Pope Picks Moderate To Lead Chicago's Catholics

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Pope Francis appears to be sending a signal to Catholics. He has appointed a moderate bishop to lead a major American archdiocese.

Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane, Washington, is the Pope's choice to lead Chicago's 2.2 million Catholics. Cupich will replace Cardinal Francis George, who has cancer. From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: In the several months since Chicago's 77-year-old Cardinal Francis George publicly urged the Vatican to plan for his succession, the name of Bishop Blase Cupich didn't make many of the shortlists. Not even Cupich himself saw it coming.


BLASE CUPICH: Well, surprise doesn't come close to the word that would come to mind for me.

SCHAPER: As he was introduced to the media in Chicago Saturday, Cupich immediately struck a tone of humility.


CUPICH: Well, first of all, I'm no saint.

SCHAPER: Bishop Cupich says, all of his mistakes in life have come from when he decided to act on his own, suggesting he will bring a more inclusive leadership style to the Catholic Church in Chicago. He's described as a moderate on social issues, such as abortion, gay marriage and the role of women in the church, but Cupich seems uncomfortable with such labels.

CUPICH: It's not my agenda. It's not what I feel. I'm going to try to be attentive to what the Lord wants. Maybe if there's moderation in that, then I'm a moderate.

SCHAPER: As Bishop of Spokane when Washington voters legalized gay marriage, Cupich reiterated the church's opposition, but also warned that the church has no tolerance for those who incite hostility. He has also called for civility on issues such as abortion. And he has criticized other church leaders who threatened to shut down Catholic social service agencies over provisions in the Affordable Care Act. At his news conference Saturday, Cupich was asked if the Pope is sending a message with his appointment.


CUPICH: I wouldn't want to in any way overly politicize or put this in a different context. I think he cares a lot about people, and he took his time, and he wanted to provide a pastor. And so I think he sent a pastor, not a message.

MASSIMO FAGGIOLI: So this appointment is not a message, but it's a signal that there's something changing in the Catholic Church.

SCHAPER: Massimo Faggioli is a professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, and has written a book about Pope Francis.

FAGGIOLI: It's a change in terms of style and the priorities and in terms of what kind of tactics or of language the future Cardinal of Chicago will use.

SCHAPER: Faggiolo says, like Pope Francis, Cupich is not a culture warrior, but one who will foster conversations. And he will likely bring greater focus to issues of social justice, such as immigration reform and serving the poor. And that's important, says Faggioli.

FAGGIOLI: In U.S. Catholicism, where Chicago goes, the U.S. Catholic Church is going.

SCHAPER: Faggioli says, the appointment of Cupich may not sit well with many more conservative Catholics, but around Chicago, many seem to welcome their new archbishop. Outside of Chicago's Holy Name Cathedral Sunday, parishioner Lizveth Mendez says, she's hopeful.

LIZVETH MENDEZ: Well, I can appreciate someone being a moderate because extremes are usually not that good, you know? But just someone that can be, I think, sensitive to the way the times are changing and sensitive to the current issues at hand.

SCHAPER: Blase Cupich will be installed as Chicago's new archbishop at Holy Name Cathedral in November. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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