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December 9, 2016

Cardinal Cupich shoulders Chicago's Catholic future

Joshua J. McElwee | Dec. 5, 2016

Chicago, Taken from the National Catholic Reporter

When Pope Francis named Archbishop Blase Cupich to lead the Chicago archdiocese, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke wrote to the prelate offering to help him get acquainted with his vast new charge.

To her surprise, Cupich emailed back within the hour. And when the archbishop moved to Chicago weeks later, the justice and her husband Edward Burke, a long-time Chicago alderman, began hosting dinners to introduce Cupich to a wide array of Chicago politicians and civic leaders.

It was a small decision, made quickly. But it was also one that said more than a few things about the new leader of Chicago's 2.2 million Catholics.

Other prelates might have been reluctant to associate with Burke, who years ago sharply criticized the U.S. bishops for what she saw as an insufficient institutional response to the explosion of the clergy sexual abuse crisis in 2002.

After serving as the head of the bishops' national lay review board for child protection, the justice [1] resigned in 2004 because she thought the bishops were not taking the problem seriously enough [2].

Other bishops might also have been reluctant to engage so quickly with civic leaders, preferring first to focus on getting a grasp of internal church matters for an archdiocese of nearly 350 parishes and an annual budget of some $353 million.

The episode illustrates how Cupich -- who previously served as the leader of the much smaller dioceses of Rapid City, S.D., and Spokane, Wash. -- has, in ways big and small, asserted a new vision for the country's third-largest diocese since his appointment to Chicago in 2014.

Overseeing a sprawling, historic bastion of U.S. Catholicism, the archbishop quickly took hold of the reins but is unafraid to let out some slack on the line and to empower others to help him as that stronghold faces an era marked by change.

Interviews with nearly two-dozen archdiocesan staff, advisers, and local civic and church leaders show Cupich, 67, as a leader willing to take risks as his archdiocese, facing the jarring demographic changes altering the traditional face of Catholicism in the Northeast and upper Midwest, contends simultaneously with falling numbers and greater diversity.

They also evince an image of an archbishop who sincerely sees the program laid out by Francis -- one of mercy, acceptance, and a seeking of the lost sheep instead of a protection of the sheepfold -- as the best way forward.

The centerpiece so far in Cupich's short tenure is something that will likely determine his legacy and place in Chicago history for decades to come: an archdiocese-wide initiative, launched in February, to consider the big questions of revitalization and reorganization for a local church that spans some 1,411 square miles and includes nearly six million people across Illinois' Lake and Cook counties.

At the heart of those considerations is a drastic decline in the number of Chicago's priests -- the archdiocese projects going from 766 at the beginning of 2015 to 240 in 2030 -- which makes parish and school closures or mergers, or even a total reimagining of local structures, almost inevitable. Cupich has faced the process with a determined style that observers say characterizes his leadership.

"This is my last run," the archbishop said in an NCR interview in October. Referring to the reorganizational initiative, he said: "This is the third time that I'm a bishop of a diocese. I feel that at this point, there really is no turning back. We have to address this if we're going to be vibrant and vital and ... sustainable in the future.

"This is not easy; this is not going to be easy," he admitted. "But I'm convinced that this has to be done if we're really going to be true to the mission of the church and the mission of Christ."

If Cupich is generally perceived as pursuing his goals in an open manner, preferring consultation and dialogue over mandates sent forth from the archdiocese's pastoral center downtown, he is not without his critics. Some say that he has acted in a heavy-handed manner at times, setting aside consultation in favor of quick decision-making.

He and his advisers, however, speak of desiring decentralization and of focusing on re-orienting seminary training to foster shepherds instead of autocrat-pastors. They also speak of maintaining an open and engaged stance toward civic and other religious leaders as all are struggling together against recent historic levels of gun violence plaguing Chicago.

Cupich, who is said to have been appointed to Chicago personally by Francis, has already received something of a further stamp of approval from the pope, who made him one of three new American cardinals Nov. 19 [4], skipping over other historic archdioceses such as Baltimore, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the only American on the pope's nine-member Council of Cardinals, told NCR that the pontiff had "greatly blessed" both the Chicago church and "the Church throughout the United States by naming [Cupich] to lead one of the largest, most complex archdioceses in the country."

