Monday, September 22, 2014

In Chicago's Wake, "Riding the Wave"

(SVILUPPO: A second press conference and other key developments quickly ensued on Monday evening.)

Seventeen years ago, the ink was barely dry on Francis George's own surprise appointment to Chicago when its architect emerged: the cardinal-archbishop of Boston.

Having quoted the end of TS Eliot's "Little Gidding" at his first presser, George might've been the first native son ever to return home as Boss. But his path to the chair in Holy Name arguably owed as much to his days as a young mission priest in Mississippi, when he helped coordinate Catholic involvement in the civil rights movement alongside another freshly-ordained cleric, one Fr Bernard Law.

And now, much as Saturday's stunning launch of Blase Cupich as George's successor is the sign of a markedly different time, the move's lineage stayed eerily intact.

According to ops appraised of the process, the principal Stateside force behind the nod was Boston's Cardinal Seán O'Malley OFM Cap., now Pope Francis' chief North American adviser as the continent's lone member of the pontiff's "Gang of Nine." The coordinator of the reform group, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga – clearly impressed with Cupich's June turn after his own in Washington – is said to have joined the early push for the Spokane prelate, which was reportedly agreed to by Francis' lead American on the Congregation for Bishops, the capital's Cardinal Donald Wuerl. (Beyond the committee work of the USCCB, Cupich and Wuerl would likewise have solid ties through the National Catholic Education Association, whose board the former currently chairs. Given Chicago's boast of the nation's largest diocesan school system, several major Catholic universities – including the US' largest, the Vincentian-run DePaul – as well as two immensely influential graduate centers at Mundelein and the Catholic Theological Union, the confluence of that local context and the choice is a significant aspect which should not be underestimated.)

From the outset of the process, it was made clear that the Pope was driven to "own" his selection for the nation's third-largest diocese, quite possibly the only one Francis will be able to make in the US church's topmost rank. The way things have panned out, he's done precisely that.

Even as the expedited timing helped amplify the shock of the appointment across ideological lines, the move's early arrival has an added ramification for the Pope's wider plans. At its November meeting in Baltimore, the USCCB is scheduled to elect the bench's three delegates to the October 2015 Ordinary Synod, which will discuss concrete proposals to improve the church's pastoral care and outreach to families.

As the nominations from the body which form the Synod ballot currently remain pending, it's a safe bet that Cupich – who garnered sufficient support to make last year's slate of ten nominees for the conference's top two posts – can block out his calendar for the three-week meeting next year.

All that said, the Chicago pick simply continues Francis' leitmotif of finessed, pastorally-grounded major appointments in the US, which the Pope began a year ago this week by shipping Bishop Bernard Hebda from upper Michigan's 70,000-member diocese of Gaylord to the 1.3 million-member archdiocese of Newark, a crucial, wildly complex posting in the nation's largest media market.

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Forty-eight hours after his selection became official, the nominee has been on something of a blitz while visiting his family in Omaha, telling the National Catholic Reporter that he saw his role "as not just telling [people] what the Gospel says but bringing them to an encounter with Christ and accompanying them," and answering a question on the recent controversies over Eucharistic sanctions from CBS' Chicago affiliate by saying that "we can't politicize the Communion rail." The comment came while Cupich was still vested after celebrating Sunday Mass (below) at the boyhood parish his grandparents helped build.

Ironically enough, while earlier last week saw another deeply polarized yet just as energized mix of reactions to reports that Francis intended to transfer Cardinal Raymond Burke to the post of patron of the Order of Malta – normally a sinecure for a retired red-hat after a distinguished career – it's worth noting that Burke and Cupich were classmates in Rome before their ordinations in the summer of 1975.

In the wake of the latest frenzy to surround the Wisconsin-born "chief justice," it wasn't lost on some that word of the Malta move was first broken by outlets which have long championed Burke and the fearless mix of liturgical traditionalism and political conservatism he's come to embody both among admirers and critics of his approach. For the latter's part, meanwhile, while most coverage of the Chicago appointment has deemed Cupich a "moderate," the descriptor was greeted skeptically by one veteran of the USCCB's centrist bloc, who said that "if anything," the archbishop-elect "is left-of-center." As another of the group noted, "Blase wasn't always a progressive," but whatever shift he underwent took place well before the current pontificate. (Along the same lines, in a post on the Mother of All Episcopal Blogs, a longtime Cupich friend – Bishop Robert Lynch of St Petersburg – placed the nominee in an ecclesiological line with the US' premier center-progressives of the last several decades, citing among them the "Lion" of San Francisco John Raphael Quinn, Cincinnati's retired Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk and the new archbishop's predecessor in Spokane, Bishop William Skylstad.)

In any case, Cupich apparently came close to answering at least one long-held prayer of the Catholic right. At the start of his usual hourlong preach in the pulpit he's held for over three decades, Fr Michael Pfleger told yesterday's crowd at the South Side's St Sabina parish he "almost went into cardiac arrest" on seeing the archbishop-elect laud his efforts to address the city's epidemic of gun violence.

As the congregation erupted in applause and praise-shouts, the famously controversial activist pastor said "I almost had a heart attack" when Cupich name-checked him in a TV interview.

"I don't know if that's good or bad, but I'm gonna ride that wave as far as I can," Pfleger said. "Lord, have mercy!"

Before Pfleger pointedly took his sermon's springboard from the new archbishop's episcopal motto – "Peace be with you," as cited in John 20 – the customary liturgical dance prefacing the preach took place to the sounds of the charismatic anthem "Awesome God."

While one of the music ministers in the sanctuary called out that the incoming archbishop would be "our third" of his pastorate, having helmed the now-sprawling empire of worship, education and social-service ministries since the days of Cardinal John Cody, the next Corporation Sole will actually be Pfleger's fourth.

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Along the way, the nation's best-known African-American parish wasn't the only major Chicago Catholic outpost where the appointment was greeted with full-on giddiness. Since his days as bishop of Rapid City, Cupich has been intimately involved with the locally-based Catholic Extension Society, whose work of supporting the nation's home mission dioceses has been a key element of the wider clout of Chitown archbishops for the last century. Indeed, with both his prior episcopal assignments in Extension dioceses, Cupich is the third Windy City pick in a row whose ministry has heavily been in locales where the society's efforts are significant in funding the church's work.

Just before Saturday's appointment presser, the Extension chief Fr Jack Wall reportedly sent up a stage whisper urging the auxiliaries flanking the podium to "Smile!" Meanwhile, as a member of the entity's board of governors, Cupich was already slated to speak at a meeting of the Extension bishops in Chicago this week. As archbishop, the appointee becomes the society's ex officio chancellor.

In an exceedingly rare arrangement granted by the Holy See – as Pio Laghi once termed an earlier instance of it, "a very special exception, which is unique" – neither George nor Cupich immediately became administrators of their respective dioceses when the appointment was announced. Until the installation on November 18th, each will retain the full powers of office as archbishop of Chicago and bishop of Spokane. At the same time, an oath before a judge will legally invest Cupich as "The Catholic Bishop of Chicago, A Corporation Sole," placing complete civil control of the archdiocese's $2.8 billion holdings squarely in his hands.