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Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago in Rome on Feb. 8, 2023. (CNS photo/Robert Duncan)

When Pope Francis named Blase Cupich as archbishop of Chicago in 2014, some interpreted the appointment as a signal that the pope sought to reorient the U.S. hierarchy. Francis, who was elected pope 10 years ago on Monday, has spent the last decade reforming the Vatican bureaucracy and trying to implement his vision of a church that acts as what he describes as a field hospital, responding with mercy to the needs of ordinary Catholics. In the United States, home to a vocal group of Catholics who have challenged Francis’ vision, Cardinal Cupich has proven a key papal ally, acting as an interpreter of the pope’s message for Catholics here and advising Francis on key matters, including the appointment of new bishops and the church’s handling of sexual abuse allegations.

In a wide-ranging 30-minute interview with America, conducted in his downtown Chicago office, Cardinal Cupich reflected on what Pope Francis has accomplished so far. He described the Francis era as “a historic papacy” that comes at “a watershed moment” for the church. The cardinal, who turns 74 later this month, offered his thoughts on various hot-button issues that have dominated Francis’ papacy thus far, including calls to make the church more welcoming for L.G.B.T. people, the church’s handling of sexual abuse allegations and whether the church should open the diaconate to women.

Pope Francis has faced criticism that he moves too slowly. But Cardinal Cupich said he believes this is a deliberate style of leadership, calling it “a very methodical, Jesuit way of doing things in terms of discernment. He’s not rash; he doesn’t make rash decisions.”

“He has a strategy of where he wants to go,” the cardinal said. “But he’s patient enough not to want to preempt it, realizing that things have to unfold organically.”

“The struggle is not just with the hierarchy in this country, but around the world,” Cardinal Cupich said. “It’s very clear there are even people in the Vatican who have opposed the pope from the get-go.”

Francis and L.G.B.T. Catholics

Since the earliest days of the Francis papacy, the pope has called on Catholics to be more welcoming to gays and lesbians. In recent months, another influential American bishop, Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego, suggested that the church should reconsider language in the Catechism that L.G.B.T. Catholics have said is particularly hurtful, including text that describes homosexuality as “objectively disordered.”

Asked if he agrees with the proposal to alter the language used in the Catechism, Cardinal Cupich said yes. “Anytime language comes across as hurtful to people, the church has an obligation to examine that,” he said. “I would hope that the church would always be willing to examine the way it speaks, especially if it’s made known to us that it’s hurtful and that it is categorically exclusive of individuals.”

Cardinal Cupich said that concepts present in church teaching can be preserved even while altering language to make it less “cold, calculated, harsh language that, in some ways, is a door-closer.”

He said that the church must express its teaching in ways that attract people to Jesus.

“Language has to be, in some way, speaking to people in a way that brings healing,” the cardinal said. “Maybe there are some concepts within an expression of doctrine that will have to be attended to, but that doesn’t mean that the language itself can’t change.”

Cardinal Cupich, who advises the pope on the selection of bishops, said Francis has been clear from the beginning that he wants pastors who are close to their flocks.

The church’s handling of sexual abuse allegations

In 2019, the Vatican adopted provisions aimed at providing recourse for victims of sexual abuse and holding bishops accountable in their handling of complaints. Recently, one the church’s top experts on child protection, Hans Zollner, S.J., told a group of survivors of sexual abuse that the procedures are not perfect and admitted that they sometimes are “not working.” Some advocates for survivors of clergy sexual abuse agree.

Asked about that claim, Cardinal Cupich, who helped formulate the guidelines, suggested that Rome could do more in terms of staffing and resources when it comes to the protection of children and vulnerable adults.

“We have to look at ‘Do the various dicasteries in Rome have the proper staffing in order to do this in a timely way?’” the cardinal said. He said there is a “willingness” among church leaders “to be faithful to ‘Vos Estis Lux Mundi,’” the document that lays out the procedures. But he acknowledged, “We need to do a better job.”

“It’s not as though we’re taking a vote on something,” Cardinal Cupich said of the synodal process. “But we are listening, and we are dialoguing, to find the pathway forward."

“If we need increased staffing in order to take care of it, to do it in a timely way, then that should be done,” he said, adding that the church has challenges when it comes to staffing at every level. “‘Vos Estis Lux Mundi’ is a good structure, but the structure and document has to be implemented accordingly.”

Promoting a synodal church

With the church in the midst of a yearslong effort to gather insight from Catholics around the world, known as the synodal process, Cardinal Cupich said “there’s work to do” when it comes to engaging U.S. Catholics in the effort.

“We have to make sure that voices of people that have not been heard before are heard,” the cardinal said. He added that it is important to help people understand that the synod is not viewed “as a parliamentary procedure” that could leave some Catholics disillusioned if their own hopes for change in the church are not realized.

“It’s not as though we’re taking a vote on something,” Cardinal Cupich said. “But we are listening, and we are dialoguing, to find the pathway forward. I think people are getting that. But it is a new concept.”

He said that communities of religious sisters have used a process similar to the synod in discerning their own future and hopes church leaders can find inspiration from them.

