(This is the first of a three-part series.)
I was asked by the Catholic Herald to offer my reflections on 40 years of priesthood through my Herald of Hope column. It’s difficult to accomplish that in 900 words. So please accept this as my first installment of three phases of my priestly and episcopal life.
I have divided them as follows: The first phase from ordination 1975 to my return from Rome 1983, the second phase, from 1983 to 2000, the seminary years and appointment as pastor of St. Ignatius, and the third phase from 2001 to 2015 the years as a bishop.
If it bores you, I apologize, but it has been fun reminiscing. Thanks for your prayers and words of congratulation.
On the morning of May 14, 1975, 38 of my classmates and I were ordained as priests of the Archdiocese ofChicago by John Cardinal Cody. We emerged from the beautiful St. Mary of the Lake Chapel with the oils still wet on our anointed hands. This was a dream come true.
I had desired priesthood from the earliest days of my life. Of course, the reality of what entailed becoming a priest would change in my young mind.
In kindergarten, I thought you become an altar boy and then are ordained a priest. As I grew, I was cured of that notion as I completed entrance exams, psychological assessments, faculty evaluations, apostolic assignments and academic and spiritual formation.
As newly ordained, we made our way to the center of the seminary, the piazza, where we bestowed our first priestly blessings on family, priests, classmates and friends.
Now, I awaited my first assignment as a priest. It was St. Margaret Mary on Chicago’s north side. I thought I would serve my six years as an associate, then perhaps another two terms at other parishes and then about the time of my 18th to 25th year of ordination, I would be appointed a pastor of one of the parishes in the archdiocese.
The great goal of my life was to be a pastor. It is often said, “Man proposes and God disposes.” Five months after I started my assignment, the cardinal came to St. Margaret Mary to celebrate the retirement of the pastor, Msgr. Thomas Kelly. The cardinal asked if I would meet with him in a private room. He informed me he was appointing me a part-time teacher at Quigley Preparatory Seminary North with his intention to appoint me full-time in the coming year.
I explained to him that I started a lot of projects at the parish, that I was happy and that I would be taking the bar examination completing my law studies. With a shepherd’s voice he said, “Jerome, your mother, father and sister want to be served by good and happy priests, and the church will not have good and happy priests unless we have a faculty that models priesthood. Call the rector and arrange your schedule.”
This started me on the road to 24 and half years of service to the seminary system of the Archdiocese of Chicago. I moved less than a full year into my first assignment to Mater Christi Parish in North Riverside, Illinois. They were three happy years which kept me in contact with parish life, always my first love.
In 1979, I was appointed to the major seminary at Mundelein to teach moral theology and canon law, and was sent to Rome for advanced studies. Those four years in Rome were a true gift. Perhaps it was God’s way of saying, “I give you four years in Rome in exchange for the 21 years that you’ll spend back in the seminary.”
I have to admit that my years in Rome were exciting. It was the early years of John Paul II. A “vibrancy” had returned to the church through the election of the first non-Italian pope in 450 years.
He was everywhere (ubiquitous) and the world clamored to meet this energetic ecclesiastical figure. All the known figures in the world made their way to Rome, and I had a front row seat.
I first met John Paul II at the Pontifical North American College when we were presented to the pontiff as the American priests studying in Rome.
As I look back, I realize that a declared saint by the church actually had his arm around me. What a gift! I have since joked that his arm around me has made me a second-class relic.
It was during my years in Rome that I was also inducted to the Army Chaplaincy, taking my oath of office in the U.S. Embassy in Rome.
I served our troops a number of times in Swienfurth Germany. It was a privilege to assist our troops in the practice of the faith.
The great contrast of my years in Rome was experiencing the church in different situations. My first year in Rome, I was on for all the services at St. Peter’s, but the next year I was conducting services at small installation chapels in Germany filled with the troops and their families. It taught me that whether it is in the glory of Rome or in the small chapel in Germany, the celebration of Jesus is equally important and significant.
While in Rome, I also continued my connection with “Catholic Conversations” — a radio show on Sunday night on WIND (560) in Chicago. Fr. Michael Furlan and I had co-hosted the show and when I left for Rome, I became the quasi-foreign correspondent.
I was traveling back one morning at 5 a.m., circling the Coliseum on my moped after doing a show from the Stazione Termini (Rome’s Train Station). The rising sun was giving a tint of red glow to the Roman Forum. All I could think was, “What is a kid from the southeast side of Chicago doing riding a moped down the Roman Forum?”
I said to myself, “Only in the Catholic Church.” Perhaps SS. Peter and Paul had similar thoughts about being in Rome, but for different reasons.
In 1983, I returned from Rome to begin teaching at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein Illinois. Young men from all over the country would study there during my years as a seminary professor.
I taught canon law and moral theology. I considered moral theology to be the theological area where the rubber meets the road. This challenged people to lead their lives in accord with the church’s teachings, often in conflict with the world in which they lived.
It meant defending the church’s teachings in the areas of contraception, abortion, war, bioethics, capital punishment and social justice.
It was the Ten Commandments, Natural Law and the Eight Beatitudes in action. Meeting with Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, I quickly discovered I would be called upon to utilize areas of my life that I thought were laid to rest. The next 17 years of my life would be a foundation of service.
(To be continued in Archbishop Listecki’s next Herald of Hope column, June 4.)