When Pope Benedict XVI named Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki archbishop of Milwaukee on Nov. 14, 2009, the then-bishop of La Crosse had been living in Wisconsin for a little more than four years. He knew the state’s bishops, and he knew about their dioceses, including the archdiocese. Yet, when he came to Milwaukee, one thing surprised him: the depth of the faith of the people.Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, pictured after signing the Archdiocesan Synodal Decree at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Milwaukee, Sept. 14, 2014, marked his fifth anniversary as archbishop of Milwaukee on Jan. 4. (Catholic Herald photo by Allen Fredrickson)

“I was honestly shocked by how deep it went because I knew how scarred the archdiocese was. Although Cardinal (Timothy) Dolan did a great job in bringing the largesse of his personality, the wonderful commitment to and direction of the church in the time he was its shepherd, I knew the archdiocese was hurting,” the archbishop said. “It had to (be). But I was shocked by how people were able to take and articulate that faith and understand that the sins of a few would not deter them from embracing the love of God.” 

This past Sunday, Jan. 4, Archbishop Listecki marked his fifth anniversary as archbishop of Milwaukee. When he spoke with the Catholic Herald on Dec. 1 about his time in the archdiocese, he repeatedly mentioned the faith of the people. 

“When I met with the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council early on, we talked about the need to have people be challenged by their faith and to come back and practice their faith. It was their impetus and their voice that gave rise to our evangelization summit that took place (May 5, 2012),” he said. “There were great testimonies of faith from people realizing that we should do something to reach out, that we should do something to challenge our communities with the faith.” 

In fact, he said the faith present in parishes is “the strength of the archdiocese.” 

“As a leader, shepherd of the archdiocese, that’s where I take strength, that’s what I draw from,” he added. 

The archbishop said he also saw potential among youth, which led to his calling for a “youth summit,” Oct. 19, 2010. 

“I could see there was a gap in our outreach to youth, yet when I went to parishes, time and time again I would encounter a vibrant youth ministry that was going on,” Archbishop Listecki said. “So I immediately thought there was a need to bring all this together – to at least demonstrate on the part of the archdiocese that we support youth ministry and also to establish a network among those good things that were happening.” 

Drawing upon gifts of diverse faith communities 

One accomplishment of which the archbishop is proud is the development of a Hispanic Pastoral Plan for the archdiocese. 

“That’s very significant because the fastest growing ethnic population in the archdiocese is the Hispanic community,” he said, noting that he uses the term “Hispanic” loosely because it includes a multitude of nationalities. 

Archbishop Listecki said “there were many wonderful things going on and priests dedicated to the Spanish-speaking community,” but he saw a need for a “common plan.” 

“I enlisted the support of the priests in the Hispanic community, and, under Fr. Javier Bustos, we were able to accomplish a Hispanic plan,” the archbishop said. “That’s really a wonderful achievement by the archdiocese. There are many dioceses that do Hispanic ministry, but they don’t have a Hispanic plan.” 

Noting that the first parish community in which he celebrated Mass after he was installed as archbishop was St. Martin de Porres Parish, Milwaukee, Archbishop Listecki said the African-American community has gifts to share with the entire archdiocese. 

“I went there specifically because I see a great need for evangelization in the African-American community, and because I see the strength that the African-American community can bring to the vision of the archdiocese,” he said. 

Synod ‘re-enforcement of church’ 

More than six months after the conclusion of the Archdiocesan Synod, Archbishop Listecki continues to speak enthusiastically about the process that led to the 2014 event and about the hope he sees as a result of it. 

“There’ve been so many great things that have happened over the last five years, not the least of which has been the synod,” he said. “And that has been the sense of the movement of the Holy Spirit that I don’t attribute to myself.” 

The archbishop said that he knew he wanted to do a synod, and felt that the archdiocese should do a synod, “but there were many voices that did not want to do it, didn’t think it was the right time.” 

“We did it and we look at the fruits of it – the energy it has generated, the feeling it has generated among the faithful,” he said. “That’s really been a wonderful aspect and, for me, a very positive re-enforcement of church.” 

Reality, challenges of Chapter 11 

Although the archdiocese has been in bankruptcy four of the five years he has served, Archbishop Listecki accepts that reality, but doesn’t dwell upon it. 

“The challenges here and now will shape the vision going forward. So, I don’t sit back and dream what it would be without bankruptcy,” he said. “We have bankruptcy. That’s a reality. We take a look at accepting the challenges that are presented by that bankruptcy and then moving forward through that bankruptcy that’s helping to shape who we might be in the future.” 

The archbishop noted that, despite Chapter 11, the church in southeastern Wisconsin continues to fulfill its mission. 

“(Chapter 11) doesn’t stop us in pursuing whatever resources God has given us for carrying out the mission, the mandate, of Christ,” Archbishop Listecki said. 

“That’s one thing that suddenly all of us working together demonstrated – that we’re going to carry out the mission of Christ in whatever manner, shape or form that we are capable of doing, but it will be for Christ and it will be for his church.”

The archbishop explained why, throughout the bankruptcy, he has encouraged the faithful to be patient and to pray.

“When I’m talking about patience and prayer, I’m talking about ‘patior’ (Latin) which means ‘to suffer.’ Basically what you’re doing is in and through the sacrifices that are made you’re learning. The suffering you do is an active suffering you do on behalf of the church,” he said. “We feel in our suffering for those who are victims and those who have suffered abuse. We feel for those who have lost confidence and trust in the church. None of that confidence is regained unless it’s joined to prayer. Prayer joined to the suffering is what helps strengthen us.”

For Archbishop Listecki, faith has been his guide and strength during Chapter 11.

“Every aspect, every community presents challenges. I believe I came here as a committed, strong leader, I believe if I’m going to tell people to rely upon your faith to see you through your difficulties, I better practice what I preach,” he said. “And I rely upon my faith to see us through whatever difficulties and challenges we face. I say that because that makes you stronger in your faith. And if the most important thing is your faith, then conversely you’re growing closer to God in and through every one of those challenges.”

‘Lead them toward holiness’

Asked what he envisioned for the next five to 10 years, Archbishop Listecki recalled a question he posited at a Men of Christ conference several years ago.

“’What would I want on my tombstone?’ After thinking about it, I would want it to say, ‘He led them toward holiness,’” the archbishop said.

He continued, “If in the period of time I’ve been here and in the time I have left, if we’re drawn closer to the understanding of mystery, if we as a people are drawn closer into the love of Christ, if we are drawn closer to Christ, if we have a greater sense of his presence in our lives and an ability to share it with others, that’s what I want to lead the community toward; I want to lead them to that sacred, I want to lead them toward holiness.”