A week before he became the archbishop of Chicago, Blase Cupich sat down with Chicago to talk about some of the challenges he faces. The interview is part of a special report from Chicago magazine on the state of the Catholic Church in Chicago. 

How well did you know Pope Francis before he chose you for the job of Archbishop of Chicago?

Never met him. He wouldn’t recognize me on the street.

So who vetted you?

I have no idea. The nuncio [Carlo Maria Vigano, the Holy See’s ambassador to the United States] is the person who puts all the material together for a report [on candidates], so I think you’re going to have to ask him.

How did you get the word?

I had just left Ukraine. I was at the synod of bishops for the Greek Catholic Church there, and was in Munich, ready to take my flight home the next day, and my cell phone rang and it was the nuncio and he told me.

You still haven’t spoken to the Pope?


So how does he give you marching orders?

It doesn’t work like that in the Church. Once a bishop is appointed, in terms of governance, we are semi-autonomous. It’s not like we are branch managers of a bank or something… Bishops are expected to make decisions [for their dioceses]. It’s not that kind of hierarchical structure.

Was there any hesitation in saying yes? This is a big job, and Chicago can be a tough town.

If there was hesitation, it wasn’t because I felt Chicago was a tough town. But I had just begun a planning process for pastoral growth in the diocese of Spokane, and I had as well a pastoral letter coming out which I issued the week of my appointment. And so it seemed to not be the greatest timing. But the nuncio told me not to worry about it, that the Holy Father would provide for Spokane.

When do you think you’ll meet the Pope?

I think the schedule would be sometime in late June.

Are you looking forward to that?

I am. I lived in Rome for four years, so it’s like going home. I was there from 1971 to 1985 as a student. I was a seminarian.

Before that, you lived in a crowded house, I hear.

I’m third of nine. Five girls, four boys.

What was the dynamic?

Our parish [in Omaha] was like a second home to us, where we were expected to serve Mass, be in the choir. It was an ethnic parish, Croatian, where every Wednesday night we would go to learn folk dances. And then of course there were fundraisers, festivals, and other occasions. Our individual lives—our spiritual lives—were tied to the parish. There really wasn’t any division. It was not a matter of just individual piety. It was a communal experience.

Do you still do much folk dancing?

No [laughs]. But I’m sure it’s like riding a bicycle. It will come back.

Did you go to a Catholic grade school and high school?

I did. Every school that I have ever attended, except for kindergarten, I went to a Catholic institution.

Who were your role models growing up?

Of course parents play a big part in your life as you’re growing up, and so I’d have to put them right at the very beginning. But also the religious sisters who taught me. I can remember the names of all of them from first grade all the way through high school. They were very important for me in shaping my appreciation of church life, and also the way they carried themselves, with great dignity.

Who do you turn to for advice these days?

God [laughs]. It depends on the area of decision making and the expertise needed. For instance, [in Spokane] I would get a group of lay people who knew what was going on, whether that’s financial, economic, or social. I make sure that I get the right groups in the room before I make a decision.

Some have said you’re a moderate, some a progressive. Which label is more accurate?

I would say that I’m me. And I’m going to leave it up to people to if they want to pigeonhole me one way or another. But I think that all of us are considered liberal in some areas and conservative in others, depending on what the issue is. I think it’s a mistake to download a whole profile of a liberal or a conservative on an individual when life is a lot more complex than that. I bristle at that, and I think most people would too.

Of all the issues facing the Chicago church—fiscal issues, falling Mass attendance, effects of the priest sexual abuse crisis—what do you focus on first?

Getting to know people. A very important thing was said to me by my first pastor. He knew that I came out of the seminary with advanced degrees, with a lot of study. And he said, “One piece of advice. People don’t care how much you know. They want to know if you know them.” I take that seriously. So I’ve taken off my calendar things that would have taken me out of Chicago, because I want to stay home and do my work. And I’m praying for some snow days, too. Me and all the kids. [Laughs.]

Speaking of kids: In Cook and Lake Counties, Catholic grade-school enrollment has fallen 55 percent since 1980. How big of a problem is that to you?

We’re seeing the downturn as well with regard to the public school system, because we have a lower birth rate. So demographics is part of it…. I know, from talking to people around town in the short time I’ve been here, that it would be a catastrophe if the Catholic schools did not exist. The public schools couldn’t handle all those children [60,595 in Catholic grade schools alone in the current school year]. We’re doing as well as we can without any government funding. We give a lot of scholarship money, and that’s very helpful. But nonetheless, there’s a charge [to attend]. I commend the parents who are sending their children to a Catholic school, because they’re making a sacrifice and they’re paying twice for their child’s education. They’re paying the tuition and they’re paying taxes.

