by Chris Canniff
On Saturday, September 20, it was announced that Pope Francis had appointed the Most Reverend Blase Cupich, Bishop of Spokane, as the new Archbishop of Chicago, a position held for the past seventeen years by Francis Cardinal George, OMI.
In January 2012, Cardinal George turned 75 years old, at which time he submitted his mandatory resignation to Pope Benedict XVI as stipulated by canon law. No successor was immediately named, and he remained in his role. However, with his health increasingly declining in recent months, speculation had been mounting that his retirement was imminent.
Bishop Cupich, who was appointed as Bishop of Rapid City in 1998, has been Bishop of Spokane since 2010, where he has attempted to salvage the diocese’s finances in the wake of bankruptcy brought on by his predecessor’s mismanagement of sexual abuse settlements. His promotion to Chicago will elevate him from overseeing a small suffragan diocese of roughly 90,000 faithful in 80 parishes managed by about 70 priests on an annual budget of $2.6 million to a large metropolitan see of more than 2.3 million faithful in 356 parishes managed by nearly 800 priests and six auxiliary bishops on an annual budget of more than $1 billion.
Two years ago, the archdiocese had a $42 million deficit and, in recent months, laid off several staff members. The greatest task that lies ahead for Cupich is figuring out how to maintain financial solvency in an archdiocese that has seen declining numbers in terms of sacramental participation but which has a huge infrastructure left over from a past era. While working to grow the Church and regain followers, Cupich will simultaneously be faced with the counter-intuitive reality that he will have to shrink bureaucracy and possibly reduce the number of parishes and schools.
With parish attendance dwindling, the immigrant influx is not enough to make up for the exodus of wealthier families who could contribute more but who continue to participate less and less in Church life. Moreover, running the country’s largest Catholic school system in such a financial climate becomes increasingly difficult as costs rise beyond the means of the low-income families they often serve.
Whereas Spokane has only 17 Catholic schools and one Jesuit university, Chicago operates 244 Catholic schools in addition to loosely overseeing six independently-run Catholic universities which fall within its territory. Much like Cardinal George who possesses two master’s and two doctoral degrees as well as honorary doctorates, Cupich is also highly educated and is the chairman of the National Catholic Education Association. This intellectual pedigree and set of skills may have been a prime factor in his being chosen for this role.
But, according to John Allen, associate editor of Crux, Cupich’s appointment indicates something even larger, viewing it as a sign “that the Francis revolution in Catholicism has finally arrived in the United States.” Cupich is considered one of the moderate members of the American episcopate who holds to Church teaching on all major issues, but who lives with a greater pastoral emphasis on service to the poor. Like Boston’s Cardinal O’Malley, who is said to have advised the pope on this appointment, Cupich is seen by many as a prelate who is ideologically moderate, pastorally sensitive, and personally humble.