Posted on Thu, Feb 5, 2015:

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FEBRUARY 4, 2015

In preparing my remarks today, I was advised to start by noting that I recently learned that the name of our city comes from a Native American word that means land of smelly onions. The point in doing so would be to then use the onion as a metaphor to speak about Chicago as a city made up of many layers, ever revealing its complexity, with the outmost layers of the lakefront and the far suburbs, tapering off into prairie and farmland; a city that is always reinventing itself by shedding its skin, continually looking different than before. The problem is that I couldn’t quite figure out what to do with the smelly part of that metaphor!

And so, while I am grateful for the advice, and believe me, I have received lots of advice since coming here, I have decided to go in another direction.

Where I want to begin today is with a question many have asked me since arriving last November. What do you think of Chicago? What is your impression of Chicago?

That is a great question, because Chicago is an impressive city in the sense that it leaves its mark on people, it evokes a response, taps into the deepest aspirations of people, and draws out qualities which otherwise are hidden or overlooked.

Three such impressions come to mind as I reflect on my first weeks in Chicago, each revealing qualities that can be useful as we as leaders in this community join together to address some current challenges, a prospect I very much welcome.

1. First, Chicago is a city of many languages, where people use different words, but when they use the word for home in whatever language, they all mean Chicago. I like living downtown and walking through the streets. Even going the short distance from Holy Name Cathedral to the Quigley Pastoral Center, I hear no fewer than three or four languages. I also know that Mass in the Archdiocese is celebrated every weekend in 25 different languages. Yet, as I meet people of different languages, whether in our churches or as pedestrians on our streets, it is clear to me that no one seems to be a foreigner. In fact, these strangers are very much at home here. But isn’t that what it truly means to be an international city? A place where strangers and newcomers feel at home?

There is ample evidence that the diversity which immigration brings has enriched our city, not to mention this country. From its earliest days Chicago has drawn immigrants and refugees here because this is a city that readily gives the impression that it welcomes newcomers to call Chicago home, and that it honors people who take the risk of starting out fresh. Their aspirations have always been the same as all of us, to find a better life, to care for their family, to leave behind poverty, violence, and oppression.

It seems to me that we should take pride that this city leaves such an impression on people, especially the newcomers. It is a quality that should encourage us to embrace comprehensive immigration reform that invites people to come out of the shadows and take their rightful place in our economy and our city, and make Chicago their home. Together, we can make this happen. We all have an important part in making this happen.


2. Chicago is also a city that impresses the imagination, a city that inspires and does so in its own unique way. Ours is not a town of delicate and dainty refinement, but rather one that has the finesse and subtlety of common sense. Or to paraphrase Carl Sandburg: We may have dust over our mouth, but we’re laughing with white teeth, as a fighter laughs who has never lost a battle. The sculptures that decorate our plazas, the distinctive architecture that pierces through the heavens, the music and performing arts that ennoble us and our athletic teams that at times beguile if not enrage us, leave an impression which uniquely inspires the imagination to look at the ordinary, the commonplace—even the mundane—with fresh eyes, alerting that something deeper is part of reality. It is the kind of inspiration that moved Joe Torre this past week to pen these words about Ernie Banks:


“If his physical talents caught your eye, then it was his jubilant approach toward life that caught your heart … (He) was living proof that you do not have to wear a championship ring on your finger in order to be a champion of life.”

Torre recalled that quality of Mr. Cub to urge us to live our lives in a way that inspires especially our youth. Young people need that kind of motivation and encouragement to excel, which comes by engaging their imagination about all the possibilities open to them in the ordinary, not the spectacular, whether that be in their schools or in their families; inspiring them to be open to the enrichment in the everyday, to take a jubilant approach to life. Kids are in trouble today, are at risk in many ways, but above all because too many have no hope about their future. They resort too often to joining gangs or becoming immersed in violence. We adults could provide a great service to kids if all of us would be more intentional about making decisions that inspire their imaginations: inspire them about the value of education, to the point that they and their families would be given more choices about the schools they attend; inspire them about the long-term benefits of making a commitment and working hard; inspire them especially in this world of hyper-celebrity and competition to organize their lives around the truth that you do not have to wear a championship ring on your finger in order to be a champion of life. Our city’s unique quality to inspire the imagination should challenge all of us who have a leadership role in society—parent, teacher, elected official, business executive, clergy, and labor leader—to make decisions that intentionally inspire the imagination of our youth, that have the power to leave an impression that the extraordinary is most often experienced in the ordinary. This city of the extraordinary ordinary has the quality to take up that challenge. Together, we can make this happen. We all have an important part in making this happen.

Again, Carl Sandburg:

Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.


3. Finally, we are a city not constrained by its natural topography, but one that is continually changing, rising above its limitations, building on creation. Nature may have made us flatlanders, but as newcomers have quickly learned, that has not held us back from giving our city altitude and, I should add, a certain attitude. It has been pointed out by others that creation in the Bible begins in a garden but reaches fulfillment in the building of a city where God dwells. They are many today who have little hope or chance of rising above the flatland, the ground floor of human existence. We know the inequality in society, the impact of racism that has left people poor over generations, and the plain truth that some children of God are born with limitations or lack the gifts and the opportunities we take for granted. Just as we have been able to change the topography of this city with our towering skyscrapers, can we not also build up those who are limited by nature or history, and work together to build a city where we can claim God would want to dwell? Together, we can make this happen. We all have an important part in making this happen.

So in answer to the question, “What are your impressions about Chicago?” I would have to say I am impressed that it is city of many languages, where people use different words, but when they speak about home they mean Chicago, and that leaves me encouraged to work with all of you who hold leadership responsibilities to make sure that other newcomers continue to be so impressed and quickly come to feel at home here.

I am also impressed that this is a city that inspires the imagination to appreciate the extraordinary in the ordinary to the point that it should move us to work together to encourage our youth to stand against gangs, to reject violence, to realize their gifts in making a contribution to our community. Then they can “lift their heads, singing so proud to be alive, in the course, the strong and cunning of life.”

And it is a city that is not held back to overcome its natural limitations, but has both the altitude and the attitude unafraid to build up the true city, not its buildings but its people, humbly admitting that but for the grace of God we are all flatlanders.

In the measure my impressions are also your convictions, I look forward in the years to come to a collaboration of government and business and labor and religious institutions to make a great city even greater. I do so realizing that I follow in the footsteps of great leaders, like my immediate predecessor Cardinal George, for whom I ask your prayers. I am also aware that I have been appointed the head of a historic faith community that also happens to be one of the city’s largest employers, educators, health-care and social-service providers. It is humbling to know that a relatively small percentage of the lives the Archdiocese of Chicago touches every year is Catholic, a fact which impresses upon me the obligation I have to be a willing and eager partner with you in the mainstream of this city’s enterprises.

While I am grateful for the advice I received about how to begin this talk, I am glad I passed it up, for it is easy to see that this city is much more than a land of smelly onions, and besides, I would much rather be known as the Archbishop of Chicago. Thank you.

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