Cupich also receives wide praise from Chicago's political community.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in an interview that the archbishop has made an "incredibly fast" impression on the city and praised his work organizing religious leaders to stand together against gun violence.

The mayor said the archbishop is helping Chicago's neighborhoods understand they have a common future, regardless of geography or ethnic background.

Toni Preckwinkle, president of the Board of Cook County, a 5.2-million-person municipality that encompasses Chicago, said she is "encouraged by what he says and what he's done."

"I think he's an impressive human being and seems to be a decent, humble man," she said, before adding: "And he's got a lot of work to do."

Being a different leader

Those affected say he has redirected energies away from the pastoral center downtown toward the archdiocese's vicariates, six diverse regions inside the archdiocese that are each put under the responsibility of one of the city's six auxiliary bishops.

Hynes said Cupich takes a more "ground-up" approach to governance than George did. Whereas before the archdiocesan chancery would direct the vicariates by issuing specific plans for ministry, Cupich prefers that the local regions come up with their own ideas and suggest them, said Hynes.

"His instinct is the desire needs to be named before the structure is provided," said Hynes. "In these almost 24 months he's shifted the focus from initiatives coming from the archdiocese to initiatives being responded to by the archdiocese."

"Cardinal George had a phrase he would use on occasion," the monsignor explained. "He saw the bureaucrats and all the agencies and departments as extensions of his governance, whereas Archbishop Cupich sees ... the departments and the agencies responding to parishes rather than extending his governance."

Cupich wants parishes to be "the lead agents" of the archdiocese, said Hynes, and he wants them asking questions such as: "Are you growing? Is there vitality here?"

"It's kind of expecting the pastors and the parish staffs to think that through and not the bureaucrats at first," the monsignor explained.

At the same time, Cupich faces a number of obstacles in decentralizing the administration.

Patrick Reardon, a journalist who has written extensively on the Chicago Catholic church and previously served on the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, said one problem Cupich must deal with is encouraging his auxiliary bishops to take more active roles in archdiocesan administration.

Many of the auxiliaries, Reardon said, did not train to be administrators and are used to focusing on direct pastoral needs, such as celebrating confirmation ceremonies.

"What he's doing is telling guys who are bishops ... to be heavy-duty managers," said Reardon. "They're not managers. They're clerics."

Cupich has also been criticized for changing the structure of the archdiocese's ministries to ethnic groups, which in the past had included separate offices for Asian, Black and Native American Catholics.

In June, 2015, Cupich announced that those offices, which had been based at the archdiocese's Cardinal Meyer Center on Chicago's South Side, would be relocated to local parishes. Instead of being led by archdiocesan staff as before, they are now led by different local pastors, each assisted by a part-time coordinator and an advisory board.

Hynes said that Cupich made the shift in the ethnic ministries because he wanted them to be "living within a parish setting" and preferred the people leading the ministries be "in the middle of that dynamic rather than [working] from an office and a computer."

Evaluating the change, Hynes said, "It's still growing in its fruitfulness, but there is some fruitfulness."

Some critics of the move said they were worried that the pastors taking over the duties of the ethnic ministries may not have as much time to devote to the work as the former archdiocesan staffs. They also raised concerns about the way the staffs had been told about the decision to close their offices.

The last head of the Office for Black Catholics, who had served on the archdiocesan staff since 1999, said there had been no discussion about the matter with him.

"There isn't much I can share with you about Archbishop Cupich," former director Andrew Lyke said in an email. "Though I worked under him for seven months, I had very little contact with him. The Office for Black Catholics was closed without any consultation with me."

Cupich said he did not consult with those holding the jobs he was considering eliminating in order to treat everyone fairly. Everyone who was eliminated, he added, received a "very generous" buyout package.

Cupich and his chief operating officer said relocating the ethnic ministries was among a number of changes aimed at helping the archdiocese control its budget. Bohlen said the archdiocese has gone from a $40 million operating loss in 2015 to a $4 million loss in 2016.

They also said the changes were made as much for ministerial reasons as budgetary ones. Bohlen said that discussions were about trying to "think harder around what's important to be at the archdiocesan level verses what's important to be at the more local level."

