Positive press greeted the announcement on Sept. 20 of the appointment of Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane, Wash., to succeed Cardinal Francis George as archbishop of Chicago. Some media view what they deem as Pope Francis’ first major episcopal appointment in the U.S. as a message from the pope. Archbishop Cupich, however, says the pope isn’t sending a message, he’s sending a pastor.
Automatic spell check will undoubtedly refer to Archbishop Cupich as Blasé Cupich, but blasé Cupich is not. He is one energetic prelate and an avid media consumer. He’s not afraid to reach for the stars. He can empower people with his belief in them.
I first met him when he was president/rector of the Pontifical College Josephinum, in Columbus, Ohio. Then Msgr. Cupich, he planned to announce at graduation that a donor had established a program to provide a gift for alumni when they retired as priests. Msgr. Cupich wanted a story about the initiative to run on Page One of the Wall Street Journal on graduation day and was referred to me to arrange for it. He recognized the value of the financial community seeing how important such a gift was given the fact that most priests are not wealthy when they retire and many diocesan priest retirement plans are underfunded.
I was new in media relations work for the bishops and gulped at the assignment: get a story about a seminary graduation in Ohio on Page One of an international newspaper. But I was also too new to say it couldn’t be done and felt compelled to try. His media instincts, however, were spot on and the story ran as he wanted it, though on Page One of an inside section.
Pope Francis has said he wants priests to smell like the sheep and I predict you will see Archbishop Cupich right in with the flock wherever possible. He’ll do his own research a la asking questions of anyone who might inform him of a dimension of the issues he’ll face, from sexual abuse of minors, vocations and Catholic schools to outreach out to ethnic communities, of which Chicago has many.
Archbishop Cupich also is steadfast in whatever he pursues. Like the proverbial dog with a rag in his teeth, he won’t be easily dismissed. Any staffer who hopes the new archbishop will just forget some issue the staffer doesn’t want to deal with will be in for a big surprise.
Archbishop Cupich stands proud of his Croatian background. He also likes to tell a story from his arrival in his first episcopal assignment, Rapid City, in South Dakota, which today boasts eight federally recognized Indian tribes. One older, hard-of-hearing Native American woman was especially pleased. She heard “Croation” as “Crow Nation.” With pastoral sensitivity, the archbishop-designate of Chicago became a bit “Crow Nation” onwards.
Mary Ann Walsh, R.S.M., is national church correspondent for America.