THE BLOG
11/27/2014 12:35 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Archbishop Publicity

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Credit: Eric Meisfjord/Inland Register

No, Sightings will not turn provincial and even local on its readers, but this week it is hard to resist comment on news of the nearby. I can look out my windows and behold one synagogue and two cathedrals -- one Episcopal and one Roman Catholic. It was the latter that buzzed this week with the arrival of a new archbishop.

This news was not only easy to sight; it was impossible to avoid, given the stir and the publicity, a combination that prompts our topic of the week. Chicago's two metro papers devoted front pages and much more for two days: "Blase Cupich Installed as 9th Archbishop of Chicago." Two full pages of pictures and an eight-page special section bannered, "Catholics at a Crossroads." Which they are.

Some of the attention was of the "sigh-of-relief" sort on the part of newspaper editors and TV news programmers who welcomed an alternative agenda to the wearying fare otherwise before them: describing the Chicago Bears' dismal -- nay, disastrous -- season or, in the religious news category, stories of clerical abuse.

A few leads were substantive: "Cupich to his new flock: Don't fear change." One headline announced, "Archbishop Cupich speaks of protecting children, holding others accountable," and an editorial lifted up a promised focus for the new man in town: "Fighting Illegal Guns Is God's Work." Then there is this personal column-head: "Reach Out to Those Not in the Pews," atop Sue Ontiveros' subheaded prayer, "please God, let his actions show me I can return to church" as she seeks ever more frank addresses to clerical abuse and other demoralizing activities and trends.

Our readers in Anchorage or Key West may think that news of change in Chicago is not as big a deal as it is in this, the nation's third largest archdiocese. Still, here is a good case study. The papers and broadcasters, while understandably excited by this Catholic news, are also realistic. A graph reveals that 37 percent of Cook County people are still numbered as Catholic: 2,203,000. But the graph lines in general all curve down; parishes from 450-plus in 1975 to 358 today. Priests? From over 1,250 back then to 771 (many, many near retirement) now. Baptisms then safely in the 40,000s, only 31,725 now. Weddings, disastrously down, as fewer march down the aisle to the altar.

Archbishop Cupich, an "open" pastoral leader, who is attractive and who attracts, is also deservedly being welcomed by thousands and thousands of the 63 percent who are non-Catholics. What is striking is that the huge media attention being given the Catholic leader would, once upon a time, have been treated grudgingly by non-Catholics. There is no doubt envy among some in non-Catholic religious circles, which receive far less attention, but they recognize something that adds to the attraction in this largest believing community. To wit:

If there are signs of life in the Catholic population, they carry over beyond them and their Church. On Sunday morning we personally pass tens of thousands of dwellings from which there are few people exiting, unless in track clothes for marathons or parental gear for soccer, etc. If and as Catholic parking lots attract more, and if churchgoing and religious news become visible, others may have second thoughts about their own loss of interest or their alienation. Only a foolish optimist would expect a big and sudden turnaround, but much of the cheering is a signal of hope.

"It's nice to have Old Trinity to remind us of Divinity" was jingled years ago. The arrival of Archbishop Cupich will not necessarily produce hordes of the born-again, or of believers who are recovering community, but it won't hurt. Hence the warm applause in a spiritually chilly season.

Sources:

Pashman, Manya Brachear. "Blase Cupich becomes Chicago's archbishop." Chicago Tribune, November 18, 2014.

"Archbishop Blase Cupich Installed at Holy Name." ABC7News, November 18, 2014, Religion & Spirituality.

"Catholics at a Crossroads." Chicago Sun-Times.com, November 18, 2014.

Knowles, Francine. "Cupich to his new flock: Don't fear change." Chicago Sun Times, November 18, 2014, Trending newsfeed.

AP. "Archbishop Cupich speaks of protecting children, holding others accountable." Daily Herald, November 19, 2014, Lifestyle.

"Fighting illegal guns is God's work." Chicago Sun Times, November 18, 2014, Editorials.

Ontiveros, Sue. "Reach out to those not in the pews." Chicago Sun Times, November 17, 2014. Updated November 18, 2014.

Moser, Whet. "Cook County: Under 2 Million Catholics For First Time in Decades, Still Very Catholic." Chicago Magazine, May 8, 2012, Politics & City Life.

This post originally appeared in Sightings, an online publication of the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion, University of Chicago Divinity School.

NOTE: This post is not available for republication without the consent of Sightings. Please contact Managing Editor Myriam Renaud at DivSightings@gmail.com.