SPOKANE, Wash. — In 2012, as Catholics in Washington weighed a state referendum on same-sex “marriage,” Bishop Blase Cupich affirmed the Catholic Church’s full respect for homosexual persons but also warned against a law that made “same-sex unions identical to traditional marriages.”
“If marriage is only about relationships, why limit unions to two people?” Bishop Cupich asked in an Aug. 14, 2012, column on the Spokane Diocese’s website. “Why does the new law include the traditional prohibition of close, kinship unions for both opposite and same-sex couples?”
The tough questions may have raised the hackles of “marriage equality” activists, but they were framed with conciliatory language: “I only ask the favor of giving a thoughtful and careful reading to what I have written,” Bishop Cupich told his flock.
Now, the Spokane bishop will bring his own brand of public advocacy to Chicago, where he will replace Cardinal Francis George, 77, who has been battling cancer. He will be installed the ninth archbishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago on Nov. 18.
In the weeks ahead, that column on same-sex “marriage,” along with other highlights of his tenure in Spokane, nicknamed the “Lilac City,” will be scrutinized by Catholics and others who hope to understand his plans for the “Windy City.”
Thus far, the appointment has sparked national headlines and social media posts suggesting that Pope Francis wants more “moderate” and “inclusive” Church leaders who eschew hot-button issues like abortion and same-sex “marriage” and reach out to alienated Catholics.
On Sept. 20, questions about Archbishop-designate Cupich’s views on abortion and the Vatican synod on the family surfaced during a Chicago press conference, where Cardinal George introduced his successor to a national audience.
Broad media coverage of the press conference underscored the importance of the Chicago appointment: Both Cardinal George and his predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, served as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Both men also shaped the Church’s engagement with American culture, but opted for starkly different messages.
Cardinal Bernardin once described Catholic moral and social teaching as a “seamless garment,” with pro-life values and economic-justice concerns of equal weight.
Cardinal George, for his part, has warned that the inconvenient truths of the Catholic faith are on a collision course with a deeply secularized culture.
“I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square,” Cardinal George predicted.
Echoes of Pope Francis
Although Archbishop-designate Cupich will not be installed at Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral until next month, during the press conference, reporters pressed him to explain the “message” his appointment conveys to Catholics in the United States.
Pope Francis has sent “a pastor, not a message,” replied the 65-year-old archbishop-designate.
Still, his own words and actions echoed Pope Francis’ humble style of engagement.
“As Pope Francis began his pastoral ministry in Rome, by asking the people to pray for him, so, too, I bow my head in the hope that everyone in Chicago will pray for me in the days ahead,” said Archbishop-designate Cupich.
Shifting into Spanish, he told Hispanic Catholics in Chicago: “I come here as your pastor and brother.”
The press conference featured the two Church leaders’ distinctive styles.
Cardinal George sparred with various reporters who have covered him for 17 years. Archbishop-designate Cupich politely declined to respond to questions about his plans for Chicago and promised to begin by “listening” before making decisions.
Ruefully, he acknowledged that a steep learning curve lay ahead, as he moved from a diocese of 100,000 to an archdiocese of 2.2 million.
While Cardinal George is a native of Chicago, the new archbishop will have much to learn about his adopted city, though he has publicly acknowledged that he is a longtime fan of the Chicago Bears.
Cupich was born and raised in Omaha, Neb., in a large family of nine children of Croatian heritage. Ordained a priest of the Diocese of Omaha in 1975, he holds a doctorate in sacred theology from The Catholic University of America in Washington.
For now, Catholics in Chicago eager for more information about Archbishop-designate Cupich’s character and priorities can learn a great deal from his leadership team back in Spokane.
They describe a bishop who will drive hours to celebrate Mass for farm workers threatened by a wildfire and who lives in a simple apartment at the diocesan seminary, where he shares laundry facilities with the other residents and joins the community for meals and prayer.
But Archbishop-designate Cupich is most celebrated for putting a bankrupt diocese back on solid financial footing and for building an endowment to keep local Catholic schools afloat.
“He helped us achieve financial stability, and he has established a pastoral plan — ‘Joy Made Complete’ — promulgated on Aug. 15, which every parish will implement,” said Father Mike Savelesky, one of the diocese’s two vicar generals.
