(This is the first of a two-part series and a follow up to the archbishop’s reflections on his early years in the priesthood that he wrote in May and June, 2015.)
I promised I would continue my reflections on my 40 years as a priest and bishop after the first of the year.
I ended my earlier reflections with the call from Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the apostolic nuncio, informing me I had been selected the 11th Archbishop of Milwaukee by Pope Benedict XVI. I ended my column stating my six years in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee deserved a couple of columns and the appropriate time would be the celebration of my 15th anniversary as a bishop — Jan. 8, 2016.
Some of my friends in religious life compare me to a potato plant: place it in water and it immediately develops roots. Iam blessed to form deep and lasting friendships. I believe it’s because our Lord forms the basis of our encounters. So it was never easy for me to leave any community that I was a part of, even if it was for only a short period of time.
After Archbishop Sambi informed me of my appointment, we decided the announcement would take place at an off time. Usually the announcements are made on a Tuesday, but because of the speculation by various bloggers and the so-called “Vaticanistas,” my announcement would be made on a Saturday, the day before the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting in Baltimore, catching everyone off guard.
It’s a strange situation when you know you’re the selection, but no one else knows. I was under papal secrecy while the speculation continued in the media. There were a number of potential candidates, all very fine bishops, and I felt humbled being selected over these wonderful men.
Public announcement at seminary
The day arrived for the public announcement which took place at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary. Members of the press and a few invited guests were present. I made a brief statement of gratitude to the pope for his confidence in me and thanked Bishop William P. Callahan, (now bishop of the Diocese of La Crosse), the administrator after Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan’s departure, and Bishop Richard J. Sklba for shepherding this community during the vacancy.
I remember three questions posed to me by the reporters:
- Did I feel intimidated following a popular figure such as Archbishop Dolan? The answer was simple. I think that I might have, had it not been for the fact that Archbishop Dolan was a friend. I felt great that many appreciated his leadership and talent. In my mind, he would always be welcome in Milwaukee, his second home (St. Louis being his first).
- Did I have a vision for the archdiocese? I responded that the vision is created by the Gospel. However, I did have three priorities: Catholic Identity, Evangelization and Stewardship.
- The third question was probably the most ominous. Was I going to declare bankruptcy? I informed the reporter that I had not even had the opportunity to review the economic and legal situation, however, I pledged that I would do everything possible to avoid going into bankruptcy.
After the press conference, I left with Bishop Callahan to visit a number of our religious communities. The religious communities have been instrumental in forming the rich history of the archdiocese. I wanted to acknowledge their contribution. After the visits, I boarded a plane to attend the bishops’ conference meetings.
From November 2009 to January 2010, I spent my time packing and saying my goodbyes to the Diocese of La Crosse. On Jan. 4, 2010, the feast of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, I was installed as the 11th archbishop of Milwaukee. My predecessor, Archbishop Dolan, was there and when I acknowledged his presence he doffed his zucchetto (beanie) like Babe Ruth who had just hit a home run, expressing his gratitude to the appreciative crowd.
A few of my friends told me that I looked a little stoic and dispassionate. They were right. Two days earlier, I had hyperextended my knee and was taking pain meds. So all I could focus on was “don’t pass out.”
At the end of the service, I spoke words of thanks and offered a few phrases in Spanish and Polish. Friends who spoke Polish said my Polish accent could pass in a bar or a bowling alley coming from the South Side of Chicago. I considered it a compliment.
May I have this dance?
I ended my remarks by singling out my sister Penny who has been my greatest support in my life, priesthood and as a bishop. Her favorite television program was “Dancing with the Stars.” A famous celebrity with little or no dance experience is teamed with a professional dancer in order to perform a routine for judges. I used that image to say that we now begin our dance, teamed together by the church in her wisdom, we will work together for the greater glory of God.
The next few months was the getting-to-know-you period as I made my way to the various districts to meet the priests and deacons of the archdiocese. I also celebrated Mass in a number of parishes who were kind enough to have a light reception after the liturgy.
It was popularly known that my favorite snack was Cheetos so one parish put out three huge bowls of Cheetos for the reception. The last person in line was a boy of about 11. He welcomed me and said, “Hey, Archbishop, I love Cheetos, too.” I could see that his face and hands were orange, a mark of our favorite snack.
A few months later, I seemed to be settling in when a surprise announcement came by way of the apostolic nuncio. Bishop Callahan was named the bishop of La Crosse. I had envisioned that Bishop Callahan would share in the shaping of the archdiocese. I was happy for him but sorry for myself as I lost a collaborator and friend.
Work begins on building future
My first meeting with the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council made me realize we are blessed with dynamic lay men and women who wished to move the archdiocese forward and further the priorities I established in my first interview.
It is obvious to me that nothing is achieved without the pastors and parish directors nurturing their congregations. If we were to progress as an archdiocese, I would need the cooperation of the bishops, priests, religious, deacons, lay ministers and lay people working together and building our future.
The Catholic Stewardship Appeal was a primary source of funding for important areas of the church’s mission (Catholic Charities, seminary, religious education, schools, etc.). A residual blessing was the ability to engage many of the persons and families that generously contribute to the wellbeing of our church; many have become my dear friends.
In June, I traveled to Rome with approximately 100 clergy, staff and friends to receive my pallium, an overlay distinctive of an archbishop and his unity with the pope. I received it from Pope Benedict XVI at the main altar in St. Peter’s, the main stage of all Christendom. As I walked toward the papal throne I whispered a prayer, “Please, Lord, don’t let me trip.”
Hoped to avoid bankruptcy
I made a pledge that I would do everything to avoid bankruptcy. In October, the archdiocese participated in mediation in an attempt to settle the clergy sexual abuse cases that were still pending in the courts. We established several meetings in Chicago with the attorneys representing the claimants. We disclosed what we had to offer in an economic settlement. It was a substantial offer.
The proposal allowed us to compensate the abuse survivors and still have a little left to continue the mission of the archdiocese. Non-economic proposals were discussed, many of which had already been implemented. The attorney representing the claimants rejected the offer. The offer was later extended in writing, which was again rejected.
After consultation with our attorneys and the advisory groups of the archdiocese, it was obvious to me the only course of action was to file for bankruptcy.
On Jan. 4, 2011, the first anniversary of my installation and the feast of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, I communicated to our parish leaders, staffs, supporters and media outlets that the Archdiocese of Milwaukee would be filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
We had now chosen a path to bring some closure to this issue, no matter what obstacles lay in our path and no matter how long it might take. Our dance had begun.