The church’s future depends on mission, not maintenance

In the Pews

No Catholic wants to see parishes and schools close. Learning that the Catholic school you attended is teaching its last class of students, or that the parish where you baptized your children is merging with another parish—and moving to that community’s church building—can feel personal.

Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich says he gets that. But he also wants to challenge Catholics to think of their church in terms of Christ’s mission—and not maintaining what is “theirs.” This year, the Chicago archdiocese rolled out Renew My Church under Cupich, a campaign he says is about Chicago Catholics discerning together the future of the church. “A tree needs to have the soil around it enriched, but you also have to prune it sometimes in order for new growth to happen,” Cupich says. “That’s what we’re about, but if we keep our eyes focused on the mission rather than maintenance, we’re going to get it right.”

For Cupich, enlisting young people in the church’s mission is essential to getting it right. “They are not interested in maintenance,” he says. “They will invest in the future.” And Cupich is investing in them, not only by hiring them, but also by implementing policies such as paid family leave to let them know their presence is crucial to the future of the church.

An exciting initiative in the Archdiocese of Chicago is the Renew My Church program. What do you hope to accomplish?

My job is to reinvigorate our parishes. That’s why we created the Renew My Church program. We recognize that it’s not our church; it’s Christ’s.


This is in concert with what Pope Francis talks about in The Joy of Love. He is trying to reintroduce a discernment process in the life of the church that involves everybody about where Christ is leading the church.

That’s why we surveyed Catholics in the diocese and, happily, in four weeks’ time had 37,000 people respond. We’re getting our parishes involved. Our aim is not to close parishes or to merge them. Our aim is to make sure that all the parishes going forward are vibrant, vital, and sustainable.

We’ve had scores of parishes close over the last 30 years, yet we’re not as strong as we could or should be. My point is, how are we going to deal with demographic shifts in a constructive way? How are we going to deal with personnel and other resources available to us going forward and use them prudently to make our remaining parishes strong and vital? That’s the key. Renew My Church is not primarily about closing places or merging them to balance the budget. If that were it, I could make a decision tomorrow. I could look at the bottom line, and I wouldn’t need to consult anybody.

How do you convey to Chicago Catholics that their parishes aren’t ultimately theirs, but Christ’s?

I would put before them the challenge of taking up the mission again. The parish cannot be some sort of social enclave, a fortress by which we come together and care only about ourselves and blindly ignore what’s going around us in the world today.


How does a parish carry on the mission of Christ? Is the mission of Christ happening through education, through evangelization, through vocational recruitment, through proper stewardship?

I would ask, “Are you concerned more about maintenance—that is, keeping what you have—or mission?” That’s a hard question because we haven’t asked it enough. I think in the long run, people will respond to that, especially young people, because they are not interested in maintenance.

What do you make of all the talk of personal discernment since Pope Francis’ The Joy of Love?

I want to make sure that people understand, first of all, that discernment is not problem solving, and it’s not diagnosis. Diagnosis has a before, an after, and so on.

Discernment means that we accept that we’re all on a journey. Where is Christ leading us in the journey? We need to continue moving forward, and that’s very important.


Pope Francis has used the word synod or synodalities. He’s talking about being on the way together. My hope would be that people will understand their life in terms of the journey. The Gospel of Luke has this whole journey motif in it. For Luke, there’s nothing more pernicious than coming to the feeling about your life that you’ve arrived. That’s why he has stories in there about the rich man and the beggar, Lazarus, or about the man who tears down his barns only to build larger ones. Both of these rich men feel their life has arrived.

There are some Catholics today who feel as though they’ve been there, done that. They think they have it down pretty much as Catholics as long as they obey the “rules” or what everybody told them to do. There isn’t a sense of journey or growth in relation to their Catholic faith about their life. That’s an impoverished spirituality.

We have to get people to begin to look at their lives as a journey. That’s why you have to reach out to people who are in very difficult situations with their marriages, or with their own personal life to let them see that the grace of God is moving them to take up the journey again. It’s very important.

That is why the Holy Father observed that when it comes to people who are in “irregular” marriage situations that do not conform to the teaching or the law of the church, we ought not to automatically judge them. We do not know their subjective guilt. And even if they are both objectively and subjectively guilty of breaking God’s commandment, while they are alive, they are still on the journey. God’s grace can touch them, heal them, and transform them. Grace can nudge the hearts of sinners and bring them to conversion. There is always hope on the journey, and that is why we the church must walk with everyone no matter what their condition or objective situation.


We’re all on a journey, and the grace of God can work in all our lives. There are also people who consider themselves to be in the state of grace because they feel they are in an objectively “correct” situation. But the corrosive forces of evil can eat away at their souls. And they may have never confronted within themselves the bigotry or greed or arrogance that does their souls great damage. We must walk with these people as well and always hold up to them the challenging word of the gospel.

While we are in this world, nobody has salvation cinched. That is why St. Paul says that we are saved “in hope.” That is why the Council of Trent said that no one in this life can have absolute certitude about their salvation. We are on a journey, and we need to walk humbly and regularly exercise honest discernment. That is why Jesus tells us not to judge others and says that the “measure with which we measure others will be measured back to us.”

You’ve recognized that violence is one of the major challenges in Chicago right now. How is the archdiocese responding to help people who are affected by violence experience God’s grace?

The church needs to be, as Pope Francis has said, a field hospital in which we help people deal with living ordinary human lives.

We want to position ourselves to facilitate that. We’re doing that in a number of ways. For example, here in Chicago we’re involved in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s One Summer jobs program. We cooperated with the city through our parishes and schools and Catholic Charities and established sites where young people in the inner city could work for an eight- to 10-week period. We think it’s very important to give young people hope and opportunities.


