Lilac City to Windy City

After leading the Spokane diocese for four years, Bishop Blase Cupich prepares to lead 2.2 million Catholics in Chicago

Blase Cupich was fast-tracked by Pope Francis to head up the Chicago diocese. - YOUNG KWAK
Young Kwak
Blase Cupich was fast-tracked by Pope Francis to head up the Chicago diocese.

It's a chilly, late-October night, and Blase Cupich is clearly interested in one thing: a hearty meal.

"I'll take the chili," he says.

That, and engaging in good conversation with a crowd of eager 20- and 30-something Catholics.

With that dinner order, he sounds like any other person at Jack and Dan's bar and grill. And even though it's a Gonzaga University mainstay, where priests can often be found downing a pint, the man dressed in the unmistakable white collar is far from a regular patron.

He is, after all, among the most famous Catholic leaders in America at the moment, and the most in-demand for news media interviews. Little more than a month ago, most people, rank-and-file Catholics included, didn't know his name, let alone how to pronounce it. (For the record: SOO-pitch.)

On this night, he's bishop of the Spokane diocese. But in a few short weeks he'll lead the third-largest Catholic diocese in the U.S. as archbishop of Chicago.

In some ways, Cupich's appointment isn't completely unforeseen, given that his personal narrative as a reformer and champion of untangling bureaucracy parallels that of Pope Francis. However, there were surprises in the announcement.

"It was a shock because of the swiftness of it," says Rocco Palmo, a Catholic journalist whose Whispers in the Loggia blog has closely chronicled church news since 2004.

Palmo says Cupich was fast-tracked by Pope Francis, who went outside the normal, more drawn-out process and personally vetted Cupich in a way not seen for major archbishop appointments.

With his chili on the way, Cupich settles into a crowd of young adult Catholics meeting for their monthly pub night to hear from speakers on faith topics. This month they have the ear of the person who will soon lead 2.2 million Catholics and become a de facto spokesman for U.S. Catholics.

Given such a tall order, he comes off disarmingly humble, which explains his appeal to Pope Francis. Cupich's microphone squeaks, and he scoots back to avoid the speaker feedback.

"Not since first grade have I been put in the corner," he says, drawing laughter from the crowd.

Appointed in 2010 to lead the Spokane diocese out of a bankruptcy brought on by sexual abuse lawsuits, Cupich is generally seen as an administrator in the mold of Pope Francis: able to insist on change where it's needed, and capable of coming into a negative situation and managing with skill and grace.

At the time, the Spokane diocese was close to selling off parishes to pay debts to victims, and Cupich considers the fact that no parishes were closed among his top accomplishments in Spokane. He says he didn't even know about the diocese's deep legal woes until after he arrived.

"The first two years here were very, very hard. Just to make sure that we would not be in a situation where parishes would collapse because they would be confiscated," he says. "I was very concerned about that. I knew it wasn't just about the closing of buildings and the confiscation of property, it was about the real destruction of communities."

It's not over

The figurative destruction of communities is one thing, but the very real harm brought about by sexual abuse is something of which he says he is very much aware. Late last month, it was reported that Cupich had removed a retired priest, Rev. Dan Wetzler, from the ministry after "credible allegations" surfaced. It was the second time Wetzler had been accused; he had previously been exonerated after a church investigation.

That move, and Cupich's appointment in Chicago, was criticized by the victims' rights group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

"He's doing the absolute bare, legalistic minimum. Pretty much because he has to," SNAP Executive Director David Clohessy says of Cupich.

SNAP also released media statements when Cupich was appointed in Chicago, and previously in Spokane, criticizing his work on the sexual assault front.

"On this issue, this continuing crisis, he's not the worst, but he's far from the best," Clohessy says, claiming that most of the work by church authorities, including Cupich, to address sexual abuse amounts to "public relations."

For his part, Cupich recognizes the criticisms against not just abusive priests, but those bishops who covered up or dismissed their abuses, calling that the truly scandalous part of the church.

Cupich also notes that while he believes the victimization on a wide scale is over, and processes in place to protect youth will be effective, it's important not to suggest it's over for those who were victimized.

"We have to be careful not to say it's over for the people who still have the sting of this abuse in their psyche," Cupich says. "And we have to comfort them and walk with them in that healing."

Back to his roots

In going to Chicago, Cupich will follow the trail of his predecessor, outgoing Archbishop Cardinal Francis George. Prior to Chicago, George was bishop of the Yakima diocese. Like Spokane, that diocese is relatively small and rural.

For Cupich, though, it's a move that will bring him back to his Midwestern family roots. Born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, he spent most of his early years as a priest in the Midwest before becoming bishop of the Rapid City, South Dakota, diocese in 1998.

It's a move he's happy to make.

"There is an ethos [in the Midwest] about rolling up your sleeves and getting work done. People are very individualistic [in the Northwest]," he says. "They want to be left alone. It's part of the Northwest and the whole business of how people live. It was tough for me to adjust to that. It doesn't mean that one culture is better than the other. But there is a shift, and living in the Midwest brings me back to that kind of ethos that I grew up with."

Once he arrives, formally taking over on Nov. 18, he'll immediately face the kind of troubling financial and sexual abuse issues that greeted him in Spokane. Though the Spokane diocese's bankruptcy didn't result in closing any churches or schools, he'll inherit financial restructuring in Chicago. On Oct. 29, Cardinal George announced the closing of 14 Chicago archdiocese schools.

It's those skills as an administrator that got him appointed in Spokane and Chicago, according to Palmo, the Catholic journalist.

But he'll be jumping into a role in which the archbishop isn't just an administrator overseeing hundreds of parishes and schools and millions of Catholics. He'll be a spokesman for the U.S. Catholic church, not to mention a civic leader in a city with a nearly 40 percent Catholic population.

And that, Palmo believes, will be the major adjustment for Cupich.

"If something goes wrong in Chicago, two people are out front," he says. "The mayor and the archbishop." ♦

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