"We found that there's a bit of [creep] in what the archdiocese would do," she said. "So sometimes we would look at what we do and said, 'Why is it being done here? In fact, some things should be done more effectively at the local level.' "

"I think there was a sense with the ethnic ministries that ... it's better run at the local level," said Bohlen. "I think that was when we also thought you can get a lot of volunteer support to really run those vibrant ministries. It wasn't clear you had to have staff positions as much."

Cupich said he sees the pastors running the ministries now as spokesmen who can bring together people interested in the work. "That's the best we can do now given our resources," he said. "We have to be honest about that."

Facing budget shortfalls and parish closures

The Chicago archdiocese is one of the nation's largest. Depending on the statistic cited, it's either the second or third biggest in the country, behind Los Angeles and rivaling New York in both size and Catholic population.

Spanning 1,411 square miles over the two most populous counties in northeastern Illinois, it stretches along the shores of Lake Michigan from the state's eastern border with Indiana to its northern border with Wisconsin.

Archdiocesan statistics show that Cupich is responsible for 346 parishes that serve 2.2 million Catholics, with some 30,000 baptisms a year and more than 1,600 Masses celebrated each weekend. The territory includes 193 elementary schools, 46 cemeteries, 36 secondary schools, 15 hospitals, four colleges and universities, two seminaries and two houses of formation.

The archdiocese reported total assets in 2015 of $353 million, including the value of its landholdings and investments, and had nearly $19 million in cash on hand.

Yet, like many dioceses across the country, Chicago has faced significant changes in population and use of Catholic institutions in recent decades. Parishes that were once vibrant, pivotal parts of their communities are now not as central.

Reardon described how many of Chicago's parishes were set up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as ethnic enclaves, each acting as a home base for different immigrant communities in the city.

The pastor was more or less a city councilor, advising new immigrants on how to get jobs or put their children into schools. The parish was so vital to its surrounding area that locals, even non-Catholics, would describe where they lived in the city not by the name of the neighborhood but by the name of the church.

But after World War II, many of the immigrants' children moved out of the city and their traditional enclaves for the suburbs springing up to the city's north and south. The people who moved in were often not of the same immigrant community and not Catholic.

Decades later, many of the parishes still exist but with decreasing numbers of Mass attendance and weakened impact on their wider communities.

"There are too many of them ... and they're often in places where they're not as needed anymore," said Reardon, who covered urban affairs for years for the Chicago Tribune and wrote a book about the 100-year history of his own parish, St. Gertrude.

Changes in parish use have occurred alongside a drastic decline in the number of archdiocesan priests, which has fallen from a high of 1,264 in 1980 to 766 at the beginning of 2015.

With the average age of the priests now 61, the archdiocese is projecting that by 2030 there may only be some 240 priests to serve those 346 parishes.

To address the changing landscape, Cupich launched his archdiocesan-wide revitalization and reorganization program in February.

Called "Renew My Church," a nod to the words St. Francis of Assisi is said to have heard Jesus say to him about a small church in rural Italy, the initiative is first placing Chicago parishes in "groupings" to undertake joint evaluation of and planning for the needs of Catholics in their local areas.

The process, expected to take several years, will likely lead to a number of parishes closing or merging with their neighbors. Cupich and his staff have sought to reassure Catholics that nothing has been predetermined, holding consultative meetings with archdiocesan priests, parish personnel and other invested groups.

Hynes said Cupich wants the process to be open-ended and focused on asking broad questions about how the church can plan to use what resources it has to better serve the communities it is in.

"He's asking the grassroots to have that conversation," said the monsignor. "It's not going to happen overnight, and there's no metric that says these three things or you close or these four things so you stay."

"That's maybe a good business model," he said. "But that's not this. This is a little bit more eclectic, a little bit more Holy Spirit-driven, a little bit more trusting that people of good will hear what God is asking in that particular location of the diocese."

Cupich and Bohlen said the decision to reevaluate the archdiocese's overall structure was simply necessary because of budgetary realities. Beside the $40-million yearly budget shortfall Cupich inherited, the archdiocese had also been subsidizing its schools to the tune of $16 million a year and its parishes to the tune of $7 million.

