Pope Appoints New Archbishop for Chicago

In his first major appointment in the United States, Pope Francis has named Bishop Blase J. Cupich of Spokane to be the next archbishop of Chicago, replacing a combative conservative with a prelate whose pastoral approach to upholding church doctrine is more in keeping with the pope’s inclusive new tone.

Bishop Cupich, 65, will succeed Cardinal Francis George, 77, who is ill with cancer. Two years ago, at 75, Cardinal George offered his resignation, as is traditional at that age.

Francis’s choice of prelate for Chicago was highly anticipated as a sign of the direction he intends to set for the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. Chicago is the nation’s third largest diocese, with 2.3 million members, and its archbishops have often taken leading roles in the American hierarchy.

Bishop Cupich has been chairman of the bishops’ committee responding to the sexual abuse crisis, and has at times been unusually forthright in criticizing the church’s record on abuse. He took over the Spokane diocese after it was sued by abuse victims and declared bankruptcy, and is still embroiled in a legal case over how the bankruptcy was handled.

He spoke out against a referendum on same-sex marriage in Washington state in 2012. But even before Francis became pope, Bishop Cupich and he sounded much alike. Bishop Cupich emphasized care for the poor and dispossessed, and on hot-button moral issues employed a tone that emphasized respect and dignity for gays and dialogue with those who disagreed with church teaching. “In stating our position,” Bishop Cupich wrote in a pastoral letter before the same-sex marriage vote, “the Catholic Church has no tolerance for the misuse of this moment to incite hostility toward homosexual persons or promote an agenda that is hateful and disrespectful of their human dignity.”

Rev. John I. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, said in a statement, “Having first met Bishop Blasé Cupich when I was an 18-year-old backpacker in Europe and he was a seminarian in Rome, I can say with confidence that, as archbishop of Chicago, he will be a pastorally dedicated, theologically astute and visionary leader in line with Francis’ transformative papacy.”

Cardinal George, who has served in Chicago since 1997, led the American bishops’ conference in confrontations with the Obama administration over abortion, same-sex marriage and religious liberty. His predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, a prominent liberal, was also elected president of the American bishops’ conference and galvanized a generation of church leaders to take stands on such issues as economic justice, nuclear weapons and the environment.

As the bishops were gearing up to sue the Obama administration over the contraception mandate in the health care overhaul, Bishop Cupich called for a “return to civility” in an essay he wrote in the Jesuit magazine “America.”

He wrote that the while “outrage” over the mandate was “understandable,” and religious freedom truly was at risk, he warned against letting the situation escalate lest it “bring lasting harm to both the church and the nation, and even worse, disproportionately affect the least among us.”

Bishop Cupich (pronounced SOO-pitch) was born in Omaha, one of nine children and the grandson of Croatian immigrants. He has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., studied in Rome and has later received a doctorate in sacred theology from The Catholic University of America in Washington DC. He worked in parishes and a Catholic high school in Omaha, served as rector of a Catholic college in Columbus, Ohio, and in 1998 was made bishop of Rapid City, S.D., by Pope John Paul II. After 12 years, Pope Benedict appointed him bishop of the diocese of Spokane.

In an interview with The New York Times in June, Bishop Cupich said he had been reading Francis’ writings on redistribution of wealth, collaborative leadership and leading by listening. “I’ve always believed in collaboration and consultation but I guess I’m listening more intently to the voices of people who might not have had the kind of hearing that they should have -– people of diverse backgrounds, people with differing opinions,” Bishop Cupich said.

His frugal lifestyle is in keeping with the frugal example that Francis has been setting for bishops. Bishop Cupich said that in Spokane he lives in a room at the seminary, and does not own any furniture.

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Eric Write head editor and chief at The Pluto Daily