On Tuesday afternoon, Blase Cupich, former bishop of Spokane, Wash., will be installed as the ninth archbishop of Chicago. Pope Francis named Cupich, 65, to the appointment in September to replace Cardinal Francis George, who is the city’s first retiring archbishop and who is fighting cancer. “This was not on my radar screen at all… I honestly thought that I was going to retire in Spokane,” Cupich says. “The Pope thought otherwise.”
The archbishop of Chicago is a key seat in the power structure of American Catholicism. The archdiocese is the country’s third-largest Catholic community with 2.2 million members — nearly half of whom are Hispanic — and a budget that tops $1 billion. Its two previous archbishops have been named cardinals.
Pope Francis was said to be personally involved in Cupich’s selection. So far the two men have had almost no direct communication — Cupich wrote the Pope a personal letter thanking him for the appointment, as is customary, but that’s it. They will likely meet for the first time in June for the presentation of the pallium, a cloak that the Pope places on the shoulders of new archbishops around the world.
Cupich is ready to hit the ground running. Known for his simple lifestyle, he brought just 20 boxes with him to Chicago, mostly of books and clothes. In a lightly edited Q&A with TIME, Cupich admits he is looking ahead to the pastoral challenges his new archdiocese faces, ranging from immigration reform to youth development to contextualizing the Church’s message about marriage and family. “I think it is a very exciting time in the life of the church,” Cupich says. “It is probably as exciting as what happened in the Second Vatican Council.”
Many people have commented that in picking you for the Chicago seat, Pope Francis was making a point about the kind of future leaders he wants in American churches. Is that overstated?
I think that the Pope has trust in every bishop that is appointed. I consider that to be the case, plus the fact that I don’t feel very comfortable carrying that burden. If I’m supposed to be at the end of the funnel of everything the Pope wants, that’s an onerous task. I think it is a very exciting time in the life of the church. It really comes down to a deeper appreciation, a more wholesome appreciation of what it means to recognize that the risen Christ is working in the life of the church. That is the basis of everything he is doing. It is not just about Jorge Bergoglio, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires who is now Pope Francis. It is about his being able to be attuned to where the risen Christ is active in the life of the church today, and trying in some way to point the church to that.
A lot of parishes are confused about what Pope Francis’ Extraordinary Synod on the Family means. How will you guide parishes on its takeaways?
I think it is important for people to not come to a conclusion too quickly about what the church is going to do … There is a commitment, as the Holy Father said, not about changing doctrine. This is about two things. First, making sure that we are looking at the full breadth of our doctrine, not just cherry-picking things that are familiar to us, but there is a whole tradition of teaching that goes back 2,000 years. Second is how do we apply that doctrine in pastoral practice. We’ve always had different accommodations for people who are on the journey, who are on the way, to bring them along. I think that those are the kinds of things and nuances that have to be worked out and that we have to speak about, but we have to do it in a way that is unifying. We have to make sure that everybody comes together. That is the role of the Holy Father.
What other themes are you thinking about this year?
You think about immigration, you think about jobs, about the economy — those are experienced in families. They impact marriage. That is the context I’m going to use this year to speak about those issues, to have people reflect on them, how do we approach those various areas and what needs to be done to improve those areas as it impacts families, as it impacts marriages, as it helps children. I think that this year, given the synod, I’m going to contextualize all of those questions that way.
Tell me about your preaching style. Do you like preaching?
I like it more than the people who listen to me! I did my doctoral dissertation on the lectionary readings that we use at mass, and how you have Biblical texts that have been taken out of their original Bible context and put together for mass, and now they form a new text. Out of that new text there is an interplay of new meaning … I try to be sensitive to the power of language, to the power of language that God uses to reveal something about what Christ is doing in our time. That is why I’m always excited about preaching, because there is always something new. Christ uses our imagination, uses the power of language and human speech in order to make present what he is doing … I was really grateful to have a chance to have some really in depth study about the power of language, using a philosopher who taught at the University of Chicago, by the name of Paul Ricoeur. I’m really happy to be in Chicago because a lot of what I do is rooted in his approach to language.
What do you make of the flurry of press coverage over your appointment?
It is tough to get used to. I was a big nobody before all of this, and I still consider myself to be that. One of my family members, having seen all the press coverage and watching the internet videos on me, said, ‘I don’t really get it. You are not that interesting.’ So that keeps me humble. You can always count on family to do that for you.