Cupich: At the synod, Pope Francis ‘taught us all how to walk together.’

Archbishop Blase J. Cupich of Chicago talks with a bishop before a session of the Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican Oct. 24 (CNS photo/Paul Haring).

“At the synod, Pope Francis allowed us the freedom to be able to discuss openly our differences and yet realize that it was important for us to stay together as we did so,” Archbishop Blase Cupich told me in this exclusive interview for America.

“What the pope really did was to help us to understand what it really means to be Catholic,” he stated.


He had participated in the synod at the invitation of pope, and on the eve of his return to Chicago, he talked about his experience. He highlighted the fundamental role of the pope in bringing the three-week assembly to a successful conclusion, and dismissed the conclusion of some analysts that say the church is now fragmented.

Commenting on the three contested paragraphs regarding the divorced and remarried that also gained the synod’s approval, the archbishop said the key word here is “discernment.” He affirmed: “We are not only a teaching church, we are also a discerning church.”

He said these paragraphs “very clearly say that everybody’s life is not the same, that we have to see where the Spirit of God is working and bringing these people so that we can accompany them and reconcile them on this common pilgrimage that we have.”

Pope Francis has made it very clear that synodality is “the way” for the church today, and Cupich added “synodality is about the Church acting in a new and in a different way.” He said “the church in the United States, like the church in any other country” will now “have to respond to this new reality” just as it had to respond to the Second Vatican Council fifty years ago.

This is the first time you have participated in a synod, what’s your impression now that it has ended?

First of all, I came here knowing it was my first synod and so I wanted to be slow in participating because I wanted to listen attentively to how the pope defined how the synod should go. He said two things: listen attentively with humility but also to speak boldly. So I took my time just to be disciplined that way and I think that the process that was outlined worked well. I don’t have the ability to compare with what happened before, but talking to bishops who were here before they have spoken of vast improvement here. I could see why this is considered an improvement because we were given total flexibility, total openness to be able to say what was on our mind in the small groups and in the general assembly, and this is the way adults should work. I think it was a great success just because of process.

 How did you read the pope’s role in the synod?

The pope gave the framework at the beginning that was very helpful, and then he stepped back and let us fill-in that framework. He was present during all of the general assemblies, and he heard what people were saying. He gave no reaction, never applauded one way or another or gave indication about his response, but he was attentive, he listened to what was going on. His serenity and his calmness, especially during some of the periods that were stormy because of rumors about this, what people were saying, predictions about failure, the false reports about his health, it didn’t seem as if any of this troubled him or bothered him at all.

As I said in my statement, his tranquility and his serenity really helped the bishops have that same approach to the synod, not to be distracted. He was not distracted and so we were not either.

You are on record as saying that at the synod Francis had learned to walk in water. Could you elaborate?

Yes, in my statement I said once again the Lord asked Peter to walk on water and this time Peter kept his eyes on the Lord and he taught us all how to walk together, not just on water but together. I think that was the great outcome of the synod. So when you have consensus on the entire document, and two-thirds is consensus, it does show that he really helped us to do something very significant and yet at the same time stay together.

At the beginning of the synod there were obvious divisions.


Do you think those divisions are now overcome at the end of the synod?

Well I think there are also going to be divisions in the church because we are a universal church. In the 40 years that I’ve been a priest and the 17 as a bishop I have experienced people coming at things in a different way. That’s the way adults are, that’s the way the world is, and that’s ok. But what the pope did was he allowed us the freedom to be able to discuss openly our differences and yet realize that it was important for us to stay together as we did so. So I believe that there is always that healthy tension of having diversity and yet unity in that diversity. That’s what it means to be Catholic.

What the pope really did was to help us to understand what it really means to be Catholic. Not that we’re always going to agree on everything, or be unanimous or univocal, but rather we’re going to live with the tension of having differences and yet at the same time holding us together.

So you don’t share the analysis that at the end of the synod you’ve got a fragmented church?

No, I don’t see that at all. I’ve talked to some of the bishops who had concerns about one or the other of the proposals, but it’s very clear they are not only “with Peter” but they also understand that they are "under" him.

Therefore the role of Peter is fundamental in all this.

The role of Peter is fundamental, it’s a great gift to the life of the church and I think it’s going to be highlighted all the more as we move forward and as he responds. I think it’s going to be an opportunity for us to dig deeper into all of this. You know it was John Paul II in “Ut Unum Sint” (the encyclical on ecumenism) who asked the church to comment and to help the church to understand how the pope should govern in the future and how he should exercise his Petrine ministry. I think that we have here an example of the Holy Father exercising the Petrine ministry in an altogether different way. He doesn’t want any preconceived, prepackaged answers and yet he wants people to respond, and at the same time he sees his responsibility of bringing us together, of helping us to understand that we have to be unified. So he’s already exercising the Petrine ministry in a different way, in a way that maybe John Paul II anticipated.

