CHICAGO – In the weeks leading up to his installation as Chicago’s ninth archbishop, Blase Cupich quipped to reporters that the pope was sending a pastor, not a message, in naming this low-profile church moderate to lead 2.2 million Catholics here.
But over the course of a two-day ceremony at Holy Name Cathedral this week, Cupich offered a message of his own both to Chicago Catholics and his brother bishops: the progressive wing of American Catholicism has a powerful new friend in one of America’s most important dioceses.
In homilies delivered at two services, Cupich quoted Pope Francis and called on the Church to engage the world while being open to change.
There was no mention of abortion, or contraception, or gay marriage. Instead, Cupich spoke of the vulnerable, the poor, the weak, the lost, the forlorn, those who are adrift. He spoke of mercy, joy, and compassion, and dismissed anger, harshness, and fear.
“Simply put, we are to join Christ in seeking out, inviting, and accompanying, by abiding with those to whom he sends us. Each one of those aspects of our mission, seeking out, inviting, and accompanying deserves a closer look,” Cupich said Tuesday during his installation Mass, with dozens of bishops from around the United States and scores of priests from Chicago and beyond looking on.
Cardinal Francis George, who is considered the intellectual leader of conservative Catholic bishops, attended the services, the first Chicago archbishop alive to see his successor. Cupich praised his leadership, and announced that the Eucharistic prayer would include prayers for George as “bishop emeritus,” a tribute to his 17-year legacy.
But Cupich didn’t hold back in wholeheartedly endorsing what might be described as the Pope Francis Agenda, an opening up of the Church to the world rather than defending orthodoxy against perceived threats of secularism.
After the familiar story of Jesus walking on water was read to the congregation, Cupich challenged Church leaders to follow what he described as Jesus’ example, by seeking out, inviting, and accompanying.
Jesus, he said, “comes into our messy lives with his Father in hand, to share our lives where we are.”
“So, we as a Church should not fear leaving the security of familiar shores, the peacefulness of the mountaintop of our self-assuredness and walk into the mess,” he said.
Cupich’s message echoes that of Pope Francis, who is reported to have handpicked the 65-year-old Omaha native, bypassing names sent to him by his ambassador to the United States.
Last summer, Pope Francis told those gathered in Rio for World Youth Day that he wanted “a mess … trouble in the dioceses” and “to see the Church get closer to the people.”
Previously, the pope said priests should “be shepherds with the smell of sheep,” out in the world with the faithful.
On Monday, in an address aimed at the Chicago’s political, civic, and religious leaders, Cupich promised to be a willing partner in confronting the city’s economic challenges and violence.
“Our aim should be to make sure that everyone has a place at the table of life,” he told the 1,100 guests, “the mother needing prenatal and postnatal care and protection for herself and her child, the former inmate seeking a fresh start, the drug addict who needs someone to help her take one day at a time, the father and mother who want their children to have the educational opportunities other families have — this is the vast army God is inviting us to raise up with him.”
Cupich’s homily quoted Pope Francis, and cited many themes voiced by the pope, including a call for comprehensive immigration reform and lamenting “harsh rhetoric and lack of comity and civility,” even among Church leaders.
The next day, during his installation, Cupich ratcheted up the rhetoric, challenging Church leaders not to be fearful of change and to embrace the world.
“We can be self-satisfied where we are,” he said. “Pope Francis tells us that the temptation is to think and say ‘I’m religious enough, I’m Catholic enough,’ or for Church leaders to resist needed reform by claiming ‘we haven’t done that before’ or ‘you cannot say that.’ We all have some anxiety and hesitancy to change.”
He said the Church must overcome its fear, as “Not being afraid is the gift that separates the disciple before and after the resurrection as we see in the responses of Peter and Paul through the readings today.”
Jesus, he said, offers the Church “an invitation to leave behind the comfort of going the familiar way. He is challenging us to recognize that Christ is always inviting us to more, to greater things.”
Cupich previously had served as the American bishops’ point-man on preventing child sex abuse in the Church, and he challenged bishops to keep up the fight.
“Working together to protect children, to bring healing to victim survivors and to rebuild the trust that has been shattered in our communities by our mishandling is our sacred duty, as is holding each other accountable, for that is what we pledge to do,” he said.
Catholic bishops in the United States are wary of appearing fractured on issues, but Cupich did not make appeals for unity. Rather, he laid out a vision of accompaniment that has a champion in Rome, the pope, but that has its detractors here.
Days before his installation, Cupich offered a clue into how he sees the Church under Francis, praising the work of Cardinal Walter Kasper, who has emerged as a voice for reform, as “stunning.”
While progressive Catholics are heartened by Cupich’s appointment, they point out that he is not a liberal in the American sense. Like nearly all American bishops, he is opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage. But he has questioned the Church’s tactics in the public square in these areas, and suggested Tuesday that young people are especially queasy with harsh rhetoric.
“Young people have always been attracted to authenticity of life, where words match deeds. Let’s not be afraid to let our young people know about our life with God and how it began,” he said.
Cupich now commands a national platform and with his first major addresses, appears ready to wield that to advance the pope’s agenda. He leads an archdiocese that historically has been the center of lay renewal movements under progressive archbishops, including Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, whom Cupich praised Tuesday. Whether Cupich can manage a renewal of this spirit, and round up the support necessary among American bishops to effect change, remains an open question.
During a meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore last week, bishops elected delegates for the 2015 synod on the family, where many of the pope’s ideas about how to engage the world in terms of family life will be debated.
Though his name was on the ballot, Cupich was not elected. Bishops chose a more conservative slate to represent the American Church, demonstrating that Cupich may have some work ahead of him in fulfilling high expectations of progressive Catholics. He tried to temper those hopes a bit Tuesday, when he reflected on Jesus walking on water to meet his disciples.
“I realize this new responsibility is going to be demanding, but seriously folks, I don’t do ‘walking on water,’ he said, to laughter. “I can barely swim. So I hope this image in today’s Gospel is not reflective of anyone’s expectations.”