great admiration for the cardinal personally and his leadership here in Chicago and within the Catholic Church worldwide. The mayor is grateful for the way that Cardinal Cupich led with his values during an incredibly difficult time for so many across our city. The mayor will continue to seek out faith leaders for their advice and perspectives, which the mayor deeply values as a person of faith herself. The faith community’s candid communications are helpful to the mayor personally and professionally.”

An email from Cardinal Blase Cupich to Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

In June 2020 emails, Cupich appears to be lobbying Lightfoot for support for more funding for a Catholic Charities initiative that provides home healthcare services to elderly Chicagoans that was facing “significant financial losses.”

The same month, Cupich emailed Lightfoot to urge that more police officers be stationed on the West Side in the wake of rioting that followed the May 25, 2020, killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis by a white cop, in an incident captured on video.

The Rev. Bob Lombardo, a Franciscan priest Cupich chose as one of his auxiliary bishops later that year, was running a mission on the site of the former Our Lady of the Angels Church, where a school fire in 1958 killed 92 students and three nuns. Cupich told the mayor that Lombardo said that area, “already a troubled neighborhood, was hit hard last night with looting and vandalism. Not only the drug stores but also the health clinics were looted. People are afraid that their homes are next, but they also fear for the long-term effects on an already economically challenged community.”

An email from Cardinal Blase Cupich to Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Cupich told Lightfoot that Lombardo “suggests that a greater show of police presence would be helpful to calm the fears of people. Fr. Bob is a very steady influence in the neighborhood and is otherwise quite calm and serene, but he is really shaken by what he sees as he visits with people and drives around the neighborhood.”

An email from Cardinal Blase Cupich to Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Lightfoot wrote back, “I certainly understand the concern. There was actually a significant police presence in Austin yesterday and other parts of the west side, but there was also a huge amount of looting and unrest. The calls for service yesterday were 65,000 citywide, which is 50,000 more than normal. And the massive sizes of the crowds and the violence made containing them incredibly challenging.

“I am touring the neighborhood damage right now.”


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