Since 1975, the year you were ordained, the Catholic population in Cook and Lake Counties has fallen by about eight percentage points. What do you make of that?

First of all, it’s important to realize that any approach to church life, and especially evangelization, is not about increasing market share. I think it would be a mistake to approach it that way. We have a message, we have a tradition, that enriches the lives of people. The more we can share it the better.

I also think those kinds of statistics have to be read across the wider context of what’s happening in terms of institutional life. People are not joining organizations. There is a sense of radical individualism. Volunteer groups are having problems. Everybody is struggling with that almost anti-institutional mentality out there. And so I think for the most part we have fared well, but it doesn’t mean that we should not redouble our efforts to help people understand that community life is a very enriching kind of life. Radical individualism can be very sad.

One new study shows that half of all Catholic teenagers are no longer Catholic a decade later.

You don’t like to see that number. But I also know that young people go through stages. As a pastor of two large parishes [in the past], I began to see that age group come back when they have children. And enter them in the sacramental life of the church. On the other hand, you don’t want them to leave, because there will be a percentage that will never come back. So we need to do more outreach.

How do you deal with increasing polarization in the church?

Society is polarized. Our politics are polarized. It’s creating gridlock. Catholics don’t live in a vacuum. They live in a society, and that society in some ways is going to spill over into the life of the church. We need to resist that. And I think we have some insight into how to deal with that, because what binds us together is the common good. That’s part of Catholic social teaching. It’s not about how much share I’m going to get, or whether my constituency—my political view or my religious view—is going to prevail over someone else, but, How is the community strengthened?

Pope Benedict predicted a smaller church, but Francis seems like more of a growth guy. He recently tweeted that the church’s principal message is evangelization. Do you agree?

Yes, because that’s what Jesus said. That was the game plan that he gave to the disciples when he sent them into the world. He didn’t say just, “Go and teach.” He said, “Go and make disciples of all nations.” I’ve always believed that. We can’t be about maintenance; we have to be about mission.

If you want to evangelize, ex-Catholics might be a promising target. What changes could be made to encourage them to return to the Church?

I don’t know. Because I’d have to know the reasons why they left. It may be that they’ve gotten too busy with their careers, they’re finding a lot of stresses in their lives. Maybe it’s part of the maturation process of a young person, cutting the apron strings. Maybe the church is identified as the thing their parents did, and so they’re not going to do it… I don’t know if it’s necessarily about church teaching or the way the church operates. I do think that the sex abuse crisis has had an impact. Because there are young people who are saying, “How could this have happened?” And they’re scandalized by it. And there’s healing that has to take place.

Some progressives predict Catholic teaching on same-sex marriage could change as soon as 2016. Is that possible?

Are we going to start doing same-sex marriages in church? No. I think that anybody who believes that is not in touch with reality. I do think that at the Synod of Bishops in October there was an openness to try to better understand the life of a person who has same-sex attraction. I think there is also consensus that the church needs to reach out to divorced and remarried people and see how they can be integrated into the life of the church. But we’re not talking about changing doctrine.

If we are talking about the doctrinal issue, I would say that it’s maybe recovering aspects of our doctrine that need to be held up again, looked at again, for us to get a fuller picture of church teachings. When we say, “We want to hold to doctrine,” let’s make sure we have the full breadth of that doctrine, the full breadth of what we teach.

Fast forward to the end of your tenure as Archbishop of Chicago. Typically here, archbishops die in office—

[Interrupts, laughing:] How cheery!

Let me rephrase. What would you like—

[Interrupts:] On my tombstone? I would like to have there: “I tried to treat you like adults.” [Laughs.]

What would you hope your legacy would be?

I would hope that it would be that I was a good and faithful servant. And I did what the church asked me to do. I’ve always tried to do that. And it isn’t about me, anyway. That’s why I’m a little uncomfortable, to be honest with you, with all the hype and the media coverage. Not because I don’t like talking to people and communicating, but because I don’t want to send a signal that there’s some sort of personality cult developing, or that celebrity status is something that defines the life of a bishop.

I’ll tell you, one of my siblings said, “I’ve read all these things in the paper [about you], and I’ve seen the TV things. But I just don’t get it. You’re not that interesting!” [Laughs.] And I need to hear that.

Which sibling?

I’m not going to say. Because I’m going to get hammered. [Laughs]

In a city that has been transformed by fire, getting someone named Blase to come in—

It’s bad luck! [Laughs.]

Or is it good luck?

Fight fire with fire! I like that.