A number of bishops told me they felt the Spirit was at work in the synod, and I remember when you spoke to journalists some days ago you said you too had seen transformation. Can you explain that a little more?

Yes. The transformation that I have seen was mostly in the small groups where we did listen to each other. I was transformed! I went in with my experience of the church and I came away understanding more about the people in Asia, about their challenges, particularly challenges about language. We had quite an ample discussion on the word “indissolubility.” It was considered by a lot of the Asians as a very hard word for the Asian people to get their mind around; it seemed to be too legalistic and not very humane when you talk about relationships between married people. I also heard from the people in Africa about their own challenges with regard to families that are polygamous, where a Catholic woman is married to a man who has other wives. How does she continue in her faith, what demands does it make for them not only in their relationship but also in her family because in Africa it’s not just a marriage between two people but a marriage between two families. That was very enlightening to me, so I came away transformed, and so when I talked about transformation I was talking more about myself than about other bishops.

As we saw from the vote on the final document the big clash was around three paragraphs relating to the divorced and remarried. How do you interpret or explain that?

I’d say first of all my experience is that it’s very hard to predict or explain why people voted against a document. Many times it’s because they disagree with it altogether, other times maybe because it doesn’t go far enough, so I think it’s a mistake to try to interpret or analyze why people voted in a certain way. But I would also take you back to the first synod last year- the Extraordinary Synod - where these topics were in proposals that did not receive two-thirds vote. And here we were able to see that by working together with the writing group, and the general assembly commenting on the first draft, the writing group came back with the document they believed people would be able to vote for, that they took seriously their concerns. And so the relator (General Rapporteur), Cardinal Erdo, was the one who got up as we were beginning the vote and presenting this new text, he indicated that they had come to an agreement among themselves, (and were) unanimously presenting this text. I think that was very important for it showed that all of the writers who were appointed by the pope came from different perspectives, it wasn’t as though they were all thinking the same way when they went into the process, and so for them to be able to say that they unanimously presented this text to us, after going through the suggested emendations by the full assembly the day before, gave us, I think, an understanding that here you had a group of people that came out of reality differently from their own experiences and yet were able in some way to come to agreement on a text that they all could accept. That, I think, gave confidence to people in the assembly that here this writing group was really a microcosm of the reality of the assembly itself; that they could see in those members maybe people who thought like them and felt that if those people could come to an agreement that maybe they should consider voting for this as well.

Yes. Cardinal Erdo’s statement before the vote was very significant because in his opening report to the plenary assembly he was very clearly on one side and that wasn’t the side that has come out in the final document, which has now been approved.

Well, maybe that’s part of the transformation that took place too in that instance. I don’t know; I didn’t talk to him. But I do think that it was a significant speech that he gave as he presented the document to us.

Those three contested paragraphs were approved in the plenary assembly and they now go to into the pope’s hands as the position of the synod on these matters.

That’s right, and I think it’s very important also to keep in mind that it is a document addressed to the Holy Father. As the pope said, we were not a parliamentary body in which we issued a legislative text. This is not a legislative text; we didn’t enact any laws here. However, he asked for our opinion on very key elements, to talk about them and to make recommendations about our concerns, and that is now what has gone to the pope with also, in the document itself, a formal request on behalf of the bishops that the Holy Father issue a document.

How would you summarize the content of those three paragraphs?

Well I think the key word here is “discernment,” and what that does is capture the pope’s talk from last Saturday about a church not only being an “ecclesia docens” but also “discens,” that we are not only a teaching church but we are a discerning church. I think that these paragraphs very clearly say that everybody’s life is not the same, that we have to see where the Spirit of God is working and bringing these people so that we can accompany them and reconcile them on this common pilgrimage that we have. I think that that is the key here.

And I do think it’s important to mine more deeply the teaching of the church with regard to conscience. I would point people to the Catechism of the Catholic Church but also to the document on natural law that was issued in 2009 by the International Theological Commission and it was approved by the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. I brought that into the discussion because I felt that it had a lot that would summarize the standard traditional teaching about conscience, and about how moral decisions are made. It is very clear. This is the moral theology that I was taught 40 years ago at the Gregorian University. It is standard theology that is anchored in the tradition of the church and especially by St. Thomas Aquinas. People seem to have forgotten that, and we need to look for an opportunity to raise that up again in our own consciences.

 So the teaching church has also got to learn.

