Chicago Tribune 11/18/16
Not long after Blase Cupich was brought in to lead the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago two years ago, he summoned more than 500 priests to a banquet hall in Oakbrook Terrace for a mandatory meeting.
There, using iPads and a PowerPoint presentation on multiple screens, Cupich delivered a harrowing truth: In the next 15 years, priests would retire in large numbers, with a dwindling number of young pastors available to take their places. To renew the Chicago church, parishes and schools would need to merge or close — a consolidation that no doubt would be emotional for the city's 2.2 million Catholics.
Never before had priests been asked to help their boss map the future of the archdiocese, said the Rev. Don Nevins, pastor of St. Agnes of Bohemia in the Little Village neighborhood.
"He wants us to look and plan rather than to be forced to make a decision," he said. "He's really challenged our thinking."
In two years on the job, Cupich has made an impact on the city's Catholic population and community at large. Considered a pastoral leader like Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, and less authoritarian than his predecessor, Cardinal Francis George, observers say Cupich combines a CEO's acumen, political savvy and an approachable demeanor to manage a byzantine archdiocese and to raise unprecedented sums for Catholic schools.
On Saturday, his influence on the Catholic church will grow beyond Chicago, when Cupich, 67, is elevated to the rank of cardinal, the Catholic hierarchy's most prestigious title next to the papacy. Along with two other American bishops and more than a dozen others from around the world, he will receive his red hat from Pope Francis in Rome at the Basilica of St. Peter. The elevation means Cupich will have a vote in future papal elections, while also continuing his role as Chicago's archbishop, overseeing 346 churches and 217 schools.
In that role, Cupich has immersed himself in the community — dining in downtown restaurants, posing for selfies on the sidewalk, slapping high-fives with fans at Cubs games, and speaking out about the city's violence and gun laws.
At the same time, he has launched a multiyear initiative to revitalize the church that includes closing and merging a number of parishes by 2030. Pastoral metrics, such as whether community members support one another in prayer and worship, engage the millennial generation and fulfill the church's and Pope Francis' call to evangelize, will determine which parishes survive.
Cupich has raised the eyebrows of some conservative Catholics for being out front on issues of gun violence and poverty, yet not as outspoken on the issue of abortion. He also has unsettled some traditionalists by expressing a desire to open doors for gay and divorced Catholics to receive Communion.
There to witness Cupich's elevation to cardinal in Rome will be about 200 pilgrims traveling with the Chicago-based Catholic Extension, a national organization dedicated to strengthening poor dioceses in the U.S. Mayor Rahm Emanuel is leading a delegation of about 80 politicians and business leaders.
"Obviously, I'm not Catholic, but in Chicago, the head of the Catholic Church speaks to many faiths and many people, not just Catholics," said Emanuel, who is Jewish and considers Cupich a personal friend. "He's somebody the city has embraced with affection, and he has embraced the city with affection."
Cupich, (pronounced SOO-pitch) was born in Nebraska and previously served as a bishop in Rapid City, S.D., and Spokane, Wash. Because the archbishop oversees schools, hospitals and social services that touch the lives of many Chicagoans, he knew that Chicago would have a wider and more diverse constituency than the communities he had served in the past.
His south Omaha roots helped prepare him, said one of the archbishop's brothers, Rich Cupich, a Catholic school teacher in Omaha.
"It's been a smooth transition for him in a way, growing up in a multiethnic area of south Omaha, really a microcosm of Chicago," his brother said. "Blase and I carried (news) papers to Croatians, Lithuanians, Bohemians, Germans, Polish all in one area."
Blase Cupich has modeled Pope Francis' humble approach. He declined the Gold Coast mansion where archbishops have resided for decades, opting instead to live in the rectory at Holy Name Cathedral. He does chores in rotation with his fellow priests, and drives his own car — a Ford Escape — or takes the CTA whenever possible, said archdiocese spokeswoman Colleen Tunney-Ryan.
In addition to regularly celebrating Mass at Holy Name, he has visited more than 100 parishes, where he has blessed couples on their anniversaries, confirmed teenagers in the faith and said Mass, often lingering afterward to mingle with parishioners. He attends retirement parties for longtime teachers and sits in the bleachers at basketball games between rival Catholic high schools.
The down-to-earth approach has positioned Cupich to collect observations and opinions from parishioners and pastors faced with demographic shifts and funding shortfalls in their parishes — an issue many large, urban dioceses across the U.S. have grappled with in recent decades.
City parishes built by Catholic immigrants generations ago have seen large concentrations of parishioners migrate to the suburbs, leaving behind more impoverished members who need the social services offered by the church and its schools, said Jim Rigg, superintendent of Chicago Catholic Schools. At the same time, fewer priests and nuns are available to run the schools, forcing the archdiocese to employ higher-paid lay educators on thinner budgets, he said.
Cupich has reduced the number of Catholic schools in Chicago from 240 to 217 and has begun to roll out a regional plan for parochial education, starting with Pope Francis Global Academy, a reconstitution of four closed schools on the Northwest Side.