“I’ve seen that when I was in South Dakota [where he was bishop of the Diocese of Rapid City, S.D., from 1998 to 2010], with a group of Benedictine nuns, the way that they carefully considered and dialogued in a synodal way, in a way that calls for the voices of everybody to be included in the discussion, to make some very important decisions,” he said. “But it took patience.”

Francis recognizes part of his job is to keep Catholics united and “to make sure that people stay at the table and keep talking,” Cardinal Cupich said.

That can be difficult, the cardinal acknowledged, in an institution as large and diverse as the Catholic Church.

Asked about recent comments made by Bishop Thomas Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield, Ill., who suggested that Cardinal McElroy could be guilty of heresy due to his calls to be more welcoming to L.G.B.T. Catholics, Cardinal Cupich said it was a “serious” matter that will have to be addressed. But he said he did not believe that such accusations wield the “power to upset the whole process” of church reform.

Restrictions on the pre-Vatican II Mass

Last month, Pope Francis reaffirmed restrictions on celebrating the pre-Vatican II Mass, reminding bishops that they must obtain permission from the Holy See and that they cannot interpret the decree in a way that differs from Rome’s intent. The restrictions on the Latin Mass have generated significant pushback from some Catholics, especially in the United States. But Cardinal Cupich said bishops have a duty to help believers in their dioceses understand why the restrictions exist in the first place.

“It’s because the [post-Vatican II] liturgy is the vehicle by which the full teachings of the church are being accepted by people today,” he said, pointing to the teachings of Pope John Paul II, as he also did in a recent essay for America. “That’s key.”

Francis recognizes part of his job is to keep Catholics united and “to make sure that people stay at the table and keep talking,” Cardinal Cupich said.

He said that helping Catholics understand that the Holy Spirit guided the Second Vatican Council, including its decrees on liturgy, is an essential task for bishops.

“There’s no two ways around that,” he said. “John Paul II said that, and Francis is doing it.”

Asked if he worried that devotees of the pre-Vatican II Mass could feel alienated by the restrictions, the cardinal said yes, but he added, “I think that that’s where the role of a bishop comes. The bishop has to show some leadership here,” especially when it comes to catechesis. “We don’t want to alienate people,” he said. “But there is a truth that the Holy Father is identifying, that bishops have a responsibility to promote.”

Women in the life of the church

In 2016, Pope Francis established a commission to study whether the church had ever admitted women to the diaconate. The findings, he said at the time, would help him discern whether to restore the practice, which could open leadership positions for women in the church. Three years later, Francis said the commission had not come to any agreement and the issue needed further study. Some critics have grown frustrated with Francis, accusing him of stalling rather than making a clear decision.

But Cardinal Cupich said, “if the Holy Father hasn’t acted on it,” it is probably because he has “serious concerns.” On the other hand, he said, it is possible that Francis “has a long-term strategy here and it’s going to unfold in an incremental and organic way.”

“I think that we have to be attentive to the fact, as the pope has said, that God is full of surprises,” Cardinal Cupich said. “And I want to be surprised. I like surprises.”

Asked if he thinks Francis should offer an answer to settle the question, the cardinal hedged.

“I would rather have him be true to his discernment process to see what’s the right thing to do,” he said.

The future of the U.S. hierarchy and the papacy

Pope Francis has appointed about half of the bishops in the United States, but there is still significant skepticism of the pope’s agenda from some in the U.S. hierarchy. Cardinal Cupich said opposition to the pope’s vision for the church is not confined to the United States.

“The struggle is not just with the hierarchy in this country, but around the world,” he said. “It’s very clear there are even people in the Vatican who have opposed the pope from the get-go.”

But Cardinal Cupich said Francis is “not daunted by it. He just moves forward.”

Several leaders of large U.S. dioceses are at or approaching 75, the age at which bishops must submit their letters of resignation to the pope; they include Cardinal Cupich, who turns 74 later this month. That means Francis could have the opportunity to continue reshaping the U.S. hierarchy.

Cardinal Cupich, who advises the pope on the selection of bishops, said Francis has been clear from the beginning that he wants pastors who are close to their flocks.

“He wants people who are well-educated, who are faithful to the teachings of the church, and [who] realize being faithful to church also means having a pastoral outreach to people that unites,” he said. “I think that’s the legacy of this papacy.”

As for the next pope, Francis has not said for certain whether he will retire, like his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, or stay in office until his death. Asked what he thinks the church needs in a future leader, Cardinal Cupich laughed, recalling a toast he gave when he was elevated to cardinal in 2016: “That the pope will have a long life and that I may never have to vote in a conclave.”

But should he have a vote—cardinals can vote in conclaves until they turn 80—he said the church will benefit from the leadership of a pope who is “faithful to the tradition.”

“And the tradition, of course, means the handing-on of what has immediately preceded it, not just 2,000 years ago, or 1,500 years ago, or 500 years ago,” he said.

But Cardinal Cupich said trying to predict the future of the papacy is a fool’s errand, noting how few people thought the cardinals would elect then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio in 2013.

“I think that we have to be attentive to the fact, as the pope has said, that God is full of surprises,” Cardinal Cupich said. “And I want to be surprised. I like surprises.”

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