Long before he was named leader of one of America’s most important archdioceses, Blase Cupich scrubbed toilets at a Nebraska Catholic school — an experience that helped shape his Catholic identity.

His father was a mail carrier, but to make extra money, he also was a janitor at Cupich’s Catholic grade school. “My two brothers and I stayed after school and helped him clean the school and the bathrooms and everything else. The same kind of loving experience, the supportive experience, I found at home was also at the parish, so that transferred over into the way I approached the Church,” Cupich said.

Calling it “a second family in many ways,” Cupich recalled his vibrant childhood parish that stood at the center of the family’s life.

“In the summertime when there wasn’t a choir, I would sing solo, as a grade school student, the various responses and parts of the Mass,” he said. “Every Wednesday, my brothers and sisters and cousins and I and others would go to the parish hall — it was a Croatian parish — and learn folk dances.”

Now, just a month away from his installation as leader of Chicago’s 2 million Catholics, Cupich said in an interview with Crux this week that he has two priorities for his first couple of months on the job: “listening to God and listening to people.”

“Nobody is ever prepared to take on a challenge like this fully,” Cupich said, but he sees in Chicago an “an enormous pool of human resources that I can draw from, that I really have not had before.”

He said he has tried “to find an inner peace with this appointment. So prayer has really helped me do that, to find a center and a focus.”

Cupich received what he called the “jarring” news of his appointment in September. He was finishing up a trip to Lviv, Ukraine, where he served as the American delegate to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church’s Synod of Bishops, and decided to break up the 20-plus hour journey back to Spokane, Washington.

“I stopped in Munich and was there overnight,” Cupich said. The papal nuncio to the US “called me that evening. He tracked me down, and that’s how it happened.”

It wasn’t a complete surprise; Cupich’s name was mentioned more than most in the speculation over who would succeed Cardinal Francis George, a fact that didn’t escape those close to the 65-year-old Omaha native.

“People drew that to my attention, of course, in a kidding way,” he said, because “they, like me, thought it was a stretch to think in those terms.”

And the deck did seem stacked against Cupich.

His executive experience, though praised as competent by other bishops, has been in two small dioceses. In 1998, He was made bishop of Rapid City, S.D. where 28,000 Catholics live, and then in Spokane, with 100,000, in 2010.

Chicago is a different beast altogether, with a budget of more than $1 billion, steep financial problems, and a national platform that almost always ends up with a red hat for the archbishop.

Cupich apparently caught the eye of one of Pope Francis’s advisors, Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga. The two spoke at a Washington, DC, conference this summer against economic libertarianism. Cupich quoted the pope heavily, and Francis is reported to have been involved personally in Cupich’s appointment.

The reaction to Cupich’s appointment has been heralded by Catholic progressives as evidence that Pope Francis is serious about putting moderates in positions of power. But Cupich has said the pope isn’t sending a message, but a pastor. And he rejects any attempts to draw him into the culture wars, by either side.

When he first arrived in Spokane, a group of anti-abortion activists criticized him for questioning the efficacy of protests in front of clinics.

“People make these decisions not at clinics, but around kitchen tables,” Cupich told Crux. He said he didn’t prohibit Catholics from protesting, but asked priests if working with groups that focused their efforts only on abortion harmed their ability to be teachers of the church’s complete teaching on life issues.

“We always say that our pro-life message begins with the unborn but doesn’t end there,” he said. “There was a real push and criticism of our approach to be fully comprehensive, by wanting to make the issue of abortion the singular issue, to the point where they criticized our pro-life committee. Some of the local people involved in this group began to criticize us. It had the potential of really creating division.”

When asked about the firings of gay employees from Catholic institutions, Cupich pointed to a 2012 case in Austria in which Cardinal Christoph Schönborn reinstated an openly gay man on the parish council after meeting with him personally.

“What’s really important to keep in mind here is that these are individual cases that have their own variables, he said. In Spokane, according to the personnel policy on the diocese’s website, employees “are expected to respect and support the Catholic character of the Diocese and abstain from any public rejection of the teachings, doctrine, or laws of the Catholic Diocese.”

But, Cupich said, “we look at individual situations because they’re all different. We have to realize that.”

He said he wouldn’t be in favor of a universal policy about gay employees, but said, “We’ve got to represent some unity among the bishops on this. Maybe it’s time for us to have some kind of discussion on these issues in view of what’s happening at the synod.”

During Washington State’s referendum on same-sex marriage, Cupich toed the party line and encouraged Catholics to vote against the measure. But his tone stood out, some said, for its conciliatory message to gays and lesbians.

That sort of bridge-building, Cupich says, comes from working with Cardinal Pio Laghi, the pope’s ambassador to the US, in the 1980s.

“He always invited the opinions of other people,” Cupich said. “He always wanted to make sure that I weighed in, even though I was young and inexperienced. I think that was a good model for somebody who’s a leader in the church.”

He sees this trait, too, in Pope Francis, especially in how he has managed the sometimes-contentious synod on the family, which has pitted cardinals and bishops in a very public, and sometimes pointed, back-and-forth.

Cupich said the pope has invited “people of all ranks and stations and all backgrounds to speak from their heart, to speak about what was on their minds. I think he created a very wonderful, open climate for people to share what’s on their mind.” He said the debate is healthy for the Church.

“If people have a position, they should be willing to defend it. That’s always good. This is the way adults work,” he said. “My Croatian heritage has something to do with the directness of my speech. We never let problems or serious issues bubble beneath the surface that caused an infection in the family life.”

In Rapid City, S.D., where he was bishop for 12 years, Cupich said he was able to “reinvigorate” parishes by “giving people a vision” and then asking for buy-in from everybody in the diocese.

One of his biggest accomplishments during his tenure was converting a former Benedictine monastery into a multi-use space. He marveled that “a diocese of 27,000 Catholics, with one-third of them living on the Indian reservations, raised $17.5 million to renovate the monastery to become a retreat center and also a new grade school.”

Cupich’s profile gained national attention when he was tapped to lead the bishops’ committee charged with protecting children. Today, he said, the Church must remain “vigilant” when it comes to clergy sex abuse.

“I always liked that motto of Cardinal [Amleto Giovanni] Cicognani who was the papal representative for 25 years to the United States,” Cupich said. “His name was Cicognani, and cicogna [in Italian] is a stork. So he had a stork on his crest, but with one leg up. And in the beak was a worm, and the motto was vigilat nec fatiscit, which means ‘Vigilant, but never tiring.’ It was clever, very clever. And I think we have to be vigilant, but never tiring.”

When it comes to immigration reform and other social justice issues, Cupich said “the Church should never be satisfied it’s doing enough if there’s still a social ill out there to be addressed.”

“It would be naïve of us to think that this is the Kingdom of God and we’ve done enough. We can’t nag about these things, we can’t harangue, but we have to make sure that we keep pressing forward and engage people into the truth that we’re trying to shed light on as we speak about these various issues,” he said.

As for the Church’s fight to alleviate social ills — which he said included an array of issues such as immigration, inequality, racism, pornography, drug abuse, white collar crime, abortion, the death penalty, “the kinds of things [that] need the attention of the church and others for changes in our laws that protect life” — he compared it to the life of a pilgrim.

“A pilgrim has one foot on the ground, but one foot in the air. You’re always reaching for something more, and yet you realize there is reality beneath you,” he said. “That would be my approach.”

Cupich said that while he’s “always loved the Church,” this particular moment gives Catholics much to be thankful for.

“It’s an exciting time for the Church, not because I’m going to Chicago, but because of what’s happening with Pope Francis,” he said. “It’s a great time to be alive, I think; it’s a great time to be alive.”