Chicago’s Catholic Charities is the largest provider of social services in Illinois. We have a footprint that’s unparalleled in Cook and Lake Counties. Every 30 seconds somebody counts on Catholic Charities for help. We are there with programs for family support, for child education and childcare, for food, shelter, and counseling.

Our Catholic education system helps as well. We have 79,500 kids in Catholic schools in our archdiocese. Many of them are not Catholic. We educate them because this is part of our mission.

Another area that we’re working on right now is with ecumenical leaders. In June I had a meeting with the leaders within the archdiocese and our universities, our social services, and our other entities just to take an inventory of what we’re doing with regard to violence, how we’re curbing it, how we’re dealing with it. I’ll be in a position to go to the ecumenical and civic leaders and say, “Let’s partner on some things going forward.”

What about gun violence?

This issue of gun violence is very complex. It’s complex because it involves poverty over generations, unemployment, drugs, the availability of firearms and guns that are saturating some neighborhoods, and young people who turn to gangs because they feel as though they have no other option because they don’t have a healthy family life or prospects for the future.


My concern is that people want to step back and do nothing about it because it looks so hopeless. We can’t do everything, but we should do something. I think if we all work together and chip away at it we can get something significant done.

I’m trying to ask the adult community to take this up and embrace it. If people think that the violence is going to be zoned off into a particular neighborhood, they’re mistaken. We are not going to be shielded. There are too many guns out there in the hands of people who should not have them. We need to have sane gun laws. For instance, some are proposing video cameras in gun shops. We know that some gun shops have been broken into. We need to have recordings of what’s happening in those gun shops.

We also need these cameras to record the purchases of guns. We need to identify those people who are getting access to firearms. We also need to make sure that gun shops are regulated in terms of where they’re located. These are just some of the proposals that many people are talking about when they speak of sane gun laws.

Should the church as a whole be speaking out more on gun violence?

Yes. It’s a life issue, isn’t it? It seems to me that it’s a life or death issue on a day-to-day basis in Chicago, where there have been more than 2,000 shootings just in the first half of this year and people are dying in the streets.

If we are really going to be a church that’s speaking on behalf of families and life we should identify this as an issue, as well.

Black men are six times more likely to be the victims or the perpetrators of gun violence. How do we address that? It’s complex. But would those statistics also parallel the number of black men who don’t have an adequate education? Who don’t have employment, who are suffering from all sorts of illnesses and aren’t treated, who don’t have proper health care?

I think that’s very important to get across. I think, too, that we’re seeing these kinds of challenges in the Hispanic community.

Is there a relationship between pastoral care and social action?

We pray for people, but we also roll up our sleeves and get out there in the neighborhoods.


I think there are systemic issues in the economy, systemic issues in family life, and systemic issues in our education programs that need to be addressed because there are people who are falling through the safety nets that should be there in the system for them. It’s about early childhood education, the availability of health care, the availability of work, and income equality.

Through Catholic Charities and other programs we are providing people with a safe place for their children when they go to work. We’re providing education through our Catholic school system. Our hospitals provide more indigent care than anyone else. Catholic Charities reaches out with counseling for families.

Time and again, the Catholic Church is out there. We have pastors such as Father Mike Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina on Chicago’s South Side, working on reconciliation of rival gang members and priests like Precious Blood Father David Kelly promoting reconciliation through restorative justice. We have women religious like Sister of Mercy Rosemary Connelly challenging the status quo and raising the standards in how we care for those with disabilities. We have hundreds of deacons and countless lay volunteers serving in soup kitchens, organizing youth programs, assisting women in difficult pregnancies, accompanying immigrants, to name just a few examples. We’re in the trenches.

Pope Francis says we have to encounter people, we have to get to know them, we have to walk with them, we have to accompany them. But we also have to integrate them.

We are not focused on temporary solutions. We have programs that really help people understand that they’re part of the wider community. There are a lot of people who feel disenfranchised, who do not feel as though they belong to civic life.

The church has to work to integrate people into the life of larger society. It’s not just a matter of meeting people and walking with them. We have to actively take steps to integrate people into the economy, into really being free with options for education, good health care, and other resources.

There are people who have lived in generations of poverty who don’t have any wealth to pass on in a will like people who have built and passed on equity and opportunity over generations. So many don’t have that, and we have to make sure we integrate people into society so that they can build a life from one generation to the next.

This year, the archdiocese implemented a new family leave policy that provides new parents (male or female) with 12 weeks of paid time off. What inspired this decision?

First, I come from a big family. I have eight brothers and sisters. I have lots of nephews and nieces, and great-nephews and great-nieces. I know that there are stresses in marriages and i0n families today that there have not been before. The birth of a child can be a particularly challenging time for a couple, and I think we have to be supportive of them.


Second, it is what the church teaches. If we’re really going to be pro-life, then let’s be pro-family and invest in families.

I also think, and this is sometimes ignored, that this is a smart business decision, because if I really want to attract young, energetic people who have the skills and knowledge to get things done, and I want to keep them, then I need to make sure that I support them.

I want young people to be a part of the administration in the archdiocese. Now, people may say, “It’s going to cost you $1 million a year.” Yes, that’s fine, because it is a prudent investment in people who want to commit their energy, ideas, and skills to help renew our church.

We have about 15,000 full- and part-time employees in the archdiocese and the policy applies to about 7,000 employees. If we all work together and we all support each other, we can get it done. The issue is: Where are you going to invest? Let’s invest in something beyond maintenance. Let’s invest in people. Let’s invest in talent and ways in which people are going to grow.

I think this comes at the right time with Renew My Church, because this program of parental leave says in a very tangible way that this is about investing in people.

This article also appears in the October 2016 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 81, No. 10, pages 24–27).

Image: Courtesy of the Archdiocese of Chicago