[On Sunday, Oct. 9, Pope Francis announced a consistory on Nov. 19 for the creation of 17 new cardinals, including 13 under the age of 80 and therefore eligible to vote for the next pope. Crux is offering a series of profiles of the new cardinals.]
When new Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich arrived in that city in the fall of 2014 as one of Pope Francis’s first appointments to head a major U.S. archdiocese, reporters peppered him with the question: “Was Pope Francis sending a message with his appointment?”
Those who know and work with him say his answer then reflects his approach as a bishop, and will continue to guide his ministry as one of the new cardinals announced by Pope Francis Oct. 9 for the consistory to be held on Nov. 19.
In an interview after he arrived in Chicago, Cupich echoed what he had said at his opening press conference: “My reply to that (question) is that I think he sent a pastor. That’s how I look upon myself. I think that’s what my role is.”
And in that role, Cupich has been unafraid to address challenging social and Church issues, drawing on lessons learned from growing up in a large, devout family in Omaha, Nebraska; and from his 41 years of ministry, first as a priest in Omaha, where he was ordained to the priesthood in 1975; and later as a bishop in Rapid City, South Dakota, from 1998-2010; as bishop of Spokane, Washington, from 2010-14; and as Chicago’s archbishop for the past two years.
John Carr, the director of Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, said he thinks Pope Francis was sending a pastor and a message in appointing Cupich to Chicago and now to the College of Cardinals.
“He shares the Holy Father’s mission, message and priorities,” said Carr, who met the future cardinal when they were both seminarians studying at the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Back then, Cupich “had an obsession with Nebraska football,” said Carr of the prelate who is now also rooting for the Chicago Cubs, White Sox, Bears and Blackhawks.
“From the first day I met him, he was smart and informed,” said Carr, who praised Chicago’s new cardinal, whom he said defies labels. “People want to put bishops in boxes. I believe this is a mistake. This is a great pastor, a leader who listens and learns.”
Like Pope Francis, Cupich is known as a man of faith whose life is marked by prayer, action, simplicity, humility and humor. Occasionally wearing red robes apparently won’t change the outlook of Chicago’s archbishop, who told reporters, “I don’t really feel any different. I feel like I’ll be the same person I’ve always been.”
Cupich, who is 67, earned a doctorate in sacramental theology from The Catholic University of America, and he has said that he continues to find inspiration for his life and work by daily reading of the Scriptures.
After becoming Chicago’s archbishop, he decided to live in the rectory at Holy Name Cathedral rather than in the historic residence where his predecessors lived. He told a reporter that chatting with family members and everyday tasks like cooking and grocery shopping kept him grounded, and after being named a cardinal, he joked to the press that his large extended family will continue to keep him in line.
“He’s a humble person, not a person interested in his own position and prestige, but he’s interested in serving the church as a pastor,” said Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, the president of the University of Notre Dame and a longtime friend of Cupich, a fellow native of Omaha. They met when Cupich was a seminarian studying in Rome, and Jenkins was a college student backpacking in Europe one summer with a friend.
Cupich gave Jenkins and his friend a tour of the city of Rome and the Vatican. “He introduced us to cappuccino and gelati,” Jenkins remembered. “That’s him. He’s just kind and generous to everyone.”
The son of Blase and Mary Cupich, Chicago’s new cardinal was born on March 19, 1949 in Omaha and is one of nine children, with five sisters and three brothers.
Chicago’s archbishop once joked about how his father influenced his preaching style. When he was ordained a priest more than 40 years ago, his father “told me not to give long homilies. In fact, he said: ‘If you can’t give your sermon in seven to 10 minutes, send a letter.’ Of course, I accused him of a conflict of interest, for you see, my father worked for the post office.”
Chicago’s archbishop is the grandson of Croatian immigrants, and bears the name Blase just as his grandfather and father did before him. In a 2015 interview with Vatican Radio, Cupich spoke of the roots of his faith and the foundation for his respect for and support of immigrants and the poor.
“My grandparents, when they came, started within a little enclave of Croatians living in a certain part of Omaha to begin a parish,” he said. “Our whole life as children, in our family, revolved around being part of the Church. We would go up to our parish church on Wednesday evenings, and learn folk dances, Croatian Kolo dances, and learn songs. So that is a part of who we were. It gave me, not necessarily a sensitivity only to people who are poor, but the importance of how we’re all one, and we need to work together as a community. That’s probably the greatest contribution that it gave: that we live in solidarity with one another.”
