Things were going pretty well for then-Fr. Jerome Listecki in the fall of 2000.
He had been appointed the pastor of St. Ignatius Parish on Chicago’s north side, near the campus of Loyola University. He had started engaging with the parishioners and in activities.
“This is something I had desired my whole priesthood, my own parish,” said Archbishop Listecki, who celebrated 20 years as a bishop on Jan. 8. “I had been in seminary life all but five months of my priesthood.”
Francis Cardinal George earlier in the year had offered him a directorship in the Archdiocese of Chicago but he was insistent he wanted to be a pastor.
St. Ignatius Parish had seen better days, but Listecki was up to the challenge.
“In its heyday, it was one of the glorious parishes in the archdiocese but it had been long since it had seen those days,” Archbishop Listecki said.
The parish had about 1,000 families at the time (small for a city parish), a large debt, and was serving about five different ethnic communities.
“It was a wonderful parish,” Archbishop Listecki said. “The Jesuits had had that parish. I was the first archdiocesan pastor of that parish. The Jesuits started it and the Jesuits had it for almost 100 years.”
Three days before he was to be installed as pastor at St. Ignatius, he received a call from Francis Cardinal George, then the Archbishop of Chicago. Listecki noted it was a frantic invitation.
So, Fr. Listecki drove to Cardinal George’s residence.
“You know you’re being called because he needs you for something,” Archbishop Listecki said. “My mind is swimming in all of these possibilities of why I am being called. I knew whatever it was, I would probably have to go down to the seminary to do research to be able to support him properly with what he needed.”
As he got the residence, Cardinal George met him in a side office.
“He said, ‘Jerry, the Holy See called this morning and you’ve been named a bishop,’” Archbishop Listecki said. “My first response is, ‘What?’”
Archbishop Listecki said he had thought about it, but was focused on his new position at St. Ignatius. At the time, there were seven auxiliary bishops in Chicago, so there were no openings.
“It was not on the radar,” Archbishop Listecki said. “My radar was on the fact I’d been named pastor.”
Cardinal George told Fr. Listecki he needed a decision in about three hours.
“Jerry, I’m more surprised than you are,” is what Archbishop Listecki recalls Cardinal George telling him.
“I respect him immensely,” Archbishop Listecki said. “He was a great leader in the Church, and certainly a great mentor for me personally.
“My response was, ‘Thanks for your vote of confidence.’”
Archbishop Listecki recalled Cardinal George said, “I always thought you’d be a bishop. I didn’t think the Holy See would choose you at this time.” Archbishop Listecki said Cardinal George thought he’d be named as a bishop in a diocese.
They had lunch together to discuss and Listecki was praying over the decision when the Cardinal’s housekeeper, Sr. Ursula, gave him a sign.
“Sr. Ursula comes next to me and nudges me and said, ‘Here, don’t be afraid,’” Listecki said. “I looked up and said, ‘What?’ And she said, ‘Here, don’t be afraid. Have a hamburger.’ God was using that to give me a signal for something else.”
In the time between the conversation with Cardinal George and the official announcement on Nov. 7, 2000, Archbishop Listecki was not allowed to discuss it with anyone, except for his spiritual advisor, who was also his confessor.
The day of the announcement was the same day as the hanging chads in the Florida recount of the 2000 presidential election. With the presidency hanging in the balance, the media attendance was about 25 percent of what it would normally be for the announcement of a new bishop.
Leaving the parish in the morning for the press conference, Fr. Listecki knew that his appointment had been announced in Rome, but not yet in Chicago.
St. Ignatius Parish had a volunteer receptionist named Florence that Listecki checked in with before he left.
“I said, ‘Florence, I have to go into Chicago to the Chancery. I’m being named a bishop,’” Archbishop Listecki said. “Florence looked at me and said, ‘Oh, Father, quit joking around. You’re always kidding around. Stop that joking; it’s going to get you in trouble.’”
Following the announcement, he taught a class at St. Joseph’s Seminary before returning to St. Ignatius.
Florence said, “Oh, Father, I’m so sorry. I never thought you’d be a bishop.”
Two votes of confidence.
Bishop Listecki stayed at St. Ignatius for two more years after he became a bishop.
“Every priest remembers his first pastorate,” Archbishop Listecki said. “You’re really in charge of the souls of that community. You also have the ability to help share your vision of Christ and the Church.”
In the time since he has become a bishop, the office has taken him to places he never could have imagined.
“One that comes to mind immediately is when I received the Pallium; I concelebrated with the Pope (Benedict XVI) over St. Peter’s Confessional in Rome to a packed St. Peter’s Basilica,” Archbishop Listecki said. “I never imagined I would be celebrating Mass next to his holiness. In your position as a bishop, you’re a leader of a territory. You come in contact with a lot of people who are very respectful of your office and what you do; so you get invited to inaugurations and to do invocations. From time to time, there are people in the public sphere who want to seek you out – talk to you about their spiritual sense or spiritual understanding.”
While none of his seminary classmates are bishops, two of his fellow 1975 ordinandi, Bishop Joseph Perry of Chicago and James Cardinal Harvey, have become bishops. He also has several of his seminary students who have become bishops.
As a bishop, Archbishop Listecki knows he serves as an example for the priests in the archdiocese.
“You can’t avoid that,” Archbishop Listecki said. “You become the example for the actions of the archdiocese. You become a sense of the vision the archdiocese has. I see myself as more of a promoter, of the faith, of the priests, of the deacons, the religious and the people who serve. I tell their stories. They do things I could never do and they accomplish things I could never accomplish. In that way, they build the Church.”
Part of the tradition of becoming a bishop is the creation of a Coat of Arms and a motto. Archbishop Listecki, inspired by St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, chose “Life is Christ.”
He said it was a community St. Paul loved very much and that had supported him. He was writing to them because he was contemplating his death while in prison.
“If I die, I go to Christ. If I’m released, I get to continue to preach Christ. His resolution was whether I live or die, it doesn’t matter. Life is Christ.”
He also chose it to honor people involved in the pro-life movement.
During the time between his announcement and his ordination as a bishop, Archbishop Listecki had plenty of people he could talk to, including the other auxiliary bishops, Cardinal George and a number of retired bishops that lived in Chicago at the time. He had to learn about the new apparel and the book of ceremonies that guides their actions during Mass.
“There’s no one you can consult for the change in your personal life for the role,” Archbishop Listecki said. “Every one of them is different.”
He said they were very supportive during that time.
“It is a tremendous brotherhood,” he said. “They understand you have a role. They remember how it was with them when they came in.”
In 2017, Archbishop Listecki was in a similar spot to Cardinal George when Bishops Jeffrey R. Haines and James T. Schuerman were named as auxiliary bishops. He spoke with them right away after they received the call from the Papal Nuncio.
“Anybody should be open to God’s request of us,” Archbishop Listecki said. “It helps to form and fashion us in ways we can never imagine, but always for the good of Christ and his Church.”