(This is the third in a three-part series.)

I said that if you want to make God laugh tell him your plans.

I was appointed pastor of St. Ignatius on the north side of Chicago two blocks west of Loyola University. It was a former Jesuit parish, heavily in debt with a dwindling parish population. In its heyday, it was a politically influential parish built in a style that reflected a majestic grandeur and a day chapel which, at one time, was spectacular but had fallen on hard times and neglect.

However, I was at home and happy. I made it. I was assisted by a small, but dedicated staff, had tons of work and envisioned nothing but potential for the parish in the days ahead for those who believe.

As Bishop of La Crosse, a diocese he called “very missionary conscious,” Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki traveled worldwide. In 2007, he traveled to the Diocese of Kumbakonam, India. Such trips reminded him to thank God for conveniences “we often take for granted,” he writes in his reflection on his first 40 years of priesthood. (Submitted photo)I was scheduled for my installation as pastor Oct. 29, 2000, at the 11 a.m. Mass. This was about three months after my arrival. On Tuesday of the week before my installation, I was typing the prayers of petition when the secretary came into the office and said excitedly, “The cardinal’s on the phone and wants to talk with you immediately.”

I thought this must be serious. This was not a good sign having been an archdiocesan advisor on moral matters, canonical and civil law. He told me he needed to see me immediately and asked if I could come to his residence.

I begged indulgence from my staff and made my way to the cardinal’s home filled with anxiety. When I arrived, I was escorted into his private office. Now my anxiety level was off the chart.

When we were alone, Cardinal Francis George said: “Jerry, the Holy See called this morning and you have been named a bishop.”

Stunned, I said, “WHAT!?”

The cardinal looked back at me and said, “Jerry, I am more surprised than you are.” 

To which I replied, “Thanks for your vote of confidence.” 

We both laughed and I think I heard God laugh.

Life changes radically

We’re not allowed to tell anyone until Rome announces it, usually two to three weeks later.

I was installed as pastor that Sunday knowing my life would be radically changed in two weeks. The day of the announcement arrived, the press conference was set for 11 a.m. to coincide with the noon news. It was already announced in Rome as they are seven hours ahead of United States time. I was free to share the news so as I prepared to leave St. Ignatius for the chancery office, I said to Florence, our volunteer receptionist, “Florence, I am going downtown to a press conference where it’s going to be announced that I have been named a bishop.”

Florence, a very proper lady, said, “Now, Father, you’re always joking around. That kidding will get you into trouble.”

“OK, Florence, I’m sorry.” 

God is said to take the children and fools. I am too old to be considered a child but just the right disposition to be one of his fools. What is usually a jammed packed pressroom for this type of announcement was rather light. A few “softball” type questions were asked, and the room emptied.

An elephant greets then-Bishop of La Crosse Jerome E. Listecki and Fr. Roger J. Scheckel, director of the Propagation of the Faith Office in the Diocese of La Crosse, during their visit to the Diocese of Kumbakonam, India, in January 2007. (Submitted photo)

The announcement was on Nov. 8, 2000, which happened to be the day of the “hanging chads,” which forced the recount in Florida in the presidential election. So the media was anxious to get back to the Bush/Gore controversy.

I got back into my car and traveled to Loyola University and taught an afternoon class in moral theology. When I returned to St. Ignatius, Florence was still at the desk. By now the news of my appointment was on all the TV news and radio reports. Sheepishly, Florence said to me, “Oh! Father, I’m so sorry…. I never thought that you’d be a bishop.”

“Thanks, Florence,” I said, and I think I heard God laugh again.

Ordination day proves memorable

June 8, 2001 — ordination was a day I’ll never forget. The cardinal, archbishops, bishops, priests, deacons, religious and lay faithful couldn’t have been more gracious, and I was surrounded by my mother, sister, relatives and life-long friends.

The cardinal poured so much chrism over my head that it blackened the zuchetto (beanie) I was wearing and dripped into my eyes throughout the entire ceremony. I almost couldn’t proclaim the assigned part of the Eucharist prayer, because I couldn’t see. 

I was still pastor of St. Ignatius and continued my duties kicking and screaming to remain. At the end of the year, Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas was named Bishop of Tucson, Arizona, and vacated Vicariate I. I assumed responsibility for the largest territorial Vicariate in the archdiocese and remained as pastor with the assistance of my friend, Fr. Joseph Jackson, who replaced me as pastor after my second year. 

One of the most difficult things a priest is called to do is the celebration of the burial Mass for his parents. I had to do that in 1986 for my father and in 2002, my mother passed away.

She had suffered for years with a weak heart and was on borrowed time. It was only the care of my sister that kept her alive. My sister, Penny, took excellent care of my parents and I couldn’t have devoted my attention to the duties of the church had it not been for her special attention to them. Now she oversees her brother and quickly admonishes my personal neglect and carelessness. She continues to be a gift in my life. 

Then-Bishop of La Crosse Jerome E. Listecki distributes medals to children of the Santa Cruz Parish in Bolivia who performed a traditional dance on Jan. 18, 2009. Fr. Bob Flock, a La Crosse diocesan priest who had been serving as pastor of the parish and who was named a bishop in 2013, looks on at left. Bishop Listecki traveled to the parish to mark 50 years of the La Crosse Diocese’s financial and spiritual support of the parish. (Submitted photo)

I turned my energies and attention to Vicariate I to be a source of support for the 56 parishes, priests, deacons, religious and the over 400,000 Catholics.

Even though Libertyville, Illinois, was a fairly affluent community, I lived in an old white farm house, where if you dropped a marble on the kitchen floor it would quickly roll to the other side. No lap of luxury there.