Deficits, said Bohlen, "were putting us in a dangerous situation." Many of the archdiocese's assets are illiquid, she said, such as landholdings or properties, or are already dedicated to some sort of mission activity.

Cupich put it bluntly. "We're going to go broke if we don't do something," he said, adding: "We're not only going to go broke, we're also going to not do the mission."

Mentioning the funds being used to subsidize the parishes and schools, the archbishop said he isn't averse to dedicating such resources, but, "I want to make sure that we're doing it for parishes that really are going to be vibrant, vital, and sustainable in the future."

"I think that if we do not have this process, we're only going to continue to spin our wheels," he said. While the archdiocese had closed about 70 parishes in the last 20 years, he said, those closures did not necessarily happen as part of an overall plan of continued vibrancy for the whole archdiocese.

"We're not any better off," said Cupich. "I don't think that's a smart way to move forward in the future."

Pfleger said one concern he hears from parishioners about the Renew My Church initiative is a skepticism that although the archbishop is using a consultative process, the decisions about which parishes will close have already been determined.

"I keep running into this skepticism," said the priest. People ask: "Are we really being consulted, or is it already designed and we're just having a conversation about what's been decided?"

"I don't believe that the decisions have been made," he said. "I believe that the consultation is real, and I hope that I'm not proven wrong."

The stakes are high, Pfleger said: about the very purpose of Christian ministry. "Are we abandoning the poor?" is the central question, he said.

"Will the wealthy and the financially strong survive and everybody else fall?" is another question he said he hears in conversations with parishioners and among priests.

Cupich says he understands the stakes. "There are going to be some parishes that we're always going to have to support," he said.

"The people of God in this archdiocese know that and don't care; they're willing to invest in that," said the archbishop. "But they want us to be smart about how we use those resources and that's the issue for me."

"We know also that there are parishes that are financially stable that are not stable with their mission because there's no outreach to people around them," he continued. "They are not a 'field hospital.' "

"Everybody has skin in the game here," said the archbishop. "Everybody has to go through this process."

Bohlen describes the process as balancing concerns about the bottom line with those about mission vitality.

"We, even in the worst of our financial struggles, would invest significant dollars in something still if it showed a lot of vitality or was in a low-income area," she said. "There are some schools I can think of now that have very strong enrollment in very low-income communities that we've never once thought about closing."

Cupich is emphatic: No decisions about parish closings have been made.

"The only decision I've made is that we have to make sure that when we end up through this process, we have a stronger church life than we have today," he said. "That's what's driving this. So the actual decisions at the middle and lower level have not been predetermined."

Cupich has no illusions that the process won't anger some people, or perhaps even seriously injure his own standing in the archdiocese.

"People are going to get angry, are going to misunderstand," he said. "We're going to have to go back and backfill. We're going to have to re-explain. We're going to have to move forward. But I'm convinced that this has to be done if we're really going to be true to the mission of the church and the mission of Christ."

So far at least, it seems that Chicago Catholics are expressing support for Cupich's approach. Shortly after the archbishop's interview with NCR, the archdiocese announced that it exceeded its goal of raising $350 million in funds during its "To Teach Who Christ Is" capital campaign. Final numbers of the total earnings have not yet been made available.

Teaching seminarians about 'gray areas'

Like any other diocese in the country, the future of Chicago's archdiocese may ultimately rest less in which parishes are eventually closed or merged and more in the style and manner of its future priests, now in training at two archdiocesan seminaries and two houses of formation.

If current archdiocesan projections are on target, Chicago will lose about 500 priests to retirement or death by 2030. In 2014, the archdiocese reported 111 Chicago-area priests in training at its two seminaries.

Cupich has taken an active role in shaping how the archdiocese's seminaries are run. In his first year, he appointed new leaders to both: St. Joseph College Seminary at Loyola University and the University of Saint Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary.

For the leadership at Mundelein -- a historic seminary that at its 1844 founding was the first institution of higher education in Chicago and is named for the city's first cardinal -- Cupich turned to Fr. John Kartje, an archdiocesan priest who has doctorates in both theology and astrophysics.

Kartje replaced Fr. Robert Barron, a conservative Catholic media darling and the head of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. Francis appointed Barron as an auxiliary bishop in Los Angeles in July 2015.

