CHICAGO (AP) – When Blase Cupich was named the next archbishop of Chicago, he insisted that Pope Francis was sending the area a mere pastor, not a message.
Cupich has been sending very Francis-like messages, though, as he prepares to officially assume control of one of the country's largest and most high-profile archdioceses on Tuesday. Among them were his decisions to live in a simple rectory instead of the cardinal's mansion and to not reveal to the man next to him on his recent flight into Chicago that he was about to become a spiritual leader for the area's 2.2 million Catholics.
"I would say the message is that he (Pope Francis) chose someone very pastoral ... and it's a very important one," said Cristina Traina, a professor of religious studies at Northwestern University. "The pope was saying he was looking for someone who will connect with people ... whose emphasis is mercy, ministry, reaching out to the people and serving the poor."
She said it is not a coincidence that the pope appointed Cupich, the 65-year-old relatively unknown bishop of the much smaller Diocese in Spokane, Washington, to replace a conservative church heavyweight like George at around the time he was demoting another leading conservative, Cardinal Raymond Burke, from his position as head of the Vatican high court.
Cupich's appointment has been warmly received in neighborhood churches, where parishioners quietly complained that George did not solicit their opinions and, particularly during the cardinal's ongoing battle with cancer, did not visit the parishes nearly as much as they would have liked.
"Everything has changed with this pope we have and I think (Cupich) will be out there walking with us," said Israel Flores as he headed to a church in the city's largely Hispanic Pilsen neighborhood a few days after Cupich's appointment was announced.
Even George recognized that it made sense to select a bishop whose style is seen as far more open and welcoming of others' ideas than his own.
"I would imagine, and hope, this is the case, that he'll have a different approach, a different tone," George recently told the Chicago Tribune. "That's good because there are people who I couldn't reach that he'll be able to, and there are things that I perhaps didn't think important to tend to that he will think are."
People will be watching closely to see how Cupich reacts to various national and local issues. George last month closed nine more schools — another emotionally-charged decision he made before leaving — but Cupich will face the same low enrollment when he takes over. And there is the vexing problem of the shortage of priests.
Chicago's Hispanic community, for example, while encouraged about what he's said about a need for immigration reform, are waiting to see if he continues to speak out publicly on the matter, as he's promised.
The thorniest issue facing the archdiocese is the sexual abuse scandal. George recently released thousands of internal documents showing how the archdiocese hid the sexual abuse of children by priests for decades. But critics say the heavily redacted files raise questions about whether church officials are still trying to hide some abuse, and the called on the church to release the files pertaining to one of the most egregious cases, that of former priest Daniel McCormack.
McCormack pleaded guilty in 2007 to abusing five children. While the archdiocese said it couldn't release the documents because of pending litigation, victims' advocates say Cupich could send a powerful message if he found a way to release them.
"It would demonstrate the direction the archdiocese is going in terms of transparency, that it's trying to move forward and that his actions are consistent with what Pope Francis has suggested and what victims expect," said Marc Pearlman, an attorney who has represented dozens of victims of clergy abuse in the Chicago area.
On Thursday, when he arrived at the airport, Cupich did not say what he would do about the McCormack files, but said, "I do favor transparency."