Enactment of Dallas Charter is painful

It was during this time that the Dallas Charter was enacted. Chicago had been at the forefront of addressing the clergy sexual abuse scandal, but now a comprehensive plan was enacted by the conference and all pre-existing plans had to be brought into conformity.

I returned from Dallas and within weeks, I had to remove a number of priests. It was difficult on many levels for the victims, the priest perpetrators, fellow priests, families and the lay faithful. It was a hurtful time, but one that I prayed would bring purification and a new moment for the church.

I had plans for Vicariate I and was meeting with my staff at a December Christmas luncheon in 2004 discussing the vision for our future.

I returned to my residence and the answering machine light was flashing. A secretary’s voice said: “Bishop Listecki, this is Archbishop Montalvo’s office and the archbishop would like to talk with you as quickly as possible.”

Archbishop Montalvo was Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States. They don’t usually call to make small talk. I quickly called back and Archbishop Montalvo informed me that Pope John Paul II appointed me bishop of La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Again papal secrecy prevented me from telling anyone until the announcement in three weeks. I drove to La Crosse the evening before the announcement and was artfully hidden from view.

The next morning, I was ushered over to the Pastoral Center where a press conference was held, and I answered questions about my reaction to the appointment, my assessment of my predecessor Bishop Raymond L. Burke and questions about current controversial issues.

I was taken to a number of the religious houses in the diocese to thank them for their work in building the church and ended at the room of Bishop John Paul, bishop emeritus of the Diocese of La Crosse, and asked for his blessing as I assumed the responsibility for the diocese. I have a picture of his blessing that I cherish to this day.

Less than warm welcome for future bishop

On March 5, Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan installed me as the bishop of La Crosse. I related an interesting story. The day of Bishop Burke’s installation, nine years earlier, I had made my way from Mundelein to give a talk at Albert Lea College. I decided to stop in at the cathedral to see my classmate and friend installed.

A conscientious Knight of Columbus barred my entrance and I viewed the proceeding from the foyer. I began my homily with that story and said, nine years ago I did not have a seat in this cathedral; however, because of the pope, I have one today. 

The size of the Diocese of La Crosse, 15,100 square miles, presented a problem for unification. How would we make all the parishes feel that they were one?

Confirmation became my vehicle as I did all 67 confirmations, missing just one – because of illness – in five years.

It had its effect. Parishes knew I was their bishop even if my residence was two or three hours away. La Crosse truly is God’s country with the Mississippi, the Cooley bluffs, the pastoral farm lands and the glacier rock formations. The topography was natural eye candy. And although the driving was tedious, it was always interesting.

La Crosse is a very missionary conscious diocese because of the work of many priests, especially one in particular, Fr. Joseph Walijewski, whose cause for sanctity is being promoted by Bishop William P. Callahan.

I had the privilege of accompanying Fr. Joe to Santa Cruz, Bolivia, to visit the first missionary church he established and then to the John Paul II orphanage that he also founded in Lurin, Peru, just outside of Lima. The visits had a lasting effect on my appreciation for the work of the church and the profound spiritual impact made by the priests and benefactors in the name of Jesus.

I had a number of foreign priests in the diocese who worked very hard on our behalf. Therefore, I felt that I owed thanks to their bishops so in 2007 and 2008 I visited India and Ghana. After being in some of the more rural situations, I assure you I will not complain about our roads, We Energies or shopping accessibility. My travels made me get down on my knees and thank God for the conveniences we often take for granted.

Capital Campaign brings stability

The diocese needed economic stability and we engaged in a Capital Campaign called, “We Belong to Christ.” The name was suggested by one of the members of the priest council who remembered my installation homily. I said, “Today I belong to you and you belong to me but we belong to Christ.”

I was touched that someone would remember those words. The target was $50 million and we achieved $51 million during that time; we also made our annual stewardship goal (CSA) of $5 million every year of the three-year campaign. It was a sign of great generosity and confidence in the church. 

We also established a computerization of all 160 parishes linking them through a common source, Parish Soft. It assisted in the communication and provided unified programs. 

If you ask any bishop in the country what are the three areas that occupy his time, he will tell you: personnel, finances and schools — not necessarily in that order.

I had just finished unpacking the last of my boxes from my move from Chicago five years earlier. I was now officially home in La Crosse. La Crosse friends joked, “Well, it’s about time.”

I turned my concentration on addressing our schools and the various divisions that were established. I was talking with the superintendent when my secretary came into the meeting and said, “Bishop, the Apostolic Delegate is on the phone and wishes to talk with you.”

Archbishop Pietro Sambi, who had succeeded Archbishop Montalvo as Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, was a gregarious man who enjoyed the American culture and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. 

“Your Excellency,” he said, “Pope Benedict XVI has made his decision and you will replace Archbishop Dolan as the new archbishop of Milwaukee.”

I said, “I am honored, Archbishop Sambi, but I know that there are candidates more deserving than myself to occupy that position, and I am happy in La Crosse and have much work yet to do.”

“Your Excellency,” he said, “the pope has made his decision and you are the archbishop of Milwaukee.” 

I offered my obedience to the pope’s wishes and asked the Apostolic Delegate to give my thanks to the pope for his vote of confidence.

Again, I was under papal secrecy, but I thought, “Why, God, did you have me unpack my boxes?”

I heard a laugh. So ends phase three of my 40th anniversary.

Well, what about Milwaukee, the transition and the last five years? I am saving that for another anniversary — the one that will take place on Jan. 8, 2016 when I will celebrate my 15th year as a bishop.

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee deserves its own Herald of Hope column or two; after all, you’ve put up with me for five years and I haven’t unpacked my boxes. I just might be safe as I don’t hear God laughing yet.

As the poet, Robert Browning says, “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be….”