Archbishop Cupich listens, deeply. It takes time, but he believes it is important. He wants to know people’s faces, to ask them questions, to understand their struggles, and to figure out ways the Church can be relevant to them.

While being in touch with people comes naturally to him, Archbishop Cupich finds a kindred spirit in Pope Francis. He often quotes Pope Francis in saying, “Realities are greater than ideas.” Ideas can help us sort through a situation, but realities tether us to real life. “The Pope is calling people to a more authentic way of knowing. Instead of approaching life from the 30,000-foot level of ideas, he challenges policymakers and elected officials—indeed all of us—to experience the life of everyday real people,” said Archbishop Cupich. “Realities bring us to the ground and call us to action.”

For the past 16 years, serving as bishop in two mission dioceses—Rapid City, South Dakota and Spokane, Washington—he has taken the time to learn about the realities.

A Mission Bishop

In 1998, Archbishop Cupich arrived in Rapid City, a diocese that covers the western half of South Dakota and encompasses five Native American reservations—including Pine Ridge Reservation with one of the nation’s lowest per capita incomes. He immediately set out to meet the Lakota people, a prominent group in the area that represents 27 percent of Catholics in the diocese.

Archbishop Blase Cupich

Seeing the immense challenges that the Lakota faced—from drug and alcohol addictions to joblessness, depression and poverty—was startling. He joined Father John Hatcher, S.J., who was director of the Sioux Spiritual Center, located in the middle of the state’s five reservations, to commission a survey of the Lakota as a way to better understand the situation. The Lakota people themselves were trained to conduct the survey, which included more than 1,000 face-to-face interviews. It was a thorough study, with the first results published three years later, in four volumes.

With these findings, Archbishop Cupich set priorities for how the diocese could serve those living on reservations. He encouraged the Lakota to play a bigger role in the Church. They became leaders on the Diocesan Council and the Pastoral Council and in Youth Ministry.

Archbishop Cupich fell in love with the Lakota. With great respect for their traditions, he always invited them to do their drumming at services. According to Father Hatcher, he said that, “until the Lakota people were able to bring their gifts, they wouldn’t feel welcome in the Catholic Church community.”

Father Hatcher, who now heads the St. Francis Mission on the Rosebud Reservation, said the Lakota were grateful for Archbishop Cupich and greeted him warmly. In fact, he recalled a story about one particularly interesting encounter. Archbishop Cupich was on a reservation, sharing a big meal, and afterwards, he was shaking hands with everyone. A grandmotherly woman said to him, “I’m so glad you’re one of us!”

A bit perplexed, he asked, “How so?” “I heard you’re Crow Nation,” she said. “Well, actually,” he said, with a smile, “I’m Croatian.”

Even with a vastly different heritage—his four grandparents came from Croatia—Archbishop Cupich embraced the Lakota culture. He appreciated their distinctiveness and nurtured their faith within their own customs.

For his next appointment, in the Diocese of Spokane, Washington, Archbishop Cupich continued to learn, from the ground up, about a diverse diocese. He traveled all around the geographically large diocese, visiting poor parishes, especially ones that were the most challenging. “No place was too small for him to visit,” said Father Kevin Codd, Vocational Director of the diocese.

As he traveled around, Archbishop Cupich encouraged people to consider religious life. He created a “culture of vocations,” said Father Codd, “and was a big supporter of seminarian education.” Despite its small population, the diocese ordained five priest last spring.

Archbishop Cupich is very popular in the diocese. “He talks to people, he’s personable, and always accessible,” said Father Codd. He’s also energetic and has a great work ethic. “He can manage enormous amounts of work and still be present. This week, I received several emails from Cupich—one came at 3:15 a.m!”

Father Al Grasher, pastor of Saint Mary’s Presentation Catholic Church, in Deer Park, Washington, also noticed Archbishop Cupich’s hard work when he helped the parish immensely during its recent church renovation. The Archbishop was so happy to announce to the 230 families of the parish that they had received a $50,000 grant from Catholic Extension for the project.

Contributions to Catholic Extension

Archbishop Cupich’s vast experience with Catholic Extension—as a longtime mission bishop, board member for five years, and chairman of the Mission Committee—will be a big boost when he assumes his new role as Chancellor of Catholic Extension. “It will be an easy transition,” said Father Jack Wall, “because he knows us well and understands our strategies in addressing the needs of mission dioceses.”

During his tenure as head of the Mission Committee, Archbishop Cupich was responsible for overseeing Catholic Extension’s strategic programs that address the U.S. dioceses’ most urgent pastoral priorities. He has helped Catholic Extension seize new opportunities to support the ministries of the Church. He has forged new partnerships and new initiatives with young adults and Hispanic lay leaders.

Archbishop Cupich sees the bridge-building potential of Catholic Extension. He often reminds us that the word “pontifical” comes from the Latin root “bridge.” Thus, as a papal society, Catholic Extension serves as a bridge-building agent for the Catholic Church in the United States. One of the most important ways we build bridges is through the financial support we extend to mission dioceses.

Archbishop Cupich’s appointment is good news for all dioceses affiliated with Catholic Extension, said Bishop Joseph Tyson, of Yakima, Washington, because he recognizes the challenges. “My last conversation with Archbishop Cupich was on our outreach to victims of the terrible forest fires that devastated large areas in north-central Washington state which included both of our two dioceses. He has a real compassion and knows the struggles of scraping together financial resources in poor rural communities even in times of disaster,” said Bishop Tyson. 

Ready for New Role

While the Archdiocese of Chicago, with 2.2 million Catholics and 350 parishes, is a larger arena than Archbishop Cupich has ever served, his colleagues believe his work in mission dioceses has prepared him well and are confident that he will adjust easily to this new role. “Not only will he provide clear and fearless direction, but Chicago is receiving a man of God with a shepherd’s heart,” said Bishop Tyson.

Bishop Gruss of Rapid City agrees. Archbishop Cupich has dealt with many difficult and complex situations, he said, “and he brings with him pastoral and administrative experiences that will bolster his ability to meet the challenges of a large diocese. His skills in ministering to people from a variety of cultures also will help him with the multi-cultural demographics of the archdiocese.”

In the Archdiocese of Chicago, as in the rest of the country, more than 40 percent of Catholics are Hispanic. In this way, Chicago can be seen as a microcosm of the Church in our country. Archbishop Cupich, who has worked extensively with Hispanics, will promote the vitality of Chicago’s immigrants and foster a greater role for them in the Church.

Archbishop Cupich will be a bright and inspiring leader not only for the Archdiocese of Chicago and not only for Catholic Extension, but also for the entire Catholic Church in America. He will remind us to be present to Catholics everywhere, to look for common ground among Catholics and to be a collaborative Church. We are listening, too.