SPECIAL TO THE CATHOLIC HERALD
It’s been 40 years since St. John Paul II named the then 44-year-old Fr. Richard Sklba as fifth auxiliary
bishop in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, and the infants Bishop Sklba baptized during his first year as shepherd of the Milwaukee flock are now adults, many with children of their own.
The bishop emeritus also had the privilege of confirming 50,000-60,000 young Catholics during his tenure and he said he is grateful for having been able to play a role in the lives of these and thousands of other area Catholics. Confirmation was one of the favorite aspects of his role as auxiliary bishop.
“I had a reputation for using an abundance of chrism, but I was careful to not get stuff on their clothes,” he said. “Even now, I enjoy helping in the parishes, but I stopped doing confirmations because my hearing deteriorated, and they would come forward with a card. I didn’t want to read a name on a card, so I asked them to say their own Confirmation name. It turned out I didn’t hear it well and after I announced a few incorrect names, I realized it was probably better if I ceased doing that.”
Following six years studying at the Gregorian University in Rome and completing his undergraduate degree in philosophy and his graduate degree in theology, Bishop Sklba was ordained by Archbishop William E Cousins in 1959. He served St. Mary’s Vistitation Parish in Elm Grove for two years and in 1962 returned to Rome for three more years of study.
While in Rome, he attended the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and completed the equivalent of an advanced master’s degree in sacred Scripture. He also completed a doctoral degree equivalent in Biblical Studies at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome.
After returning to the U.S., he taught Scripture classes at St. Francis Seminary and served at St. Veronica’s Parish in Milwaukee on weekends.
“I loved teaching Scripture and many of my students are close friends now,” he said. “I am so proud of all the work that the students have done. I also enjoyed being the rector of the seminary as well. It was a wonderful experience to work with the seminarians.”
In the 1980s, Bishop Sklba was the designated point person for RENEW, appointed by Archbishop Rembert Weakland, and helped the program grow.
“Archbishop Weakland said to take a hold of (the program) and run with it,” he said. “I am very proud of the work we did.”
Recalling the past 40 years also brings with it the dark days surrounding the clergy sex abuse scandal, and Bishop Sklba remarked that this was the most difficult period of his episcopate.
“There has been so much heartache for everyone. The first we heard about any of this was in 1989, when we had 700 come to the (former) Cousins Center to hear about what was going on,” he said. “I have worked with victim survivors and just a month ago someone came down from the Twin Cities, a well-established professional who manages a radio station, and he thanked us for what we do. I watch society and 40 years ago, everyone just said it was a sin and needed repentance, but then later it was understood to be psychological and needing treatment, but nobody considered it a key response. Even police authorities in local communities and all of society have really gone through an evolution in understanding that this is a crime and needs to be treated that way. There is more work being done in psychological and emotional health and sexual health. You can’t do pastoral work without good health. I just received a notice the other day from someone in seminary who decided to terminate his studies, that the priesthood wasn’t for him. It is sad, but at least he recognized that it wasn’t for him. The whole world is coming to recognize this reality in all parts of society in the schools, etc. We all have an obligation to make sure this crisis doesn’t happen again.”
Despite the challenges of ministering through the abuse crisis, Bishop Sklba is grateful to God for his priesthood and his episcopal ordination.
“I would not trade this vocation for anything and loved working with all of the archbishops,” he said. “I am glad I was not assigned anywhere else and loved working with Archbishops Cousins, Weakland, Dolan and Listecki. Cardinal Dolan still calls me from time to time and we have a very good friendship.”