For more than a year, journalists, clergy and lay people—Catholic or not—have been all a buzz about Pope Francis and the reforms that he is bringing forth in the Church. Early on and even into today, skeptics downplayed the Holy Father’s calls for change as mere words, flowery rhetoric even. Perhaps it is a change in tone, but not in substance, I hear often.
In the United States, that all changed today.
This morning the Vatican announced that the Pope selected Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane, Washington to be the next Archbishop of Chicago, the nation’s third-largest archdiocese. Archbishop-designate Cupich will succeed Cardinal Francis George, who reached the mandatory retirement age of 75 two years ago and whose health has been declining recently.
It is safe to say that the selection of Cupich was a surprise to just about everyone, including the Omaha, Nebraska native himself. This is the first time in about 100 years that a new Archbishop of Chicago did not come from another archdiocese. Cupich is certainly known among the bishops, but has rarely received much attention in the national media.
David Gibson over at the Religion News Service gave some background on Cupich:
Named by Pope Benedict XVI to head the Diocese of Spokane in September 2010, Cupich (pronounced “SOUP-itch”) has steadily staked out positions that align him with Catholics who want the church to engage the world rather than rail against the forces of secularism.
In March 2012, for example, in the midst of the bishops’ nasty battle with the Obama administration over religious freedom and the employer mandate to provide free contraception coverage, Cupich wrote an essay in America magazine titled “Staying Civil.”
In that column, Cupich called for dialogue with the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services rather than constant confrontation, and said the crisis was a chance to find “common ground.”
“While the outrage to the H.H.S. decision was understandable, in the long run threats and condemnations have a limited impact,” he wrote.
The phrase “common ground” also resonated because it was associated with the approach of George’s predecessor in Chicago, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who embodied the hopes of a more progressive church — hopes that seemed to end with George.
It would be a mistake to label Cupich as a liberal or progressive. Of course by comparison to Cardinal George and other colleagues throughout the country, his moderate approach certainly will steer a different course. Such moderation is a welcome shift and a necessary one for the future of the Catholic Church.
Today’s announcement points to a very significant decision by the Pope that will have ramifications not only for the 2.2 million Catholics in Chicago but also for the Church throughout the United States and beyond.
John Allen, Jr. of the Boston Globe reports about the change that the Pope is bringing about through unconventional episcopal appointments:
By now, the profile of a “Francis bishop” has come into focus: Ideologically, moderates rather than hardliners; pastorally, men who place special emphasis on concern for the poor and those at the margins; and personally, leaders who aren’t flashy personality types, with a reputation for being accessible and hands-on.
In some ways, those are precisely the sort of leaders perceived to have been out of favor in the American hierarchy during the late John Paul II and Benedict XVI years, but with Francis, the dynamic has changed.
Chicago is on a short list of pace-setter dioceses around the world whose leaders help set direction for the church in their regions, and it’s long been a bellwether for deeper realignments.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin embodied the moderate, reforming spirit of the Second Vatican Council. The transition to Cardinal Francis George embodied the stronger emphasis on Catholic identity in the later John Paul II years, with the effort to resist the inroads of secularism in the faith as a defining cause.
Cupich will be installed as Chicago’s ninth Archbishop on November 18.