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On a hot day in August, Bishop Blase Cupich traveled three hours, pulled a folding table from the trunk of a car and used it as an altar to say Mass at a farmworker camp in rural Washington state.
The Omaha native and bishop of the Spokane Diocese had arrived to offer spiritual healing after wildfires swept through the area, destroying migrant worker camps.
Cupich (pronounced SOO-pitch) is said to carry the heart of a pastor — a trait many believe drew the attention of Pope Francis, who this fall named him as the next leader of the powerful Archdiocese of Chicago. Observers say the pontiff’s selection of Cupich as Chicago’s archbishop is the clearest indication yet of the direction Francis wants to steer American church leaders. Cupich himself isn’t so sure.
“I think he sent a pastor, not a message,” Cupich said in September when the appointment was announced.
Cupich, considered a moderate, is known for a common touch, an open-minded and collaborative leadership style, and a compassionate tone on controversial topics such as same-sex marriage. All are characteristics that mirror the pope’s vision of a humbler church that shows its merciful face rather than only its rules-driven side.
Cupich “was doing things in his own diocese that reflect the vision Francis has,” said Eileen Burke-Sullivan, vice provost for mission and ministry at Creighton University. “He would have been an illustration of the Francis effect before Francis.”
As leader of the nation’s third-largest archdiocese, Cupich, 65, will hold a position that bishops and priests look to for cues on leadership and tone, experts say. Chicago archbishops also are usually elevated to cardinal, and thus eligible to vote for the next pope. He would be the first Nebraska-born cardinal.
It seems clear to many that Cupich, like Francis, will emphasize an inclusive church, an approach informed by his years in Omaha.
In an interview with The World-Herald, Cupich said he remembers growing up in the 1950s in a mixed South Omaha neighborhood, where an African-American family lived across the street and the block was filled with Germans, Poles and people of a variety of ethnicities.
“My parents were always good about making sure all of (the children) treat people with respect,” he said.
Cupich will be installed Tuesday as the ninth archbishop of Chicago, succeeding Cardinal Francis George, an aggressive defender of orthodoxy who is two years past the church’s retirement age for bishops and suffering from cancer.
In some ways Cupich’s ascension to the post seems remarkable.
Just 16 years ago he was an Omaha parish priest, leading a flock of 5,600 Catholics as pastor of St. Robert Bellarmine Church. As Chicago archbishop he will guide 2.2 million Catholics, oversee a complex bureaucracy and hold a position considered in the upper tier of Roman Catholic Church hierarchy in the United States, if not the world.
But those who know the former Omaha altar boy and grandson of Croatian immigrants say his leadership experience has prepared him well.
Cupich has served as bishop of two dioceses; worked at the papal embassy in Washington, D.C.; served as president of a seminary; and has led committees for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, including one responding to the sexual abuse crisis. But it wasn’t just his résumé that drew the Vatican’s attention.
“(Francis) chose Bishop Cupich because of who he is, and what he believes and how he leads,” said John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University.
The roots of Cupich’s leadership are in Omaha, where he grew up as one of nine children in a devout Catholic family and graduated from the now-closed Archbishop Ryan High School in 1967.
Cupich served on the student council at Ryan and said the experience provided early lessons on how to work with people who looked at things from different perspectives.
Soon after his ordination in Omaha in 1975 he was assigned an administrative position in the Omaha Archdiocese during a period when reforms from the Second Vatican Council were filtering down to local churches.
Burke-Sullivan said she remembers Cupich in the late 1970s helping churches carry out changes such as allowing laypeople to give Holy Communion.
Some laypeople were relucant to make the changes. But Cupich helped them understood how the reforms of Vatican II could renew the church and its members.
“He had a real deep sense the changes would empower (the laity) to be much more actively involved,” she said.
Marge Hartnett served as president of the parish council when Cupich became pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Bellevue in 1987. It was Cupich’s first assignment as a pastor, and he didn’t arrive thinking he had all the answers, she said. He wanted to know how every committee worked and what church members believed were the parish priorities.
“He collaborated,” she said. “He was there to learn with the rest of us.”
While pastor at St. Robert in 1998 he was named bishop of the Diocese of Rapid City, South Dakota. He was appointed to the Diocese of Spokane in 2010.
One of the biggest controversies during his Spokane tenure involved the fallout he inherited from a previous bishop’s decision to seek bankruptcy protection over sex abuse claims.
David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said Cupich could have been more open about the abuse cases tied to the bankruptcy.
Cupich disputed the group’s characterization of his actions, noting that the bankruptcy was filed before he arrived in Spokane.
The Rev. Michael Savelesky, vicar general of the Spokane Diocese, said Cupich showed compassion toward victims and understood they were still hurting emotionally.
“He made sure promises made to them for counseling and healing were followed through with,” Savelesky said.
Joe Mudd, assistant professor of religious studies at Gonzaga University, a Catholic institution in Spokane, said Cupich has carried out his duties with an eye toward people who feel broken or on the fringes of society and the church.
For instance, Cupich’s call to provide food and other assistance to migrant workers following the wildfires in Washington last summer showed he understands the church’s role in social justice, Mudd said.
Rob McCann, executive director of Spokane Catholic Charities, said most of the workers were undocumented immigrants and would be reluctant to seek government help, but they felt comfortable accepting assistance from the church.
Cupich said his own family’s immigrant roots help him understand the importance of changing laws on immigration.
“It has made me sensitive to the aspirations of people who come here looking for a better life,” he said.
McCann said Cupich also showed his interest in social justice by launching a drive to sign up thousands in the Spokane region for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act.
And he stepped into the debate during the run-up to the Washington state referendum in 2012 that ultimately legalized same-sex marriage.
Cupich repeatedly underscored church teaching that marriage could be between a man and a woman only. But he also wrote at length to parishioners about the suffering of those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community because of anti-gay prejudice. He condemned violence and bullying that led some gay teens to suicide.
He said it was important for him to address the issue and make clear the church has no tolerance for people who would demean gays and lesbians.
The pope has drawn wide attention for striking a similar tone regarding gays, saying, “Who am I to judge?”
Mudd said that while Cupich and the pope share a similar leadership style and tone, Cupich displayed those characteristics long before Francis’ papacy.
The pope’s focus on mercy, compassion and acceptance, Cupich said, has been a confirmation of the priorities he has tried to emphasize during his own years as a priest and bishop.
“(Francis) is saying that is part of our tradition, going after the lost sheep,” Cupich said. “Helping people know that God’s love is unconditional.”
This report includes material from the Associated Press.
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