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As bishop discovers area, he spreads blessing and the call for justice

By Mary Stamp

In a listening and discerning mode, Bishop Blase Cupich travels the Diocese of Spokane to learn about the people, schools, parishes and ministries.

Bishop Blaze Cupich
Bishop Blase Cupich stands beside the letter from the Pope appointing him to the See of Spokane

As he preaches and speaks, he begins with the Word of God, particularly with the Beatitudes in Matthew 5.

“Jesus gave the beatitudes standing on a hill overlooking the people,” he said.  “A bishop oversees the people.  He sees the people and says, ‘Blessed are you.’”

So as Bishop Cupich goes throughout the diocese and sees the many things going on in communities, he helps the people identify their  blessings in order to encourage them.

“I see many things that are overlooked and go unrecognized,” he said.

Over his 38 years as a priest, he said his starting point for preaching has consistently been what the Word of God has to say to people in today’s time and circumstances.

He brings that Word to people in parishes and ministries, and to those engaged in government and political debates about budgets.  In a recent interview, he shared concerns about the world, based on perspectives from God’s Word.

“I look at what the Word is saying, rather than what the world is saying.  In doing that, there is a freshness to preaching God’s Word, which has something to say in every situation in any era,” Bishop Cupich said.  “The Word brings light to a situation.  It’s too easy to explain a situation of the world based on what we know.”

He finds God’s Word a point of reference for whatever he’s called on to do or giving meaning to whatever is going on in his life.

When he came to Spokane in June 2010, he left 12 years of experience as bishop in Western South Dakota to come to an area where he had never lived.  He asked what God’s Word had to say to him with that change, not knowing how he would deal with issues or serve people.

He said his starting point in Spokane has not been his experience but what God wants him to do in the new situation.

“The Word is my barometer helping me focus on what I should be doing,” he said.  “God says for me to open my eyes and see what good is happening.”

For example, in August, Bishop Cupich ordained 18 new Anglo and Hispanic deacons to serve in urban and rural settings. 

“They represent the pluralistic nature of this area,” he said.

He also worked with youth initiatives to bring together Hispanic youth for a rally last spring, a weekend for development of youth ministry leaders.

With many Catholics in the diocese being Hispanic, the diocese distributed information on the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) for youth.

With his emphasis on education, he sees the Nazareth Guild as a blessing in its work to help Catholic schools build sustainable finances so they are viable for the future and provide quality education. 

In 2012, the diocese supported Catholic Charities’ effort to reach its goal of raising $1 million through appeals to parishes.

“We need that funding because of federal, state and local cutbacks in funding for disadvantaged people,” Bishop Cupich said.  “The House of Charity, for example, is operating on a shoestring budget.  We wanted to be sure people would not be on the streets this winter, but the emergency shelter program is now scaled back.

“The people are not invisible.  They have to go someplace.  We can’t ignore them or there are consequences for all of us:  People will die on the streets, and there may be an increase in crime.

“I sympathize with the demands on elected officials about budget needs, but they also need to be aware that churches and charities cannot carry all the weight of caring for people,” said Bishop Cupich.

“There is a role for the government to provide a safety net for disadvantaged people,” he explained, reminding that many on the streets are veterans.  “We as a society have a role in meeting needs of people who are impoverished.”

The bishop called for “soul searching” in this time when budgets are tight.

“Cutbacks should not be without awareness that when diminishing government funds affect the quality of life of those most in need, it also affects the whole community,” he said.

Bishop Cupich calls on churches and the government to look for new ways of partnering to serve the poor.   

The Washington State Catholic Conference is looking for ways to bring to the legislators an awareness of the problems the community of faith faces in meeting people’s needs, he said.

“We know from great tragedies that the state care for those who are mentally ill is in the worst shape it has been for decades,” he said.  “There are consequences to ignoring care for the mentally ill.  We see it in society in the tragedy at Newtown, Conn.

