When Bishop Blase Cupich takes the reins of the Archdiocese of Chicago on Nov. 17, he will be vaulted from a relatively quiet spot in northern Washington State into a hub of American Catholicism, where he instantly becomes a leading figure in the American church.
A moderate among Catholic bishops, Cupich (pronounced SOU-pitch) was reportedly tapped after Pope Francis consulted personally with several American bishops, rather than relying solely on recommendations from the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops.
But navigating the tricky waters of leading a polarized church will be just one part of Cupich’s job. He will also lead what is effectively a billion-dollar company that employs more than 15,000 people and serves millions through ministry, social services, and education.
Cupich’s executive experience so far has been in much smaller dioceses. In Spokane, where he is currently bishop, there are 17 Catholic schools and 80 parishes (Chicago has 244 schools and 356 parishes). The budget there, $2.6 million, is a fraction of Chicago’s. Cupich was credited with effectively managing the Diocese of Spokane’s bankruptcy upon his arrival in 2010.
“While he represents an interest and strongly defended the church, nevertheless he didn’t defend inappropriate activity. And he was a tremendous partner in finding resolution of these matters.” said US District Judge Michael Hogan of Oregon who oversaw Spokane’s bankruptcy.
He is currently in the midst of a malpractice suit brought by the diocese against the law firm that represented the diocese before he arrived, charging that the firm did not properly handle settlements with sex abuse victims, putting the diocese at risk for another bankruptcy. With the trial slated to begin in February, Cupich’s predecessor will be left to handle the proceedings.
In Chicago, Cupich also will be responsible for 1,000 employees at Catholic Charities of Chicago, which serves more than 1 million people each year at 162 locations.
Cupich acknowledged the dramatic increase of responsibilities he will face at a press conference this morning in Chicago.
“This is an enormous upgrade, so to speak,” he said.
Learning how the archdiocese functions will take time, Cupich said; a longtime employee of the archdiocese who served under both the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and Cardinal Francis George agrees.
“It’s easier to track decision-making in a medium-sized diocese, to track who decides what. In a place like Chicago, that can get very complicated,” Carol Fowler, the director of personnel for the Archdiocese of Chicago from 1991 to 2012, told Crux. “For a bishop to know all the clergy in a place like Spokane is much easier than it will be in Chicago.”
But the Rev. Jack Wall, a native Chicagoan and head of Catholic Extension, said Cupich’s experience in smaller dioceses is an asset.
“I’m actually convinced that these small- to medium-sized dioceses have much to teach larger dioceses,” said Wall, who for 24 years was pastor of the iconic Old St. Pat’s Church in the city’s West Loop neighborhood. “They really get what Pope Francis has been encouraging all of us to do, to develop a pastoral sense of church.”
Catholic Extension works with poor and often rural mission dioceses in the US, including both Spokane and Rapid City, where Cupich was bishop. Cardinal George placed Cupich on Catholic Extension’s board in 2009, and Cupich will become chancellor of Catholic Extension in his role as archbishop, effectively expanding his reach into the 94 dioceses Catholic Extension works with.
Cupich acknowledged the funding challenges awaiting him in Chicago, but expressed optimism that the needs of the church there would be met.
“I’ve always learned that money follows mission. If you get the mission right, the money will come,” he said.
In 2012, the archdiocese ran a $42 million deficit, and earlier this year, announced it would reduce its workforce by about 75 positions. Like many urban Catholic centers in the United States, Chicago faces challenges in maintaining its Catholic school system, the largest in the nation. Cupich, who is chairman of the National Catholic Education Association, will need to ensure low-income families can afford schools and that teachers are paid competitive wages.
Cupich will oversee six auxiliary bishops in Chicago and nearly 800 priests, 1,676 women religious, and 254 religious brothers. Although there are 18 Catholic hospitals and six Catholic universities in Chicago, the archdiocese does not directly manage any of them. Instead, the archbishop provides advice and keeps tabs on issues related to church doctrine in healthcare and education.
The number of Catholic baptisms and weddings in the Archdiocese of Chicago has fallen each year since 2000, indicators of the pastoral challenges awaiting Cupich.
About half the Catholics living in the Archdiocese of Chicago are Spanish-speaking, and during the press conference, Cupich addressed the media in Spanish. He called on lawmakers to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
“It’s time for political leaders to put aside their own agendas and take up this issue,” he said. “We should move on it today.”
Cupich credited his predecessor, Cardinal Francis George, with pushing the Vatican to adopt a zero-tolerance policy to clergy sex abuse, and called the 77-year-old a “great man.” But, he said, changes may be in store.
“It’s reasonable to expect that there will be different emphases and different approaches,” he said. “That’s reasonable.”