CHICAGO — During a ceremony rich with ritual and symbolism, the next archbishop of Chicago was welcomed to his new assignment Monday night as a prelude to his formal installation as head of the nation’s third-largest Catholic community today.
And Blase Cupich, named by Pope Francis to replace ailing Cardinal Francis George, wasted no time in outlining his priorities: the poor, the disadvantaged, immigrants. And he called for more civility in public discourse — including among Church leaders.
Although temperatures plunged to the low teens Monday night, keeping many Chicagoans indoors, there was a decidedly warm atmosphere inside Holy Name Cathedral to greet Cupich.
As part of the Rite of Reception ceremony, Cupich used a small mallet to knock on the cathedral’s bronze doors three times — symbolic of his request to be admitted — where he was met by George, the first outgoing archbishop in the city’s history to live to see his successor.
Cupich was presented with a crucifix and holy water, and in front of a crowd that included the city’s mayor, representatives from several religious traditions, and scores of bishops and priests, the two bishops walked to the altar to the music “All Are Welcome” as the crowd broke into sustained applause.
Representatives of Chicago’s diverse religious scene, as well as political and community leaders, greeted Cupich in the sanctuary, adorned with bouquets of red, orange, and yellow roses, before two Chicago priests presented him with the archdiocesan stole.
During a 25-minute homily, evocative at times of a political stump speech, Cupich laid out his vision for his tenure.
“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.”
He greeted his family, including eight brothers and sisters, and thanked George, “a native son of Chicago, who has distinguished himself both here and abroad.” The 77-year-old George retires amidst a third battle with cancer.
Cupich used an excerpt from Eziekel, read during the “Liturgy of the Word with the Rite of Reception of the Archbishop,” to guide his homily, focusing on the “dry bones” described by the Hebrew prophet.
“While the circumstances may be different, this kind of dryness is present in our modern times,” he said, “a dryness that eats away at our hopes and leaves us disoriented.”
He described the “dryness” of the elderly, the homeless, the underemployed, as well as the “hectic pace of the successful business owner whose long hours in the office leave little time for family meals and sharing, for rest and recreation.”
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.
He praised partnerships among political, civic, business, and religious entities, saying, “You will find in me a ready partner, but also one who believes that this work is not inconsequential, is not an option, because again, it, too, is on God’s agenda.”
Cupich will be formally installed during a ceremony Tuesday, when George hands him a bishop’s staff and relinquishes the bishop’s chair.
When he takes helm of the 2.2 million-member archdiocese, Cupich will inherit a managerial task far larger than his previous posts in Spokane, Washington, and Rapid City, South Dakota.
Supporters say his leadership in Spokane, including overseeing a bankruptcy caused by settlements with victims of clergy sexual abuse, prepares him to lead what is effectively a billion-dollar company that employs more than 15,000 people and serves millions through ministry, social services, and education.
“This is an enormous upgrade, so to speak,” Cupich said in a September press conference when his appointment was announced.
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.
In an interview with Crux last month, Cupich said that while the challenges in Chicago are immense, he looks forward to the resources available in a large archdiocese.
“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.”
Cupich’s appointment has been praised by liberal Catholics, who see an ally in the 65-year-old Omaha native. For his part, Cupich has said repeatedly that the pope was sending a pastor, not a message. But he consistently brings up social justice issues in interviews and public addresses — including in Monday’s homily — more often than his stated opposition to abortion or same-sex marriage.
When it comes to immigration reform and other social justice issues, Cupich told Crux “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.
In another interview last week, he told Crux that he plans to celebrate daily Mass at the cathedral as often as his schedule permits, and he said his decision to live in the cathedral rectory rather than the archbishop’s residence “was motivated by my own need to have an active faith community, a parish community, on a daily basis.”
The downtown location, he said, will allow him “to be involved in the life of the city,” plus, he said, smiling, “I’m two minutes from the office. I know that I’m going to have to pay attention to what’s happening in the various offices of the archdiocese, and this makes it a lot easier.”
Plus, with just under half Chicago’s Catholics being Hispanic, Cupich said living alongside a group of Mexican nuns at the rectory will help him fine-tune his Spanish.
At Monday’s prayer service, Cupich said the experience of being named by Pope Francis to lead Chicago was “quite humbling” and that he plans “to offer servant leadership” to Chicago Catholics.
He praised Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, George’s predecessor and a favorite of progressive Catholics who coined a theology called the “seamless garment of life,” in an attempt to broaden the Church’s “pro-life” agenda. Cupich seemed to echo that sentiment when he spoke about the need to provide hope to young people who have “no sustaining hope” and “turn to a destructive world of drugs, gangs, and lethal violence.”
Both George and Bernardin were elevated to cardinals and elected presidents of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, demonstrating the power of the Chicago archdiocese.
Both could be in Cupich’s future, but for now, Cupich said he’ll focus on forming “new friendships” with other Chicago leaders, “because I recognize the enormous opportunity and promise that God is putting before us as we use our connections to help the disconnected.”