Before making tough decisions, he listens to others.
He "is not somebody that sort of officiates from an ivory tower," Rigg said. "He is willing to go into the schools and go hand and hand with the people."
Church's financial health
Cupich has offset the blow of school closures by accelerating a fundraising campaign launched by George that has raised more than $350 million in community donations, much of which will be used to keep schools running and offer scholarships, said Sister Mary Paul McCaughey, the archbishop's delegate for school advancement and advocacy.
"He has all his ducks in a row with his facts, figures and fiscal background," McCaughey said. "His ability to be able talk to people in that way with that directness and enthusiasm has been a big factor."
Betsy Bohlen, chief operating officer for the archdiocese, said Cupich has inspired a cultural shift within the archdiocese in which everyone focuses on the church's renewed priorities — evangelization, lifelong formation, divine worship, and human dignity and solidarity — and contributes to the financial health of the church.
Since 2012, the archdiocese has reduced its operating deficit from $42 million to about $4 million and is headed to almost breaking even, Bohlen said. That operating budget pays for parishes, schools and other ministries of the archdiocese. It does not include ancillary operations — such as Catholic Charities, Catholic Cemeteries and Mercy Home for Boys & Girls — or reserves for sexual misconduct claims against clergy.
"Cardinal George did take a lot of difficult actions to get us halfway there in his remaining few years," Bohlen said. "Archbishop Cupich has shown strong dedication to finishing the effort, most importantly helping set up practices to make sure we remain stable over the long term."
To that end, Cupich has changed the roles of church employees, leading to painful reorganizations in some departments. Instead of keeping people in duties that don't serve the church's mission, some employees have been asked to apply for newly defined jobs.
"It's easy, especially with a lot of caring and sympathetic people who work with the church, to ... focus on the individual next to them and lose sight of the broader mission," Bohlen said. "It's important to take care of them, but sometimes we were leaving them in roles where they were no longer having impact, and that was hurting the mission around them."
Cupich also wants parishes that are equipped to sustain themselves serve the city and address its challenges.
As an example, he has embraced the work of the Rev. Michael Pfleger, the longtime pastor of St. Sabina Catholic Church in the Gresham neighborhood, who has clashed with Cupich's predecessors since he was ordained in 1975.
"Personally, I was always kind of a fringe member of the Roman Catholic Church, to put it nicely," Pfleger said. "Then Archbishop Cupich comes. From the moment he's gotten here, he's done nothing but affirm St. Sabina Church. He's thanked the people and told them how much he and the diocese depend on them to be a model for church. That personally has been a huge thing."
Cupich's call to ban automatic weapons to help curb gun violence has earned him a fair share of condemnation from gun rights activists and others who believe the archbishop should focus on a more straightforward form of evangelism, not gun law reform.
Having Cupich on his side has been a relief for Pfleger, who has clashed with gun rights advocates and church conservatives for years.
"I don't have to bear it alone," Pfleger said.
But more importantly, Pfleger said, the archbishop has launched a churchwide anti-violence initiative, urging parishes to create summer jobs for at-risk youth, to evaluate the services they offer in their neighborhoods such as tutoring, after-school programs, social services and work programs, and to target the right audience, including African-American youth who are neither in school nor employed.
"The violence issue is a city issue and a national issue" that the archbishop wants to address, Pfleger said.
John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, said even though Cupich is Chicago's seventh cardinal, the local church shouldn't take his elevation for granted. Francis has given a number of red hats to dioceses that have not had cardinals in the past and bypassed other dioceses that have come to expect the honor.
Francis likely gave Cupich the title not because he's in Chicago, but because he mirrors Francis' mission for the church. It's a sign he wants Cupich to help choose the next generation of church leaders, including the pope's successor, Carr said.
By choosing cardinals known for their sense of outreach and pastoral approach, the pope is laying the groundwork for a global church of bridge builders rather than cultural warriors, said Mark Bosco, director of the Center for Catholic Intellectual Heritage at Loyola University.
A few months after moving to Chicago, Cupich visited Our Lady of Peace Church in the city's South Shore neighborhood. When the Rev. Mark Kalema greeted him with an accent from his native Uganda, he said Cupich won him over quickly by responding with a greeting in the Ugandan language. Cupich then peppered Kalema with thoughtful questions about how the priest had been juggling two South Side parishes — Our Lady of Peace and Our Lady Gate of Heaven 3 miles away.
"There's an unwritten law as a pastor, you don't change things until a year or so, you have to wait a little bit," Kalema said. "But for him when he came in, he just immediately started. ... I think the church needed this kind of person to come in at this time to see what has to be done."
Carr, a former seminary classmate of Cupich's, said the archbishop, like the pope, has made it clear to his flock that the tough decisions he makes aren't personal, they're pastoral.
"People call cardinals princes of the church," Carr said. "Cardinal Cupich won't be a prince, he'll be a pastor who tries to help Pope Francis carry out his vision."