Carr said Cupich’s ministry is marked by that sense of solidarity. In a 2015 speech to the Chicago Federation of Labor, Cupich called for “a consistent ethic of solidarity,” which Carr said builds on the consistent ethic of life promoted by the late Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.
“The Church stands in solidarity with the undocumented,” Cupich told that group. “We stand in solidarity with the poor and homeless. We stand in solidarity with unborn children and their mothers. We stand in solidarity with the unemployed. We stand in solidarity with families and their children and their right to a good education. We stand in solidarity with the elderly and the sick.”
That belief in human dignity and solidarity, Chicago’s archbishop added, is at the heart of the Church’s belief that it should have the religious freedom to carry out its charitable, healthcare and education ministries without the government requiring “us to violate our moral principles.”
Cupich has demonstrated that solidarity in his own ministry, standing up for Native Americans’ rights in South Dakota, for farmworkers in Washington state, and for the poor in Chicago, Carr said, adding, “he is a persistent, principled defender of human life, dignity and solidarity.”
Chicago’s archbishop has been a strong advocate of Pope Francis’s Laudato Sí (“On Care for Our Common Home”) encyclical letter on ecology, and has highlighted efforts in the Archdiocese of Chicago to reduce energy usage and retrofit buildings.
Cupich, who participated in the 2014 and 2015 Synods of bishops that looked at challenges facing today’s married couples and families, has also been a vocal supporter of Pope Francis’s resulting apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, “The Joy of Love,” which offers an opening for some divorced and remarried Catholics to potentially receive the Eucharist.
Asked where he stands on the interpretation of that opening, he said recently that his position was that of Pope Francis, who has indicated that the proper interpretation was given by Vienna cardinal Christoph Schönborn and again by the bishops of Argentina. “So if people want to know what I think, they should refer to those sources,” he said.
In a recent series of columns in The Catholic New World newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago, Cupich noted that Pope Francis is stressing the need for pastoral accompaniment of married couples and families, so they can draw on their own consciences in discerning their participation in the Church.
“The test for discerning whether our consciences are being formed faithfully is whether our experience of God’s mercy defines our relationship with God and with others,” Cupich wrote. “…In the end, forming a good conscience cannot be reduced to simplistic questions of following a law, doing what others expect or feeling good about myself… At the heart of forming one’s conscience is one’s experience of God, whose name, the Holy Father reminds us, is Mercy.”
Meeting people where they are is central to Cupich’s pastoral ministry, said Father Manuel Dorantes, pastor of the Church of the Immaculate Conception on Chicago’s Southwest Side.
Cupich had recently shared a story with priests about how, prior to that archdiocese’s annual Mass for couples celebrating milestone anniversaries, an elderly woman had written to the archbishop, telling him that she and her husband couldn’t attend, because he was ill, and she was at his side in the hospital.
Cupich visited the couple in the hospital, and prayed with them and was with them as they renewed their vows there.
“That’s the sort of guy he is,” said Dorantes, who said Chicago’s archbishop has offered to meet personally with parish families affected by the wave of violence in Chicago’s poor neighborhoods. The pastor said 39 people have been killed so far this year from the Brighton Park neighborhood of Chicago served by his parish and four other Catholic parishes, and all of the shootings are believed to be gang related.
Cupich has written about the innocent victims of gun violence in Chicago and around the country, and has urged legislators to tighten gun control restrictions. He has also called for measures to address the root causes of such violence, including poverty, joblessness and hopelessness among some young people.
He has said the city’s Catholic schools offer hope for a better future to poor children there and deserve community support.
After the shooting spree at an Orlando gay nightclub that left 49 people dead, Cupich wrote a letter to the Archdiocese of Chicago’s gay and lesbian community, saying, “The Archdiocese of Chicago stands with you. I stand with you.”
Dorantes said Cupich has also faced other challenges, such as launching the “Renew My Church” pastoral plan in the face of changing demographics, aging church buildings and fewer priests. The plan may require closing of dozens of parishes in Chicago.
Cupich has said that the collaborative and consultative effort underway among the archdiocese’s lay people and priests will have the goal of renewing parish life there, so people’s hearts and their communities can be transformed in Christ’s love.
For Chicago’s seventh cardinal archbishop, that work is a matter of being true to his promise of being a pastor to his people, Dorantes said.
“People refer to Francis as the pope we needed,” the priest said. “Blase Cupich is the bishop we needed, at this point in Chicago’s history.”