CATHOLIC HERALD STAFF
Birthdays are a time of celebration, but also reflection. For Archbishop Jerome Listecki, his 70th birthday on March 12 is a poignant opportunity to both celebrate all he has accomplished in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee since his 2010 installation, and to take inventory of all he still hopes to achieve before his mandatory retirement in five years.
“Anyone who knows me knows I have three priorities: Catholic identity, evangelization and stewardship,” said Archbishop Listecki. “Everything revolves around always asking: How are we furthering the Catholic identity? What are we doing to inform people about our presences and invite them into collaborative ministry? And how are we using our resources – time, talent, treasure?”
Archbishop Listecki carried these priorities with him as bishop of the Diocese of La Crosse, and he brought them to Milwaukee when he took the helm nine years ago. At the time, the archdiocese was facing its share of challenges, namely the moral and financial implications of mishandling sexual abuse claims made against clergy.
Instilling and ensuring trust has been a critical, and ongoing, process for Archbishop Listecki.
“One thing that I’ve learned that we have to do is constantly reinforce the trust that people place within us,” Archbishop Listecki said. “By that, I mean the clergy sexual abuse crisis will not suddenly disappear. As it emerges in different places, we have to come back to assure people that we’ve taken significant steps in order to address it. People need to feel safe within the context of the Church.”
During his tenure, Archbishop Listecki led the Archdiocese of Milwaukee out of five and a half years of bankruptcy — but that doesn’t top of his list of achievements. A pin he often wears on the lapel of his priest coat, however, offers a hint as to which of his accomplishments he is most proud.
Five years ago – for the first time since 1986 – the Archdiocese of Milwaukee held a Synod. “And we did that Synod in the midst of the bankruptcy, so that even elevates it to another level,” Archbishop Listecki noted. The Synod pin Archbishop Listecki wears is a reminder of this milestone.
“I am a member of a number of groups and they all have pins,” Archbishop Listecki said. “This is the only pin I wear, and I wear it because I am very proud of what the archdiocese has accomplished and the many men and women who are dedicated to the Church.”
The archdiocesan Synod brought together people from the entire Catholic community, including priests, parish directors, deacons, parish staff members, lay parish leaders, parishioners and representatives of religious communities and lay groups to discuss archdiocesan and parish pastoral priorities for the Church of southeastern Wisconsin.
“For me, personally, the greatest accomplishment was the Synod — and the aftermath,” Archbishop Listecki said. “We established a group — the Archdiocesan Synod Implementation Commission (ASIC) – which took the priorities that came out of the Synod and looked at how to implement those priorities into a 10- and 15-year timeframe.”
Those priorities were the result of intense collaboration.
“It’s really through engaging with different communities that I could see what priorities needed to be accomplished,” said Archbishop Listecki.
Recognizing and empowering spiritual movements within the Church, as well as long-standing fraternal organizations was a key component of that engagement.
“There is a hunger for people to go out and enrich their faith. All of these lay spiritual groups and associations – Women of Christ, Men of Christ, Brew City Catholic, Cor Jesu, the Rosary Evangelization Apostolate and de Chantal Society – are going out and taking the practice of the faith and making it a day-to-day routine,” Archbishop Listecki said. “Then I look at Catholic Financial Life, Knights of Columbus, the Equestrian Order, the Order of Malta – these are groups that basically serve the church in the larger sense.”
Archbishop Listecki set out to spotlight these groups and acknowledge the important role they play and the contributions they make to the Church. “I think immediately when we take a look at how much power and influence there is among the groups for the Church – for the good of the Church – it’s something I want to highlight,” he said. “I also wanted them to know that what they are doing has at least a tacit approval of the shepherd of the archdiocese.”
“Every bishop, in my sense, always has three challenges before him: the challenge of schools, the challenge of personnel and the challenge of finances,” said Archbishop Listecki. “Catholic schools have declined across the country, with some statistics putting the loss between 6 to 10 percent on a yearly basis.”
The challenges are different, but both urban and rural Catholic schools find themselves struggling to feed the youngest members of their flocks.
“I am city kid, so I have a tremendous affection for the urban area,” he said. “I also understand that urban areas contain many individuals who are underserved. Because of that, we have initiated a vision to invest ourselves as Catholics into the well-beings of these communities.”
