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Archbishop Cupich seeks help for immigrants, part of pope's agenda

Archbishop Blase Cupich at a news conference Monday. | Brian Jackson/For the Sun-Times

Meeting with the press on the eve of the pope’s U.S. visit and his one-year anniversary as head of the Archdiocese of Chicago, Archbishop Blase Cupich lamented the European migrant crisis, saying it highlights the need for U.S. immigration reform.

And Cupich, while acknowledging the seemingly more liberal perspective of this pope on a wide range of church issues — including marriage annulment and abortion — emphasized that Pope Francis has not shifted from church doctrine that is immoveable, he said, on such issues as gay marriage and priest celibacy.

Francis is expected to arrive Sept. 22 in Washington, D.C., where he will meet with President Barack Obama at the White House and attend a host of events, including a mass with Cupich and 400 U.S. bishops at St. Matthew’s Cathedral.

Cupich spoke passionately of the crisis spurred by rising numbers of refugees from the Middle East, Africa, Western Balkans and South Asia traversing ocean and terrain — with large losses of life — in search of asylum in the European Union. Francis recently pleaded for the church of Europe to step up and help by taking in children and families.

“Few people are left untouched by the grief . . . casualties,” Cupich said.

In Chicago, the archdiocese has issued a plea for donations to Catholic Relief Services, which is helping support and resettle refugees in Europe, to meet the pope’s call. Catholic Charities is helping to resettle Syrian refugees in the city.

“As citizens of the world’s most powerful nation, we need to rally together as we do whenever there is crisis,” said Cupich, complaining about the more stringent rhetoric being heard in the immigration debate. But he declined to point fingers at Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump when asked.

“I don’t think it’s just one individual who has used language which is inappropriate. We’ve seen this in the past year or two, where immigrants have been described in very demeaning terms,” Cupich said. “And while that might be a nice sound bite to get for a political constituency, in the long run it’s demeaning to our country to be perceived that way in the world — as though we are heartless to the plight of people who are very desperate.”

Cupich, whom Francis appointed archbishop last September, repeated a mantra he has held since his first press conference: that the U.S. needs immigration reform — and now.

“From the very beginning, I spoke about the need. People are living in shadows. We have for instance, candidates who have been studying for the priesthood in the Archdiocese who don’t have documents, and we cannot allow them to go forward until we get that,” Cupich said Monday. “I have asked that Congress take up immigration reform. I think the votes are there in both the House and Senate. The Senate already has passed a bill. It’s time now for our nation to move forward and pass comprehensive reform.”

He will be traveling to D.C. for several events with the pope — including a luncheon and a canonization mass for Junipero Serra. Francis is expected to travel to New York on Sept. 25, and to Philadelphia on Sept. 26, where the highlight of his visit will be the World Meeting of Families. The faithful will participate in discussions of Catholic doctrine on marriage and family.

Cupich will not attend events in New York or Philadelphia, nor does he expect to receive a private audience with the pope during his visit.

Speaking of the seemingly shifting papal perspective on major church issues, Cupich described Francis as a pope who seeks to spur dialogue and embrace all believers. He noted that Francis recently simplified procedures to allow divorced Catholics to more easily obtain annulments and maintain standing in the church, and he gave bishops the authority to grant absolution for the sin of abortion.

“What we’re seeing with this Holy Father is an approach that really does put people and their circumstances of life first. He wants to make sure . . . that we really accompany people, that we are walking with them through the journey of life,” said Cupich, adding that the pope’s shift in stance will also play out at the October Synod on the Family, where U.S. bishops will discuss doctrine.

“The Holy Father doesn’t want the Synod just to be a meeting. He wants it to be a process, in which the church once again takes up the understanding of itself as a community of faith, of people on pilgrimage, in which we help each other along the way. When we do that, we’re going to encounter people in various stages of their own faith development,” Cupich said.

“What he’s saying is let’s be sensitive to them. Let’s see what their particular needs are,” he said. “Let’s be sure we know the smell of sheep, and that we have the smell of sheep on us as well. So that’s a different approach than saying, ‘These are the rules of the church. These are teachings. And then we’re going to measure you by that standard.’ ”