In November 2014, Blase Cupich succeeded Cardinal Francis George to become the ninth archbishop of Chicago—the nation’s third-largest diocese. It was Pope Francis’s first major episcopal appointment in the United States. Cupich had previously been the bishop of two much smaller dioceses: Spokane, Washington, and Rapid City, South Dakota. In 1975, he was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska, where he was pastor of two parishes before being made bishop of Rapid City in 1998.* Archbishop Cupich has served on several committees, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Ad Hoc Committee on Scripture Translation, as well as the Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People, which he chaired from 2008 to 2011. In December, Grant Gallicho spoke with the archbishop in Chicago. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


GRANT GALLICHO: It has been about a month since you became archbishop of Chicago. What has surprised you most since you arrived?

BLASE CUPICH: I’m not easily surprised. A pleasant surprise has been the consistently high quality of the presbyterate here. There is a unique character to Chicago priests. They have been the resource for a lot of national movements, organizations—such as Catholic Extension [a charitable organization that invests in poor mission parishes], which I’m the chancellor of. That is a heritage that continues today, and it has not been diminished in any way by the diversity of the presbyterate, a diversity that has grown. I was recently at the shrine for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Hispanic priests who were part of that celebration are well loved, high quality, very pastoral. I visited a Hispanic parish, a Polish parish, and an African-American parish, and again I saw the high quality of the priests. Sometimes in presbyterates, there’s a spottiness to the pastoral ministry. Not here.

GG: One of the first questions you were asked after it was announced that you would become archbishop was, “What is your agenda?” Your response was that you wanted to listen to the needs of Chicago Catholics. What have you been hearing?

BC: People are responding to this opportunity of transition with excitement about things that can be done. But that excitement is not just about the transition here in Chicago, but about what Pope Francis is doing. I’m moving along on the crest of the wave that he has created. That’s to my advantage, because there is a new enthusiasm, an awareness of what it means to be church. The fact that the media has tied my wagon to his horse has been very helpful because there is a way in which the Holy Father is opening us to look at how the church can be of service to the world. That’s something I’ve always believed. People ask me whether I like what the pope is saying. I say, “Yeah, but I’ve been saying this for forty years as a priest.” The real enthusiasm that people have for the life of the church and for the moment of transition in this archdiocese is tied in many ways to what the pope is doing.

GG: These are leaner times for the Catholic Church in the United States. The Archdiocese of New York is in the middle of another painful round of parish closings. Closer to home, your predecessor Cardinal Francis George recently closed several Catholic schools. A December Chicago magazine article surveyed local Catholics and found fewer of them attending Mass than ever before. Of course the church is about more than just keeping up numbers. But is there anything that can be done—is there anything a bishop can do—to reverse this trend? Or is the church just managing decline?

BC: First of all, whether it’s in New York or here, there are demographic changes that we can’t ignore. It’s a complex scene. We have various areas within the Archdiocese of Chicago where birthrates are down, where people have moved out, and those neighborhoods have changed dramatically. Another part of it is that a lot of people have been impacted either by the sexual-abuse scandal or by the erosion of their spiritual life by secularism. But it’s also tied to a growing trend of people not wanting to identify with communities or organizations. Volunteerism is down. That cultural shift is part of the equation of declining church attendance.

There are, however, some targeted things we can do. For instance, I think people will take notice that we are being good stewards when we are not afraid to make hard decisions about reconfiguring parishes and schools so that we use limited resources in a way that’s going to benefit the most people. Good stewardship is very important. We shouldn’t be afraid to make the hard decisions because people like good stewardship.

The other piece of this is finding ways to bind up the wounds of people, to reach out to those who have been alienated from the church for one reason or another—and be very programmatic about finding ways to invite them back. When it comes to young people, we should challenge the tendency in society to want to go it alone. I think of the scene in Robert Bellah’s book Habits of the Heart in which a woman called Sheila is asked about her own system of beliefs, and she calls it “Sheilaism.” We can challenge that. The way to do it is not by saying, “You’re not going to Mass and so there’s a problem.” Rather, we can say, “We have an opportunity to better society and to better the common good. We work for the poor. Come and work for the poor with us.”

Pope Francis recently met with the Pope St. John XXIII Community, which was created in the 1960s to address the problem of young people who were alienated from the church. What this group did was to say to them, “We’re not going to bug you about church attendance. But here are the poor. Let’s work for those who are disabled.” This has been a public association of the faithful for almost fifty years. Pope Francis celebrated their work. So there are many ways we can do it.

What the pope is about—and what we have to be about—is not a culture of confrontation, but a culture of encounter. That’s what took place with regard to the decision to renew diplomatic relations with Cuba. My father always said that you can find something wrong with anybody. But that doesn’t get you anywhere. You’ve got to encourage the good that’s there.

