When I point out to Cardinal Blase Cupich that he seems to enjoy stirring things up, he breaks into laughter. “I’m not doing anything to stir things up any more than the Pope is!”
The cardinal turns serious again and he leans forward and looks me in the eye.
“The problem – and it’s a major one – is this. We are not meeting the needs of real people. We can’t be self-satisfied. The most pernicious temptation we have in the Church is to give in to the feeling that ‘we have arrived’. Pope Francis is trying to jar us out of that.”
I am speaking to the cardinal, perhaps the Pope’s most forceful and articulate champion, in a book-lined office looking out over the garden of St Edmund’s College, Cambridge. Cupich, 68, dapper, friendly but watchful, has a lived-in, character actor’s face, which frequently switches expression. He was about to give the annual Von Hügel Lecture – sponsored by the Von Hügel Institute for Critical Catholic Inquiry – at the college last week in which he would describe Francis’ post-synodal exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia, as “a new paradigm of Catholicity”. His lecture sharply divided the audience and it has sharply divided commentators since. But to Cupich, it was not a purely academic exercise. The message of Amoris has touched him deeply.
“It’s something I’ve lived; something I’ve experienced,” he says simply. “You can’t teach unless you’re ready to learn. And you can’t learn unless you’re ready to listen. And what the Pope does so dramatically in Amoris is to show, through the whole of Scripture, in one story after another, how God has chosen family life as a privileged way in which we see who God is and what God is doing.”
So much of the appeal and freshness of Francis is here: while theologians and biblical scholars and academics tend to seek the things of God in monasteries or workplaces, in politics or in art, he asks us instead to look for God right under our nose – in the everyday chaos of family life. The family, Cupich says, is facing new pressures and is changing fast. And, from the insight that the family is a privileged place of God’s self-revelation and action in the world, it follows that there must be an interplay between the Church’s teaching and the reality of the family: a balance between teaching and listening. A reciprocity.
“It’s quite an insight isn’t it?” Cupich says. “And family life continues to be a source of God’s unfolding, of what God is revealing, of what God is doing in our time. That’s why families are not problems that we have to bring solutions to, but rather opportunities for us to see what God is doing.
“It’s a revolutionary understanding of the family. And in that movement of the Spirit, in that reciprocity, I have learned to be a priest.”
He is careful not to be misunderstood. This is not about making it up as we go along. “The Church must be true to the teachings we have received. But a new direction is required,” he explains. The work of the priest, and of the parish community, is decisively different. “The new model of ministry to families is one of accompaniment … and is marked by a deep respect for the conscience of the faithful.”
One of the neglected aspects of Amoris is its attentiveness to the small details. There is something of the novelist’s eye in Francis’ descriptions of the tensions and exasperations of family life. This is someone who has spent many Sundays among the pandemonium of long, sprawling family lunches. “Francis is a good observer of human behaviour,” agrees Cupich. “And he’s present to people in the detail of their lives – he sees what’s happening there.”
Blase Cupich, too, is quietly attentive, a good noticer. So he knew the use of words like “revolution” and “new hermeneutic” would incite alarm and distaste as well as enthusiasm. Towards the end of his lecture, Cupich describes the paradigm shift as a “revivified hermeneutic”. Pope Francis, he says, “is retrieving a way of thinking about Church teaching and practice that has its roots in our tradition.” It’s almost a throwaway line. And quietly tucked into the lecture is a clear rejection of relativism, an acknowledgement of objective moral truths, and a reassertion of a traditional understanding of conscience. But Cupich seems to prefer to play up the hermeneutic of revolution and disturbance rather than the hermeneutic of ressourcement and continuity. Aren’t you being unnecessarily combative, I ask him? We’re used to church leaders who are protective of the unity of the faithful, and anxious not to inflame a culture war.
“There’s no revolution in what the Church teaches,” he says. “What’s new and revolutionary is the way that the Church is Church. The way the Church acts. The way the Church ministers to people. From the beginning, Pope Francis has made it clear that he is re-orienting the Church as a field hospital, rather than a place where people are thinking. ‘We’re there.’ I want to say enough so that people don’t feel that Amoris is another church document we can put on the shelf. It’s a call to arms, a call to action, and I don’t want that to be lost.”
It’s often said that Blase Joseph Cupich (pronounced SOO-pitch) was the personal choice of Pope Francis to succeed Francis Cardinal George as Archbishop of Chicago in 2014. “I’ve never asked the Pope about it,” he says. “All I know is that the papal nuncio called me and told me I’d been appointed. Then he laughs and says, “Of course, every bishop is a personal choice of the Pope.”
In fact, at the time of his appointment, Cupich, although well enough known in Rome as a US bishop with the authentic “smell of the sheep” much beloved of Pope Francis, had never actually met him. “The first time I met the Pope was when I went over to Rome to receive the pallium in June 2015,” he says. “He asked to see me, and we spoke for half an hour – in Italian, which is better than my Spanish. ‘I just want to see for myself the person that I appointed,’ he told me.”
