Catholic New World: Newspaper for the Archdiocese of Chicago

The InterVIEW

Chancellor makes difference with management

Michael Cahill

A regular feature of The Catholic New World, The InterVIEW is an in-depth conversation with a person whose words, actions or ideas affect today's Catholic. It may be affirming of faith or confrontational. But it will always be stimulating.

Jimmy Lago has served as chancellor of the Archdiocese of Chicago since 2000, essentially acting as a kind of chief administrative officer for the Pastoral Center, assisting Cardinal George as he leads the faithful. But he didn’t set out to become chancellor of one of the largest archdioceses in the United States; he planned to be a social services administrator and has a master’s degree in social work.

The week after one of the last 10th anniversary events for the cardinal—a dinner at which the cardinal, bishops and priests served the guests—Lago discusses his position with assistant editor Michelle Martin.


The Catholic New World: What does a chancellor do?

Jimmy Lago: Canon law basically sets the overall stance for the church. Local law, or the local bishop, can give whatever duties he wants for the chancellor. Most chancellors are the canonical advisors to the bishop, the canonical vicar. So the vicar general exercises regular governance and acts in place of the bishop when he is not available. The chancellor is the person who advises the bishop and the diocese on canonical affairs.

When they revised the Code of Canon Law in the 1980s, they also created a position called the “moderator of the curia,” which has to be a priest, to manage or supervise or administrate the curia.

The cardinal wanted me to assume those duties and responsibilities, so he put the responsibilities of the moderator of the curia in my office—that’s basically the management, supervision and coordination of various offices and agencies that are coordinated by the Pastoral Center. Some other dioceses that have a layperson in this position call it the director of administration or director of the curia.

TCNW: What advantages or disadvantages do you see in having a layperson in this role?

JL: For advantages, when you’re looking at the pool of eligible candidates, most people out there with experience in administration and management are not necessarily priests. They (priests) come with more formation and pastoral and theological expertise. Having a layperson enables you to bring in someone with the skills of budgeting and managing personnel.

The downside is that it puts a layperson into a seat that has usually been handled by a priest or cleric. It does present some difficulties. Priests report to the bishop and the bishop assigns and directs them. Yes, priests may report to me and I assign and manage their responsibilities and duties, but ultimately, the cardinal is the one who assigns and directs them.

TCNW: How did you go from a degree in social work to a position as chancellor of the Archdiocese of Chicago?

JL: I went to the Jane Addams School of Social Work from ’73-’75, and after I graduated I was hired to create a multiagency countywide network in the Rockford area to respond to child abuse. My job was to create relationships and network with 20 or 30 agencies that provided services, working with kids and families and other victims, and to take referrals from DCFS and see that they got to where they could be served. So, for example, if we had a situation where the mom was a battered spouse, we would get them into the YWCA.

After that, I was asked if I would interview for a new position being created by the Illinois bishops to give a legislative voice to Catholic Charities and other Catholic human services agencies. With my interest in child abuse and social services, and the ability to be an advocate and have a voice in the legislation, it was something I wanted to do. So in the spring of 1976 I went to Springfield. It gave me a voice for my passion to allow children to be children and to grow up to be healthy adults. I was on the DCFS advisory committee and on the Public Aid advisory committee, and we were working on the issues of poverty and violence and human issues like housing.

We were working to educate legislators about those issues, but also to bring the expertise of one of the largest providers in the state. It was a combination of networking with legislators and establishing relationships with key people who could make a difference.

TCNW: What skills from your time in Springfield and your time at Catholic Charities are helpful as chancellor?

JL: In Springfield, I had to learn to talk succinctly, to get to the point, to develop my persuasive powers. Sometimes with the legislators you’ve only got a couple of minutes to make your case. If it takes you an hour to get to the point, they’re gone. In 1991, I chaired Gov. (Jim) Edgar’s transition team for human services, so I had to meet with the new governor and advise him on the kind of priorities we in the field felt were needed.

Springfield was kind of an entrepreneurial environment; it’s you vs. everyone else, you on a mission. If you don’t talk to the legislators, if you don’t get the parents down there, if you don’t convince your constituents to buy Option A rather than Option B, it ain’t gonna happen. In that environment, my job was to get the bishops into the dialogue.

That’s helpful now, because the cardinal interacts with an infinite number of people with an infinite number of agenda items. My job is to help him, to brief him and help him prioritize the things he really wants to address and to really help him frame his point of view.

In my years at Charities, it was more a matter of dealing with a larger bureaucracy. You don’t get there in the morning and say, “How are we going to spend this $300 million?” Everything is divided among the offices and programs, and a lot of it is grant money provided for particular purposes. There, it was a matter of looking from 10,000 feet and asking, “Are we doing as well as we can? Are we looking for the outcomes we need to see? Are we missing opportunities for what we can be doing with private money?” It was more a matter of being familiar with a broad range of issues.

TCNW: Why do you think the cardinal chose you for this job?

JL: In the spring of 1997, when the cardinal was going to Rome for his pallium, it was clear he needed to increase the people in his office who had to handle the higher range of things, because a lot of the people who had been in those positions were leaving. (Bishop) Ray Goedert (the vicar general at the time) suggested that they bring me in for eight months on a temporary basis. So that’s what they did: they brought me in as chief of staff, and I had the opportunity to get him used to how I worked, how I worked with him.

Then I went back to Charities for a year and a half, until he asked me to come back in 1999 to be permanent here.

TCNW: What have you accomplished in this office, and what do you want to accomplish?

JL: I don’t view it necessarily as “what do I want to accomplish?” It’s “what does he want to accomplish, and what kind of structures and resources do we need to make that happen?”

One of the things I think we’ve done is to refocus attention on the person of the archbishop. We’ve realigned the budget so we’re more cost-effective and efficient, we’ve replaced people at senior leadership positions, we’ve created opportunities for senior leadership and the cardinal to interact on a more regular basis.

I think the cardinal has a wonderful, wonderful sense of things, he is a very bright man and a very faithful man, but maybe that doesn’t always come across to people. Maybe it does in a church group, where he stays to the very end. It’s our job to help the people of Chicago get to know this man better, so they can hear his message. It’s the message of salvation. He believes it, and he can convince people to believe it.

TCNW: Given the outpouring of concern and prayers when he was ill, do you think people are getting to know him and his message?

JL: The message isn’t just what he says. The message people get comes from how people deal with challenges, how they deal with obstacles in life. The message people got from that is that the cardinal is a fragile man, he’s a humble man, he has a lot of internal strength, he has a lot of faith. He limped out and spoke and had to have people help him.

This man is truly our religious leader, and that’s more and more what people are seeing, despite the sexual misconduct, the school issues, the parish closings, the challenges that come from within and without.

TCNW: Where to now?

JL: I think there’s a certain restlessness in the cardinal, and a positiveness that we are not quite there. I sense a lot that he continues to challenge us as to how we run the pastoral center, how we spend money and time, that we understand that we aren’t just church bureaucrats.

Clearly, we are looking at additional ways to bring in new members. We are looking for new directions in evangelization with Father Hynes coming in, to see if we can more adequately reflect the evangelization and catechesis mission of the church.…

From what he has said at the Quigley event, it’s clear he’s thinking about a deeply spiritual message and challenge. He’s thinking about the next five years … not that he thinks he will leave at 75, necessarily.

I’m thinking about how to turn those overall religious and community goals into something more tangible. With the Vocations Office, we put a significant amount from the Quigley endowment into it to really beef it up and try to find vocations in the archdiocese. For evangelization, how do we get 390 ecclesial units engaged in how to do evangelization well?