CHICAGO — The implications of the Vatican’s appointment of three new auxiliary bishops for Los Angeles, the nation’s largest archdiocese, will be felt strongly here in Chicago.
Two priests from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles — Monsignor Joseph V. Brennan and Monsignor David G. O’Connell — will assist Archbishop Jose Gomez in running the nearly 5 million-member archdiocese.
Joining them is the Rev. Robert Barron, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago known widely for his evangelization work through his film and television ministry, Word on Fire.
Through YouTube videos viewed millions of times and a series shown on several PBS stations called Catholicism, Barron has offered a Catholic perspective on Hollywood, popular culture, theology, philosophy, and everything in between.
Since 2012, Barron has also been the head of Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary. His departure from the prestigious seminary, which trains priests from dioceses throughout the Midwest, has opened perhaps the most consequential post for the 65-year-old Cupich to create “Pope Francis priests” for an archdiocese currently being led by the pope’s only personal pick in the United States, as well as the 33 other dioceses that send their men there to be trained. More than 200 seminarians are currently enrolled at Mundelein, making it the largest Catholic seminary in the United States.
It’s also another opportunity for Cupich, installed last November, to put his mark on the leadership team for the archdiocese, a process that kicked into high gear earlier this year.
About 50 archdiocesan employees took an early retirement package in the spring, a process launched by Cupich’s predecessor, Cardinal Francis George, and in April, the archdiocese announced the appointment of several new top administrators whose responsibilities range from helping Cupich manage a nearly billion-dollar budget to leading ethnic ministries across the 2.3 million-member Church.
Among those appointments was Betsy Bohlen, a former partner at the consulting giant McKinsey, as the archdiocese’s chief operating officer, a newly created position. Bohlen, who had done pro bono work for the archdiocese under George, said earlier this month that getting the archdiocese’s finances in shape was her top priority.
“We’re obviously not a business, but we face many business-like strategic challenges,” Bohlen told Crain’s. “Overall, it’s about trying to improve the business operations of the Church to better serve the mission of the Church.”
The Rev. Stephen Kanonik was named moderator of the curia, overseeing the non-financial components of the archdiocese and the Rev. Clete Kiley, originally announced as the moderator of the curia in April, will assist Cupich with what he called “civic engagement” projects, getting Chicago Catholics more involved “with the broader community” on issues such as gun violence and the environment. Kiley, who had previously been based in Washington, DC, will continue working on immigration policy for the labor union Unite Here in addition to his new role with the archdiocese.
In addition to Bohlen and Kanonik, Cupich has named a dozen others to top leadership posts, including the leader of an office to work with Spanish-speaking congregations, as well as ministries for Native American, African-American, and Asian Catholics.
Barron was a protege of the late George, whom he called his “mentor” during a press conference in Los Angeles Tuesday. Barron said George taught him about “evangelizing the culture” and presenting Catholicism to “politics, law, the arts, higher education, and entertainment,” saying he couldn’t think of a better place for this work than Los Angeles, which he called “one of the great cultural capitals of the world.”
Cupich, whose appointment to Chicago was a personal selection of Pope Francis, released a statement on Barron’s appointment: “Fr. Barron has been a singular blessing to our local Church and is recognized nationally for his great abilities and talents. We know that he will continue to make us proud as he begins his new ministry on the West Coast,” he said.
Barron also issued a statement assuring Word on Fire fans that the work “will certainly continue,” although it’s unclear what role he will play.
During the press conference in Los Angeles, Barron responded to a question from a reporter about engaging Hollywood by saying he believes in promoting “affirmative orthodoxy,” an idea attributed to Pope Benedict XVI. The theory goes that the best way to evangelize is by holding strong to orthodox beliefs even in the face of what some view as a hostile culture, and attempting to engage that culture.
Barron is often described as center-right, perhaps putting him at odds ideologically with the center-left Cupich. In fact, absent from Barron’s statement and from his comments at the press conference in Los Angeles were any acknowledgement of Cupich.
As rector of Mundelein, Barron reworked the curriculum to focus on the New Evangelization, an idea promulgated by Pope John Paul II and institutionalized at the Vatican in 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI aimed at engaging contemporary culture with the Catholic faith.
Whether Cupich’s choice to replace Barron changes the focus of that curriculum — and in what direction — will be closely scrutinized by Church-watchers.