Cupich’s four grandparents were all immigrants from Croatia who had come to Omaha, Nebraska, just before and after the First World War because they’d heard there was access to unskilled work in the meat-packing plants. They attended the same parish in Omaha; their children, Blase’s parents, went to the same primary school and the same secondary school. They married after Blase’s father – also called Blase – came home after the war. After being discharged from the navy, he worked for the post office.
Blase was the third of nine children: four boys and five girls. “All of us were churchgoers. We were in the choir, we served Mass … the parish was our second home.
“My father, when we were children, would get up early, carry his mail, come home in the afternoon, have lunch with my mother and then he would come to the school, where he worked as a part-time janitor: my two older brothers and I helped him clean the school; then we’d come home and the family had dinner together, and then my father would go out and bar tend – a third job.”
“The boys were all in one bedroom; the girls all in the other. When I was in high school, we moved to a four-bedroom house: the girls got two bedrooms,” he recalls. “We all had jobs when we were kids. I delivered papers, I worked with my dad as a janitor, I cleaned houses – we all had to pay our way through high school.”
His older brother went to seminary. He wasn’t to stick it out, but it put the thought in Blase’s mind. “I thought, I’ll give it a try.” He had considered studying law, but he took to philosophy. He studied in Rome, and was ordained in 1975. Between 1980 and 1987, he was a secretary to the papal delegation in Washington DC, where the nuncio was Pio Laghi, recently reassigned from Argentina.
After serving as the rector of a seminary, in 1998, aged 49, Cupich was appointed the seventh Bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota, by Pope John Paul II. In 2010, he was appointed Bishop of Spokane, Washington State. “When three popes have appointed you a bishop, maybe one of them could have been mistake … but three?” Again, the well-lined face breaks into broad laugh.
He has been a member of the College of Cardinals since 19 November 2016. Like Vincent Nichols, he is a member of the Congregation for Bishops, and more recently he was appointed to the Congregation for Catholic Education.
I liken the ambition and drive of Pope Francis to the boldness and energy of Pope John Paul II, who effected a paradigm shift of his own, tilting the Church in a different direction almost through force of will. But he was elected before his sixtieth birthday and was Pope for 27 years. Can the fundamental change of self-understanding that Pope Francis is trying to nudge us towards really take root in a relatively short papacy?
“What the Pope is doing is rooted in the Second Vatican Council,” Cupich says. “That’s where the major paradigm shift happened. He is just mining what the Council stood for. So I don’t think it’s going to fizzle out when this papacy is over. This is a curved road. During the papacy of John Paul II, people said to me, ‘The Council is kind of dead now; we’ve got this new wave, this new concern with orthodoxy,’ and I would say, ‘There’s no turning back, the Council opened a new pathway, it was led by the Spirit, and it’s going to continue.’ I have never played the game of which papacy you pick.”
There are of course Catholics who are simply not prepared to swallow the development in teaching and practice opened up by Amoris that under some circumstances might allow someone in a second marriage to take Communion.
But Cupich points to John Paul II as the Pope who instigated the really striking development in doctrine by rescuing the divorced and remarried from their state of disgrace and excommunication, and bringing them into the life of the Church. Amoris takes that development on another step.
Cupich tells me that his own priests in Chicago, who are by and large open to the new pathway, find that Amoris makes demands on them not always easy to meet. “Accompanying people is hard work.” For others, he admits, “it is too much of a change for them to accept. That’s always going to be the case when something new happens. The question for those who are opposed to the Pope is, ‘Do you believe that the Holy Spirit was not present at the two family synods? Do you believe the Holy Spirit was not present when the Holy Father wrote Amoris?’ The burden now is on those who take issue with what the Pope is doing to explain themselves – not on the Pope.”
Cupich says its now up to bishops’ conferences to take the teaching forward. “Including here?” I wonder. “There might be difficulties.” Cupich nods. “Sure. But it’s better to talk about it in the open isn’t it? You can’t be agnostic about Amoris. You can’t just ignore it. Yes, internally, there are going to be struggles. But there are a lot of people out there who feel alienated from the Church, alienated from God, alienated from other people, who feel as though they have been left behind, discarded, or living at the margins, and that nobody cares about them. I don’t think that’s satisfactory.”
Cupich takes me back to his childhood in Omaha: “I grew up in a big family. We never let issues get out of hand, where they were just allowed to simmer while we walked away. My parents wanted us to be very honest about what we were doing. If our only concern is, Is this going to make a mess in the house?, we are just going to be a self-referential Church. I wasn’t ordained to be part of that.”
Watch Cardinal Blase Cupich's lecture sponsored by the Von Hügel Institute at St Edmund's, Cambridge