In a conversation in September, the new seminary rector said the Renew My Church initiative has special relevance in his work. He called the initiative a "re-envisioning" of the archdiocese as it goes from having a turn-of-the-century, 20th-century immigrant population to a very different kind of demographic.

"As I see it, if we're talking about the future of the church, or I would say the present of the church even, the seminary really needs to be at the heart of that process," said Kartje. "A question that I've been turning over certainly in my head and heart with prayer and thinking has been, 'What does that look like?' "

The rector said an immediate concern is that because of the priest shortage many of the seminarians will become pastors soon after ordination with little practical experience of parish ministry. Some will even be expected to take on several parishes at once.

He said the circumstance raises urgent and new questions about the spirituality of parish governance and leadership, and shows a need for greater collaboration in the future between clergy and laypeople.

Consequently, Kartje said the seminary has begun placing seminarians in parishes earlier in formation than was previously the case. One of the hopes is that seminarians will begin to understand, before ordination, the real-life needs of Catholics and the day-to-day problems pastors deal with.

The rector added that a parishioner might tell the seminarian: "These are things that we need and appreciate from our priests. These are things that maybe aren't so helpful."

Kartje spoke in the interview a short time after Francis' words to Jesuit priests in Poland had become public.

During a session with confreres of his religious order in July, the pontiff had asked them to help young priests recognize that decisions Catholics make in their everyday lives are rarely ethically clear-cut, but rather exist on a spectrum between good and evil.

The rector said that acknowledgment of the "gray areas" of everyday life is part of his vision for the seminary, meaning that sometimes in terms of moral decision-making, "You can read about it, you can talk about it; it's until you've encountered it face-to-face that it really takes on a reality for you."

Cupich has other ways of introducing seminarians to everyday life, according to Finger, the head of the Archdiocesan Women's Committee. She recounted that at a committee meeting a few months ago her group told him that sometimes women "felt maybe not as valued" in parish life as men.

She said Cupich turned around and said simply: "Would you like to speak with the seminarians at Mundelein?" They had a meeting last April. About 40 women came to speak to the seminarians. It's now going to be an annual event.

"It was a give and take," she said. "We had questions for them. They had questions of us. It was an amazing experience."

Kartje called it eyeopening. "It wasn't just a cheerleading session," he said.

"People could also say, 'These are the struggles that we see. These are times when we felt hurt or marginalized maybe by priests,' " said the rector. "Students could say, 'Well, here's where I have felt intimidated,' or 'I didn't quite know how to deal with this situation.' "

The experience, he said, "is very different from reading a book called Parish Life, or something like that."

Looking for a 'more adult' spirituality

Last year, Francis personally appointed Cupich to participate in the 2015 Synod of Bishops at the Vatican on family life, adding his name to the bishops elected to do so by the U.S. bishops' conference.

In a press conference he gave during the synod, he said [8] the church has to respect decisions divorced and remarried people make about their spiritual lives after they examine what their conscience is telling them to do.

"We have to treat people like adults," said Cupich, re-examining that discussion in the October interview. "We have to get people to take responsibility for their lives."

"I've always found it much more demanding personally to have someone say to me, 'You better take responsibility for that decision,' " he explained, "as opposed to somebody coming in and saying, 'No, you can't do this and I don't give you permission.' "

"When you put it on me as an adult to take responsibility before God, that's more onerous than anybody coming at you telling what you should do," said the archbishop. "That's a more adult spirituality."

While training priests to help people discern what their consciences are saying to them might take some effort, Cupich said it's worth it.

"It's going to take making sure that our priests feel confident and skilled in doing this," said the archbishop. "It's kind of like Renew My Church or [addressing] violence -- it seems so daunting."

"[But] there are so many who could benefit from this [that] I'm not afraid of that," said Cupich. "I think that I'm willing to say, 'I'll do what I can. This is the right thing to do.' "

Mentioning that he grew up in a family of nine children, he said, "There was never anything that was perfect."

"Somebody's room or a part of the house was always a mess," he explained. "But you still went ahead and you did the best you could. The important thing is how are we going to live together in society [or] in the church that's going to make sure that people at least have the possibility of moving forward?"

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is jmcelwee@ncronline.org [9]. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac [10].]