“Yes, the availability of assault weapons is an issue.  At the same time, it’s clear that people knew the shooter was emotionally disturbed.  We need to be able to see the signs.  We can’t ignore the issue, because there are consequences,” said Bishop Cupich.

Laws require the state to assist vulnerable people who can’t defend their right to life and health.  The government needs to protect their civil rights by caring for them, he said.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ policy and teachings promote partnership in all of society for the common good. 

“We are all in it together.  Our responsibility is to shed light on the need to care for people,” he said.

Visiting around Eastern Washington, Bishop Cupich said he sees the gap between rich and poor growing as he sees “disturbing pockets of poverty with people living on a subsistence level.

“We cannot ignore the pockets of deep poverty in our midst.   Those pockets do not have the headlines, nor are they in the news or talked about much,” he said.

Meanwhile, he observes that the world of entertainment is a diversion as it focuses “on sensational crime, military enterprises and salacious romantic scenes.  Dramas dealing and struggling with human relationships or people living in poverty are rarely presented in entertainment on TV or in movies.”

Bishop Cupich said people want to turn their eyes away from the problems.

Many prefer to watch sitcoms, in which people are young, good looking and funny because they are irresponsible, but they live middle-class lives.

“In reality, people living in poverty feel hopeless,” Bishop Cupich said.  “They know their children will not go to college because they lack the resources and also the nutrition they need to study and learn.”

The bishop noted that the way some people compensate for their lives in squalor is through abuse of drugs and alcohol. 

“That’s the hidden reality,” he said.  “Society will be weaker if we do not address that, if people do not feel the system is fair for them.”

He’s aware that politicians’ talk of budget is complex because there are legitimate concerns about health care and retirement programs, so people in need do not fall through the cracks.

“The military budget is huge,” he said of an element overlooked in budget-cutting discussions.

“We are paying interest on a debt of $16 trillion,” he said. “Right now, we are fortunate that rates are low.

“We need to put everything on the table.  People are frustrated that there is no cooperation and collaboration among the elected officials.  The officials need to check their egos at the door.”

Ecumenically, Bishop Cupich seeks to draw area bishops and church leaders together so communities of faith pray together, beginning with organizing a Good Friday Service for the past two years, held at Our Lady of Lourdes Cathedral. 

The 2013 Tenebrae service will be at 7 p.m., Friday, March 29, at Lourdes, 1115 W. Riverside.

“We need to look for ways to come together to pray.  It’s important for church leaders to socialize and know each other, but the communities also need to come together,” he said.

“Christian communities need to come together to pray, give testimony to what good is happening in our midst and do community service,” Bishop Cupich said.

“My hope is that we work together not only to build up disciples to Jesus, but also to give the community witness to social justice for everyone, the vulnerable and all human life from conception to natural death.  We need to respect all life, the unborn, the vulnerable and those on death row.

“We need a common witness to the spectrum,” he said.  “We need to witness to all of society and to welcome people to join us in that.”

Visiting the 80 parishes, he has put many miles on the road.  He appreciates the diversity of rural communities and landscapes—wheat fields, vineyards, orchards and recreation areas.

“People’s lives here are tied to the ground, to the earth,” Bishop Cupich said.  “The diversity in terrains is beautiful.”

He also appreciates the ethnic diversity, with parishes that encompass Hispanic and Vietnamese, as well as Anglo, people.

St. Patrick’s parish in Pasco is the largest in the diocese, with 6,000 predominantly Hispanic people attending services on Sunday. 

Last year he confirmed 600 children there.

There is a sizeable Vietnamese presence among the faithful at St. Anthony’s parish in Spokane.

He is also aware that immigrant and refugee constituencies and their second and third generations often face limited circumstances, heightened by children growing up and learning English as their first language.

While a third of parishioners in South Dakota are Native Americans, here only three percent are Native Americans.

“How can families keep their ethnic identity when the Anglo culture has such a grip on their children?” he said.  “They should be proud of their heritage and keep their languages and cultures.  That will benefit the young as they grow up in a bilingual culture, living in two worlds without effort.

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Copyright © February 2013 - The Fig Tree