Friends say archbishop is a spiritually rooted leader

By Michelle Martin | Staff Writer
Sunday, November 16, 2014

Bishop Blase Cupich stands at the end of the installation Mass, during which he was installed as bishop of Spokane, Wash., Sept. 3, 2010. (Eric Meisfjord / Inland Register)

Friends and former colleagues of Archbishop Blase Cupich say that the Archdiocese of Chicago is getting a leader with the intellectual gifts, diplomatic skills and spiritual rootedness the position requires.

He’s got a quick wit and a sly sense of humor as well, they say.

Then-Bishop Cupich hired Margaret Simonson as chancellor of the Diocese of Rapid City, North Dakota, only weeks after being ordained in 1998, and she remains in that position four years after he was appointed bishop of Spokane, Washington.

“He’s very much a visionary. He’s able to see where he wants to go and what needs to be done to get there,” Simonson said, citing as an example the diocese’s purchase of a former Benedictine monastery.

The nuns sold their former monastery and high school building, along with surrounding acreage, for much less than market value, but the diocese still had to raise about $12.5 million in five years — starting just around the time of the financial crash in 2008 — to buy it and do the work necessary to create a retreat center and elementary school.

“By the time he left (in 2010), we knew we’d done it,” Simonson said. “He said you just have to have faith in God.”

While plans to move the chancery center to the site had to be cut, it is now home to the Terra Sancta Retreat Center and St. Elizabeth Seton Elementary School.

That didn’t mean it was easy. Archbishop Cupich was meeting over dinner with a potential major donor on a day in 2008 when the market dropped 500 points. Simonson said he told her he wasn’t sure if he should ask for the money that day or not, but decided to go ahead.

“He got a large pledge,” Simonson said. The donor told the bishop he had faith that the bishop would use the money wisely.

“He’s very human, and he knows God is the one driving the train,” she said. “He never asked anyone to do anything that he wasn’t willing to do himself. When he gets involved, he gets involved.”

Msgr. William O’Connell, who served as one of two episcopal vicars under then-Bishop Cupich in Rapid City, said the strengths that the archbishop brings to the role of shepherd come from his own spiritual life.

“I think it all stems from his very deep sense of prayer and his very deep relationship with our Lord,” O’Connell said.

That relationship enables him to listen, O’Connell said.

“He’s a great listener to all sides of a question,” he said. “That deep spiritual rootedness allows him to be a great proponent of civility. You can disagree and still be civil and still respect the person.”

O’Connell, a Chicago native who attended Quigley Preparatory Seminary before contracting tuberculosis his senior year, thinks that skill will be especially valuable in Chicago, with its racial and ethnic divisions and even “divisions that exist within the presbyterate,” O’Connell said. “Sometimes those divisions can be very difficult for someone coming in. The good thing is, by listening, by being civil, he can bring people together to at least talk to one another.”

Values civil discussions

Simonson said that the value Archbishop Cupich places on civility is reminiscent of Pope Francis, and it’s an approach he brings to hot-button social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

Simonson said that instead of confrontation, Archbishop Cupich called for discussion on those issues.

“He said, ‘You have to win these people over. You have to win their hearts over. You have to understand where they are coming from. You have to get inside their heads,’” she said. “‘You don’t know why they’re in the place they’re at. You have to treat everyone as a child of God.’ He is very gentle with people.”

He brought that same care and gentleness to his dealings with parishioners and with priests, who have to grow into their roles quickly on the prairies of South Dakota.

Newly ordained priests would often have only two years as associate pastors in larger parishes in Rapid City before being made pastors of their own parishes, often great distances from other towns.

“He would always seem to know when it was time to go see someone, to take a day and drive out to one of the parishes,” Simonson said, noting that the diocese covers the entire eastern half of South Dakota. “He will make himself present to the people. He’s very good at helping people behind the scenes. He’s a very kind person.”

The archbishop is a sports fan, she said, following college and high school basketball. He’s an academic who loves teaching as well, she said.

“He’s a great teacher for all levels,” she said. “He really connects with people.”

Adept with finances

He’s also good with numbers, she said.

“You’ll find out he is a financial whiz. He can read financial documents very well. We always had to have a balanced budget at the beginning and at the end of the year,” she said. “He’s very much aware that we are using the fruits of people’s hard work.”

That might be because he did not have a privileged upbringing himself. While his family — there were nine Cupich children — did not want for the necessities, his father worked extra jobs to support them while his mother ran the house.

“They value things differently, poor people,” she said. “You hold onto the intangible things. Your relationships with your neighbors and friends are important. I very much sense that God was at the center of his home.”

O’Connell praised Archbishop Cupich’s sense of humor.

“He really knows how to turn a phrase and bring laughter to a situation,” he said. “He’s got that true wit, even when everyone is caught up in a situation.”

He’s also a good friend. O’Connell, who is suffering from cancer, said the archbishop has called him every couple of weeks or so since he left South Dakota. There’s a few older parishioners in the diocese that he also keeps in touch with, calling every two or three months just to see how they’re doing.

O’Connell said he could not come to Chicago to attend the installation because of his health, but he did attend Archbishop Cupich’s installation in Spokane, and, in 1965, the installation of Cardinal John Cody in Chicago and the banquet following.

“I don’t think that will be as raucous as that was,” he said, recalling different factions cheering when the band played songs referencing New Orleans, Kansas City and St. Louis, all former dioceses where Cardinal Cody served.

Understands church

Father Michael Savelesky, vicar general (one of two) and moderator of the curia for the Diocese of Spokane, Washington, said the larger archdiocese won’t intimidate Archbishop Cupich.

“In some ways, Spokane was a very small venue for his talents. I don’t doubt that he will be able to embrace Chicago without blinking. He’s well-versed in the needs of the universal church.”

He said Archbishop Cupich is knowledgeable and concerned about a “broad range of moral concerns” but “not a traditionalist.”

Archbishop Cupich doesn’t pursue any real hobbies or outside interests and if he has a fault it might be that he works too much. He likes to sit and socialize with people and talk about theology, the vicar general said.

In Spokane, Archbishop Cupich had to address the lingering ramifications of bankruptcy. The diocese was one of the first to file for bankruptcy because of clerical sexual abuse in 2004.

“He tried to revivify our diocese,” Savelesky said. “The bankruptcy was kind of unknown territory, especially for a small diocese.”


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