By Michael M. Canaris
Because of his age and the demographics of the American episcopate, Blase Cupich’s appointment as the new archbishop of Chicago will likely be the most prominent stamp Pope Francis makes on the church in the United States during his pontificate.
The appointment was announced Sept. 20 in Washington by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, apostolic nuncio to the United States. Archbishop Cupich, 65, will be installed in Chicago Nov. 18 during a Mass at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago.
Cardinal Francis E. George is 77, two years past the age when bishops are required by canon law to turn in their resignation to the pope. He retains the office of archbishop until his successor’s installation.
Born March 19, 1949, in Omaha, Neb., Archbishop Cupich is one of nine children and the grandson of Croatian immigrants. He was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Omaha in 1975. He was named bishop of Rapid City, S.D., in 1998. In 2010, he was appointed to Spokane. He speaks Spanish and lives at the seminary there.
He served as secretary at the apostolic nunciature in Washington and was pastor of two parishes in Omaha. On the national level, he currently chairs the U.S. bishops’ Subcommittee on Aid to the Church in Central and Eastern Europe and is former chair of the Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People.
I was disconcerted to read some negative reactions to the pope’s appointment for Chicago. I find such characterizations and insults uncharitable to say the least, regardless of the side of the aisle (or nave) on which they originate. But, of course, many others throughout the country, from the National Catholic Educational Association to Springfield’s Bishop Thomas Paprocki to the popular Jesuit writer Father James Martin, offered a contrary position and congratulations to the likely future-Cardinal Cupich. (I say likely “future-cardinal” because with Francis one never can tell. Venice and Torino are no longer automatic red-hats under his watch, so who knows about Chicago.)
As bishop of Spokane, Archbishop Cupich recently gave a well-received speech at The Catholic University of America in which he responded to the keynote address given by Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, a close confidant of Pope Francis. Archbishop Cupich distinguished Francis’ approach to economics and politics as rooted in Catholic social teaching from what he termed “his libertarian critics.”
In his speech, Archbishop Cupich argued that the pope is offering the world a new epistemology, or way of knowing and learning. He said, “Instead of approaching life from the 30,000 feet level of ideas, [Francis] challenges policy makers and elected officials — indeed all of us — to experience the life of everyday real people. His pithy phrase in the Joy of the Gospel says it all: Reality is greater than ideas.” The pope does not discount thinking carefully about issues, of course, but rather argues ‘the realm of pure ideas’ cannot be dissociated from lived realities which “call us to action.”
Especially in the West, Archbishop Cupich claimed, we can become “quite content to quote statistics, sift through and interpret data, categorize populations, all the while remaining indifferent to and unaware of the needs of real people.”
He went on to cite apathy toward immigration reform, disinterest in the plight of Native Americans, and even the intellectual lethargy and materialism of college students as evidence of the challenges facing us when such “indifference” (a crucial word for Francis) sets in. In such instances, “God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.”
Catholic social documents such as Rerum Novarum repudiate such indifference and the atomization of society solely by markets, if such industrialism and consumerism come at the price of “deform[ing] the richness of our humanity.”
Archbishop Cupich closed his speech by giving broad sketches of how he summarizes the last three pontificates. John Paul II told us what we should do, he said. Benedict XVI told us why we should do it. Francis is telling us — “Do it.”
If in fact Archbishop Cupich represents the most important “face” Francis puts on the church in the United States as pope, many eyes will be on him in the coming months and years to see if he lives up to the bar so famously set by the pope for pastors to have “the smell of their sheep.”
Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., Pontifical University of St. Thomas (Angelicum), Rome.