(This is the second in a three-part series.)
My reflection on 40 years of priestly life continues.
I returned from Rome to begin my assignment as a teacher of moral theology and Canon Law. Both fields were “hot topics.” Moral theology was in a period of flux with the dominant theory of “proportionalism” bringing much confusion to the application of the moral teachings of the church. I had been trained in the classical analysis, which defended moral absolutes and natural law which seemed to reflect the church’s magisterium.
The church also released the New Code of Canon Law, revising the 1917 Code, which called upon seminaries to introduce their students to the changes. New teachers didn’t know what to expect.
The students I encountered were a different lot than the seminarians of my day. First, they were older and second, they had little or no experience of the pre-Vatican II church. In fact, Vatican II was a historical event and not a part of their experience. Many of the givens such as strong Catholic families, firm foundation in Catholic teachings and a rich devotional life were not present in the students of this era.
Their spiritual journeys led them to the seminary with a desire to do something meaningful with their lives in service to others. My preconceived notions had to be put aside in favor of accepting these men as products of their age rather than what I thought they should be. As true of most teachers, I learned as much from them as I hoped they learned from me. Time in the classroom was challenging.
Called to serve country
I mentioned I discovered I would be called upon to utilize two areas of my life that I thought had been put to rest. I was called by Cardinal Bernardin, because he received a request for assistance by a military chaplain.
Knowing I had served the troops while in Rome, he asked if I might offer some support. I met with the commander of the 327th Military Police unit and, after giving every conceivable argument of why he wouldn’t want me as a chaplain, including that I have no plans to continue to serve in the military, I began an active reserve military career which would end in 2004.
We’ve all heard of the interim director who ends up serving 25 years. Basically, that was my military career. I had no intention to serve as long as I did, but I couldn’t have been more blessed with the soldiers and families in the military who became my life-long friends.
In 1986, Bishop John G. Vlazny, an auxiliary bishop of Chicago and vicar of Vicariate I, asked if I would take over the position of Catholic administrator of the post chapel at Fort Sheridan, Illinois. This was the command post for fourth Army and it was in need of Catholic support. Being administrator of the Catholic program at Fort Sheridan allowed me to keep active in the pastoral life throughout my years of teaching at the seminary.
Joined by my seminary colleague, Jesuit Fr. Patrick Boyle, a veteran military chaplain decorated several times for heroism, we served a military community. It sapped every bit of free time, but what might seem like a burden for some was actually a gift.
In 1990, I was activated for Desert Storm. I received my training for entering the Mideast conflict, was fitted with my desert camouflage and was scheduled to leave on Feb. 26. One problem. They started the war without me and within five days, the war ended, so I was ordered to unpack my bags. I resumed my priestly service.
Legal assistance for the archdiocese
I said there were two areas that I thought had been put to rest. In 1984, Cardinal Bernardin called and asked if I might consider helping the archdiocese in the area of legal consultation. The archdiocese, for all its extensive bureaucracy, did not have in-house legal advice. It dealt with wills, trusts, real estate, sales and, of course, contracts. It was overwhelming, to say the least.
With the help of two attorney friends, we established an in-house legal review. It was still a relatively strange phenomenon to see a priest in a collar standing before a judge or discussing terms of a contract with other lawyers.
There were a number of times that we would be in a lawyer’s office and begin talking about legal analysis and end up discussing questions of faith. It was obvious to me there was a hunger for the mystery of life that the church celebrates.
I continued my connection with parishes in the archdiocese. St. Joseph Parish in Wilmette was an oasis where I was called upon to be priest. Quite a few Sundays, I would show up with my BDU (Battle Dress Uniform) under my alb. My combat boots were a dead give-away. If a reservist is a citizen-soldier, I guess I was a priest-soldier.
Sudden illness sidelines priest
A strange occurrence happened in 1998. I was offering the Chicago Plumber Union retreat at Mundelein when I experienced upper back pain that I never before experienced. I called a doctor friend, Dr. Thomas Patricoski, who advised me to head to his community hospital where he would meet me.
It went from bad to worse, and I was moved from a community hospital to Northwestern University Hospital in downtown Chicago. I had “acute severe pancreatitis” and was placed under a morphine-induced coma. It then went from worse to terrible when the doctors suspected that I had common bile duct cancer.
Prayers to SS. Peregrine and Padre Pio were offered on my behalf. I was recently reminded that Cardinal Francis George requested prayers at the cathedral for Fr. Listecki who is sick and may be “dying.”
After 24 days in the hospital, it was suddenly determined that stones had blocked all the major ducts. After 30 days, intensive care and pic lines, I was released to begin my recovery.
It seems I generate stones without a gallbladder. I have that super power going for me.
I was OK with God through this ordeal as I have a good relationship with his Son. However, I worried about my sister and our mother. If I would have any regret, it would be that I wouldn’t get to see the effects of the priesthood given to me as gift through the lives that I have been privileged to serve.
After all this, I felt God had given me another chance to fulfill my great desire to be pastor. I talked to Cardinal George and asked him if I could have a parish. After 24 and half years of working in the seminary, I felt it was time to be a pastor, while I was still young enough to shoot a basketball with the kids.
He reluctantly agreed and on Aug. 1, 2000, I was appointed pastor of St. Ignatius Parish on the north side of Chicago, replacing the Jesuits who staffed the parish for 100 years.
I had made it. I was a pastor and it was my intention that I would be there, as pastor, until my retirement.
Now, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. In phase III of my reflection on my 40 years as priest I’ll help you to hear God’s laugh.
(To be continued in Archbishop Listecki’s next Herald of Hope column, June 11.)