We have to learn. We have to listen to where people are. We have to listen to where the Spirit is working in the lives of people. Now the thing is that’s more demanding for leaders, it’s a lot easier to sit on a pedestal and teach and give all of your information. I remember at the Gregorian when I was going to school, the professors would have the magisterial form of lecturing where they would just give their lectures, they would read from their “dispensae” (notes) and you just had to memorize it. Well as a teacher myself over the years I know that’s not the best way to teach, especially when you’re teaching adults. You need to have interaction with people and as a teacher myself I know that I always come away from the experience having learned more than I taught. And I think that is where the church has to be and where the pope is calling us to be.

In his speech on Oct. 17, at the 50th anniversary celebration for the establishment of the synod of bishops, the pope said “the way of synodality is the way that God wants for the Church of the third millennium.” Is this what you will now be seeking to build in the American church?

Well I have always tried to do it that way. In fact, I had my own synod when I was in Rapid City, South Dakota, I had a consultation when I was in Spokane, and before this synod I had consultation with folks, with my different councils and so on. I’ve always found that to be the healthiest way to proceed. As I said at the press briefing before, a good friend of mine who is a retired archbishop said that all he wants on his tombstone is that “I tried to treat you like adults.” I grew up in a family of nine children and I know there has to be a back and forth and a listening. So if we continue to treat each other like adults and respect each other, and challenge each other, then I think that’s the best way for us to move.

Could you explain what the synodal church is?

I would say the synodal church is like the word itself. It is “a going on the way together,” and it is a way whenever people walk there are people who have been that way before, who know that others have been that way before, and so they try to give direction. At the same time there are people who are on the way, who are new to the way, and maybe see something along the way that was missed the first time, and it’s good to point out. That’s the way pilgrims move forward. And I think it really is important to keep moving, keep talking to each other with great respect, but making sure that nobody feels as though they’re going to be abandoned and lost along the way. We’re going to make sure that nobody, if they take a detour, is left behind. We always want to make sure that if they take a detour and get lost we stop for a moment and go back after them.

Some people have criticized the final document and said that while it’s addressed the question of the divorced and remarried, it only touched the question of homosexuals. Cardinal Schonborn explained this to the press by saying that the synod fathers were only looking at one aspect – the homosexuals in families.

That’s right.

Some synod fathers have said there is a need for a fuller, a broader discussion on this whole subject. What do you think?

I think Cardinal Schonborn is exactly right. We addressed the question of homosexuality from the standpoint and impact on the family. But you raised a good question on whether or not more needs to be done. I believe more needs to be done, but not just as a church but as a society. I don’t think we fully understand this phenomenon of homosexuality. I know myself in visits that I have regularly scheduled times when I visit with people who might not otherwise have a place at the table in the discussion – divorced and remarried, but also homosexual individuals and homosexual couples. When I talk to them I learn more about what’s happening in their life that I did not know beforehand, and I believe, and I have encouraged bishops as well to make sure that before you begin to talk about a certain group of people you actually sit down across the table and let them tell you their story. I think that that’s very, very important. We seem in some way to allow either the media or our own imagination to define people. That’s a big mistake! I think we need to have first-hand knowledge. In fact it goes in concert with this process that we had at synod of “see, judge and act.” You can’t make a judgment or take any action until you really have an experience and listen to people in their lives. I’m convinced that we’re going to learn more as we continue that interaction.

I presume the American church too now has to buy into this concept of “a synodal church” because the pope, in his Oct. 17 speech, said that’s the direction we’re going.

Yes, I think that the church in the United States, the church in any country now, just like we had to respond to the Second Vatican Council, we’re going to have to respond to this new reality. This is a new reality, let’s not sidestep that. This is a new reality about the life of the church. The pope made it very clear: synodality is about the church acting in a new and in a different way. The pope has said that. Now it’s for us to take that in hand and make sure that we define our priorities as a bishops’ conference, but also in our own dioceses according to that model.

Many people see this as picking up the baton from the Second Vatican Council. Is that how you see it?

I see there’s a continuity between what the Second Vatican Council did in its time on a number of levels, and this synod. At the first level I find new energy in the lives of people, there’s an enthusiasm, there’s a sense that this is a graced moment. And then I think we have to look historically that the years that we had in between this present moment and the council were needed in order really to give shape to some of the issues that were brought up in the council.

We have to remember something about the council. It really was not a bottom up process but a top down, and so we didn’t do a really good job as bishops, as a hierarchy, of helping people, by teaching what the council was about and the aspirations of the council. So that created a huge vacuum for people to do all sorts of things that were really not in tune with what the mind of the council was.

I think now we are at a point in the life of the church after these 50 years to have shaken through all those kinds of problems. We’re at a fresh moment now in which we can recapture the enthusiasms of the council with greater maturity.

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