GG: The first Sunday Mass you celebrated following your installation was at St. Agatha, a parish that has been wounded by revelations about the now-laicized abuser Daniel McCormack. In the homily of your installation Mass, you spoke about the need to rebuild trust broken by bishops who have mishandled abuse cases. You said that holding bishops accountable is a “sacred duty.” Every time I return to Chicago, my hometown, I’m struck by how shaken local Catholics remain over the McCormack case. According to that Chicago magazine survey, the issue local Catholics are most concerned about is sexual abuse. But when it comes to accountability for bishops, a lot of people still wonder: Where is that happening, or how might that happen?

BC: I know that this is a very important topic that is going to be decided soon by the Holy See and the pope’s sexual-abuse commission, headed by Cardinal Seán O’Malley. In November, the cardinal gave an interview on 60 Minutes and indicated that this has to be part of the equation. It is part of our good stewardship in terms of governance. There has to be a way in which we are held accountable. We’re held accountable for financial mismanagement, for personal morals, but we also have to be held accountable when it comes to protecting the vulnerable under our care. So I’m fully supportive of what Cardinal O’Malley said on 60 Minutes.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops did, however, in 2002, pass a resolution about our commitment to mutual accountability. There has to be some mechanism by which the Holy See triggers that too. It’s not just our part, but the universal church has to deal with this.

Let me say something too about folks who are really shaken, as you said. It is a healthy sign that they’re shaken. We should be shaken. We should not diminish or dismiss it as unimportant. That should say something to us. There’s a healthy sensitivity about what’s right and wrong. Maybe there was a past era in which people would say, “Well, you know, kids will bounce back” or “It really doesn’t harm them.” But there is maturity—a spiritual maturity—and a social awareness people come to that allows them to be shaken. And that’s good. We should tell people, “You should be shaken by this.” We all should be shaken by this—so that this never happens again.

GG: Another theme of your installation Mass homily was the plight of the immigrant. Why is there such persistent political and cultural gridlock on this issue? What is the church’s role in helping the country break free of that?

BC: Some people are afraid of being overrun because our borders do not seem to be secure. In this era of terrorism, that is a concern that people have. We do have to be a country that abides by its laws and secures its borders. Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles wrote a beautiful book called Immigration and the Next America, in which he was very sympathetic to that. Yet at the same time a lot of people are ignoring the fact that the folks who have come here have been invited here—maybe not overtly, but in terms of creating a whole system of labor that no one else wants to do.

I lived in eastern Washington the past four years, and I can tell you the growers would not be able to continue their business without people who come here—even without documentation—to pick the vegetables and the fruit. We’re not talking about people who just want to come in and violate our laws. We have invited them by creating this market for employment, and we have to own that. So how do you address all those concerns, including the aspirations of people, which God has given to them, to better their family life?

The other part of the problem is that some immigrants have experienced violence in their countries. And why? Because of gangs. And why gangs? Because of drugs. Who’s giving them the money for the drugs and the guns? We are. I’m really surprised that religious and civil leaders have not spoken more strongly to condemn recreational drug users who are in fact funding the violence that people who come to this country are trying to escape. That’s a story that has not been told. We have a responsibility to raise our voices about that.

GG: As you mentioned, the pope speaks often about the need to foster a culture of encounter and accompaniment. This seems key to his idea of church—a church that goes out of itself and should not fear the discomfort that entails. How is that approach changing the temperament of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops?

BC: Institutions are constitutionally prone to protecting themselves, and being conservative in that sense. There are any number of forces in our society today that erode institutional life. We can’t be naïve about that. There are those who would like to truncate the freedom of religion—especially of the Catholic Church, given its footprint in society. At the same time, we can’t let that drive our agenda. That’s what the business of “Be not afraid,” which John Paul II said, is about. We have to be mission-oriented.

In the readings for the Feast of the Assumption, Mary goes off to the hill country to visit Elizabeth, and the image that one comes away with is that this dragon—mentioned in the first reading from Revelation—is chasing Mary. But Mary is not directed by the dragon’s pursuit. In the Gospel we hear that she is directed by her desire to help Elizabeth. The church has to use that image of itself. The trajectory of our pilgrimage is not going to be determined by an escape from forces that are out to harm us. It has to be a trajectory that is determined by helping people. That’s why the pope said we can’t be a self-referential church.

GG: The ethic of accompaniment seems to have guided the pope’s design of the recent Extraordinary Synod on the Family. Some bishops expressed some confusion about that meeting—whether it was over the media’s coverage of the synod, or what actually took place.

BC: The media is not to blame at all. I think the media reported what actually took place. What really took place at the synod was that a majority of the bishops voted for all the proposals that were there in the final summary document. And I think Cardinal Timothy Dolan said that at the November bishops meeting. It’s true that three of the paragraphs [about divorce and gay people] did not get two-thirds majority support, but they got more than a majority. That’s what’s new. That’s the story. Those hot-button topics had been highlighted, and the majority of synod bishops voted for proposals that said we need to consider aspects of these issues.

