Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki was set to be featured in Time magazine during Operation Desert Storm, but the military conflict ended so quickly, he never deployed. (Photo courtesy of Penny Listecki)
When Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki was an auxiliary bishop in Chicago, there was a weekend where he was serving with his U.S. Army Reserve unit but had been excused to celebrate Mass at a local parish.
Seeing him in his combat boots and battle dress uniform, a woman approached him before the Mass and asked him if he was there to protect the bishop.
He replied, “No. I am the bishop.”
Archbishop Listecki’s life of devotion to God, family and country have occasionally caused these worlds to collide.
With Veterans Day approaching, Archbishop Listecki reflected on his time as a chaplain in the military from 1981 to 2004. It was during a mostly peaceful time in our nation’s history, with a few blips of seismic historical activity.
Aside from being in the reserves during 9/11, Archbishop Listecki had received orders to go to the Middle East to serve in Desert Storm during the early 1990s.
However, much like Abraham with Isaac, Archbishop Listecki was willing to make the sacrifice asked of him, but got pulled back at the last minute because the combat operations were over so quickly.
“I was set. I was ready to go. I was told I was going to Riyadh and Bahrain.”
TIME Magazine was set to follow Archbishop Listecki during his deployment, featuring a chaplain who goes to war. The story was scrapped, but he said he learned some valuable lessons about himself.
“I was ready to do what was required, what I was called to do. In my heart, there was no doubt. I was prepared.”
It kind of coincided with one of the things he learned about our men and women in uniform in more than two decades serving his country.
“The question is: Do our young people today have the fire in the belly?” Archbishop Listecki said. “We don’t doubt that when we see things written about the Greatest Generation. They hit the beaches at Normandy. My father and others hit the beaches at Iwo Jima and (other) islands.”
The answer he found out was emphatic.
“One of the things I found out is that, yeah, they do. It’s a different time and different demands but they have that sense of understanding what they’re representing and who they’re representing, and the need to protect the values we have. That was one of the great things I discovered.”
He also learned it about himself.
“I always wondered if I would have the fire in the belly to do that,” he said.
The values of God, family and country were instilled in Jerome Listecki from a young age.
He has always wanted to be a priest and went to the seminary at the earliest possible time.
He has spoken lovingly of the values his father and mother imparted in him growing on the South Side of Chicago, and he still maintains a close relationship with his sister Penny.
And serving the country for more than two decades shows his dedication in that regard.
“Coming from a traditional Catholic family, there’s always a sense of appreciation of what the country has meant to us,” Archbishop Listecki said. “I also have a law degree, and I am acutely aware of the freedoms that we enjoy. Being in other countries, you see how important it is that we maintain the aspect of respect for law, and how they protect the rights of individuals within our community. You need a strong defense of country in order to do that. There’s always been a tremendous respect I’ve had for those who’ve worn the uniform and have a willingness to put themselves on the line to be able to protect the values that we cherish.”
During the time he was in the seminary, many of Archbishop Listecki’s peers were drafted into the Army to go fight in Vietnam.
“I knew that if I had not been in the seminary, I probably would have volunteered or been drafted into the military. In the back of my mind, there was always a sense of being willing to serve.”
In 1981, his chance came when he was studying canon law and moral theology in Rome. A colonel approached him and asked him if he would be willing to help out the troops in Germany.
Much like the soldiers he counseled, celebrated Mass for and offered the sacraments, Archbishop Listecki has always given something of himself for the benefit of others.
“My orientation has always been following Christ. There has never been a sense in my mind of God holding back,” Archbishop Listecki said. “If there was a need, an obvious following the will of God, we did. I’m a person who is formed and fashioned by history. I come here as the archbishop of Milwaukee. I don’t forget in my mind, in my prayers, all the good things that so many people have done in order to make this a great archdiocese. Their names are not floated around, they’re not put on billboards, but day in, day out, they gave of themselves. I’m driven by that same aspect. We’re doing what Christ wants us to do. You may call it a sacrifice; I just call it a mission.”