One way this is addressed is through Seton Catholic Schools, an organization in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee that is building a network of elementary schools. Seton Catholic Schools is striving for the highest academic and spiritual formation outcomes for our students and is focused on urban needs.
“Catholic education is really part of the mission that Jesus has entrusted to us, and I don’t believe we would have the archdiocese we have today if were not for those religious sisters, brothers and priests who supported Catholic education,” Archbishop Listecki said. “We’ve done some exciting things here in Milwaukee and hopefully we can be a beacon of light for those who are struggling in other dioceses across the country.”
At issue in rural areas are population shifts.
“I am concerned about the disappearance of schools in rural communities because of the lack of student population,” Archbishop Listecki said. “We have to find some way to make sure the witness of the Church is present, and Catholic education is accessible. It may mean that we have to come up with a different model, but the presence of the Catholic Church as a witness has to be maintained there.”
Sunday Mass attendance – in general – is also a concern.
“The demographics show attendance at weekly Mass going down. In any given area, depending on which statistic you use, only between 25 to 35 percent of the Catholics that are there actually attend Mass on Sunday,” Archbishop Listecki said. “As a religious leader, I am concerned people are not being fed by Sunday worship and they are not fulfilling their own obligation to make sure that God is a priority in their lives.”
Implementing the Amazing Parish program was one way Archbishop Listecki addressed the need for churches to revitalize their faith communities. “I’ve seen many parishes become stronger and ignited in a particular way because of Amazing Parish,” he said. “I’d like to see us continue along that vein.”
Increasing support to the Urban Ministry Initiative, strengthening and growing Catholic education, and supporting faith formation and the vocations are chief among Archbishop Listecki’s goals for the next five years leading up to his retirement.
“I am very proud of the fact that over the years Milwaukee has produced a fertile vocational environment that is not seen in many other dioceses,” he said. “Individuals are proud of young priests, their quality is tremendous, and the willingness – the desire – to serve the Church is very evident, and it’s contagious.”
Not only that, he said, families are supportive of their sons and daughter pursuing the vocations.
“That alone, that embracing – ‘I would love to see my child serve God in the Church’ – is a tremendous environment for a young person to make that vocational choice,” Archbishop Listecki said.
But priests can’t do it alone. The lay ministry is also critical to the future of the Church.
“We have established a lay ministry office,” Archbishop Listecki said. “Lay ministers and lay faithful can make the Church dynamic and offer tremendous support to parishioners in their daily lives – and that is where living out the Faith is critical: day to day.”
Even if Archbishop Listecki is able to accomplish all of his goals, there will always be plenty of work to do in the archdiocese, and the Church as a whole.
“There will always be more areas for the church to address – society presents a lot of those,” Archbishop Listecki said. “If I take the archdiocese to point B, there are still points C, D, E, and F, and so on. Until Jesus returns, we are in the mode to attempt to do our best to make sure the Catholic community not only survives, but thrives.”
“I hope that when I pass on the leadership role to whoever is next, I leave him with a sound, solid diocese and a solidarity of the priesthood and religious so he has immediate collaborative partners for the common good of the community and in particular the progression of our Church.”
An Archbishop: Expectation Vs. Reality
Archbishop Jerome Listecki was asked about his perceptions of his position, both what he expected coming into the role and the reality he has been faced with over the past nine years.
His response: “First of all, you have to get used to being a public person in the larger setting. If I am in a community here within Milwaukee, it’s rare that someone doesn’t recognize me or come up and talk to me (I am in a collar all the time). I don’t consider that a burden at all. I love it because I think that people see me as kind of their larger pastor and they feel an immediate connection. I like that a lot, but it can be strange. I might be at a gas station paying my bill and someone comes up and says ‘Hey you’re the archbishop,’ and I say ‘Yes, I am,’ and then we start talking. So no matter where you are, you are basically on.
“That’s one of the aspects. Second is the fact that your opinion is now elevated somewhat. You have to get used to when you say something, there are those people who want to act on it right away. Whereas if you are a pastor or a priest, they will want to discuss it. Third, is how much influence the role has. People look to your opinion, or for a sense of direction. That influence is an important thing and you basically have to adjust to that.”