Father Savelesky reported that the bishop had also founded “the Nazareth Guild, an independent corporation that underwrites the cost of operating the diocese’s 14 schools.”
Rob McCann, the director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Spokane, remembers the grim state of affairs that awaited then-Bishop Cupich when he arrived in 2010 from his previous post as the bishop of Rapid City, S.D.
“The Spokane Diocese had been in a dark time,” said McCann, who recalled the catastrophic aftermath of a clergy-abuse settlement that threatened the foreclosure of 22 parishes.
“We thought it would take a generation to come back from that,” McCann told the Register. “He got the diocese out of debt in four years.”
Bishop Cupich has also initiated a malpractice lawsuit against the firm that represented the diocese in the clergy-abuse lawsuit, alleging that it employed a flawed legal strategy that injured the diocese financially and left it exposed to additional claims.
But if you ask McCann what he will remember about the Church leader who turned around the diocese so quickly, he will point to the bishop’s compassionate response to farm workers displaced in August, during the “worst wildfire in state history.”
On Aug. 26, Bishop Cupich asked the Catholic Charities director to accompany him on a three-hour drive to a camp with thousands of migrant farm workers in the Brewster area of central Washington.
“He said Mass outdoors for 2,200, people — the farm workers and their families. It was bright out when we arrived, and we stayed until it was pitch-black: It meant so much to the people,” said McCann.
“He has an intentional way of being with people one-on-one. I don’t know how he will do that in Chicago, but he will find a way.”
A Host of Challenges
Indeed, there will be a host of challenges in store for Archbishop-designate Cupich in Chicago, McCann agreed, noting that the Catholic Charities’ budget in Spokane, a mostly rural, agricultural economy, is $17 million, while the Chicago Catholic Charities’ budget is $178 million.
The new archbishop must also decide whether he will occupy the same residence on Chicago’s Gold Coast where Cardinal George has lived for his tenure. For now, he is still in his one-bedroom apartment at Bishop White Seminary, at Gonzaga University, where the rector, Father Bob McNeese, has come to appreciate his bishop’s simplicity of life, matched by an extraordinary work ethic.
“He has invited groups of four or five people, including every diocesan priest and some religious, to his apartment” for meals, reported the seminary rector.
“He has done the shopping, prep and serves it up. That tells you a lot about the man.”
The seminary residents are used to the bishop leaving town to fulfill additional duties, including work for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
He chairs the Subcommittee on Aid to the Church in Central and Eastern Europe and recently returned from a visit to Ukraine. He previously served as the chairman of the Committee on Protection of Children and Young People.
But when he is at the seminary — where eight men are in the process of discernment, but only a few are affiliated with the Spokane Diocese — “he is very present,” said Father McNeese.
He has also seen Archbishop-designate Cupich put in a long day of meetings only to drive for hours to console a family who has lost a son in combat.
“That is what Jesus would do. The Pope wants shepherds who won’t get caught up in the pomp and circumstance” of their ecclesial positions, said the seminary rector, recalling Pope Francis’ image of shepherds who have the “smell of their sheep.”
Father McNeese acknowledged the speculation sparked by Archbishop-designate Cupich’s appointment, but he said the man he knows “would be embarrassed to be labeled as a conservative or liberal. He thinks the Church should be inclusive.”
However, some Catholics are already expressing concern about the archbishop’s record on several issues — including his policy of instructing priests not to join prayer vigils and protests at abortion facilities.
“Archbishop Cupich’s past statements and actions with respect to pro-life witness outside abortion clinics are very troubling,” said Katherine Short, the legal director for the Life Legal Defense Foundation, in an email message to the Register.
During the Sept. 20 press conference, the archbishop-designate was asked to explain his views about protests at abortion businesses. He replied that he has “always supported the rights of people to express themselves, particularly with regard to important issues of the day.”
However, while he used the press conference as an opportunity to call for immigration reform, he did not single out any pro-life legislation for support.
In the months and years ahead, U.S. Catholics will learn a great deal more about the priorities of Chicago’s new archbishop. Meanwhile, Archbishop-designate Cupich has dismissed suggestions that his arrival will provide a reprieve from his predecessor.
“I am following a great man,” said Archbishop-designate Cupich, “and I am going to learn from him.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.