The pope has a firm belief that the spirit of the risen Lord is working in our midst and is alive in the hearts of people—and we cannot squelch that voice. We have to look for ways to listen to how the Lord is working in the lives of people. That’s why the pope said to the synod fathers, “Don’t come to the synod and say ‘You can’t say that’”—because it may be the spirit of Christ who is calling us to say these things. And we have to listen to that.

GG: The Vatican has developed another document for the world’s bishops in advance of next October’s synod, asking them for more input from the people in the pews. How do you intend to implement that here in Chicago?

BC: I have met with my archdiocesan women’s council, the presbyteral council leadership, and my archdiocesan pastoral council. I gave them the relatio of the synod [the summary document] and asked them to propose a way in which there can be an effective—not necessarily widespread—consultation with their various constituencies, so that I can be informed, and our priests can be informed to speak articulately to our people. That will help me respond to the Holy See. It will also help me while talking with my brother bishops about this, since we are probably going to address this at our June meeting.

What I did last year in Spokane I want to do here too. We’re going to have a day-long presentation for priests on two things: First, what are the canonical issues here? A good canonist will tell you that there are multiple ways in which we can be sensitive to our people’s needs. Second, we have to unpack this notion of the theology of the family. Cardinal Walter Kasper gave a talk about this to the cardinals last year, which has been published as a book called The Gospel of the Family. In Spokane, I gave all my priests a copy. Then I brought in a priest who knows Cardinal Kasper’s theology quite well, Msgr. John Strynkowski, and he helped them understand what Kasper is saying.

I think people are making a mistake about Cardinal Kasper’s book. They’re only looking at the fifth chapter [which proposes that some divorced and remarried Catholics might be readmitted to Communion]. He has four other chapters about the theology of the family and marriage that are immensely rich, and that we have to attend to. It’s only then that you can begin to look at his proposals, which are pretty narrow in terms of their possible application.

GG: The synod deliberations also raised underlying theological questions about doctrine. What do you think the synod process itself says about the nature of church teaching?

BC: Ours is a living tradition. It always has been. There is no moment in time that can be so idealized that it undermines the idea that the tradition is a living one. It is a living tradition not because of anything we say, but because the risen Christ is always doing something new in the life of the church. In Pope Francis’s Evangelii gaudium, there is a whole section in which he talks about the idea that Christ is always doing something new in the lives of his people as he accompanies them.

I taught liturgical theology for a number of years, and the point that I made early on to my students was: Imagine what it took for the early church to change the way it celebrated the Eucharist. This is evident in the Pauline and Lucan narratives. At the beginning, there was a blessing cup, then came the breaking of the bread. Then they had the full meal, and then the second cup. And all of a sudden—we see this in Corinthians—they decided that the meal portion had to come out because it was a source of division within the community. So they collapsed the breaking of the bread and the blessing of the cup, without the meal. Just think of the imagination it took, and the change that had to take place spiritually and culturally, for them to remove the Eucharist from that meal setting. That shows you there is a living tradition here.

It’s the same thing with regard to moving from Greek to Latin. That was a big shift. Greek was a sacred language. Then you have this vulgar Latin—that’s why we call it the Vulgate. Take, for another example, the circumcision issue. So it is a living tradition, but what that reveals isn’t so much about the ideas we come up with. It’s about how we’re sensitive to the spirit of the risen Christ moving in our midst, creating something new in the life of the church. That’s the humility that we’re called to—and that’s the conversion we’re called to.

The pope has said that this is a moment in which we are all called to conversion. That’s also true for the leaders of the church. Are we so tied to and comforted by a particular way in which we’ve operated that we have grown immune to the grace of Christ’s newness? That’s a very important question for us. What kind of conversion do we have to have in our lives as leaders in this moment?

GG: The pope will visit Philadelphia in September for the conclusion of the World Day of Families. What do you expect to see, given American Catholics’ vastly different views on some of Francis’s signature issues, such as immigration and economic justice?

BC: Maybe there are voices who don’t agree with the pope on Cuba, on immigration, on the way he reads the economy. But if you talk with the people in the pews and others, their opinion of him is overwhelmingly positive. There is pushback from different sectors. I see some Catholics who are even criticizing the move to reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba. They’re not overtly criticizing the pope for his involvement in this. But the pope’s fingerprints are all over this. It’s clear that he was instrumental in making it happen. If a poll were done today, it would show that the vast majority of Catholics are euphoric over this Holy Father. So I think his visit will be a great moment for the Catholic Church in this country.

* The original verson of this sentence erroneously referred to the Archdiocese of Omaha as a diocese. It was established as an archdiocese in 1945.


For more interviews from Commonweal, see our full list.

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.