The story of Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki’s path to religious life has taken on an almost mythical aura, admits Milwaukee’s 11th archbishop. And the details vary depending which family member tells the story. But the gist of it is when Jerome was about 3 years old, he was standing outside the church on a Sunday with his parents and their friends when someone asked the youngster what he wanted to be when he grew up.
“A priest was passing who was in a cassock and I pointed to him and I said, ‘That’s what I want to be,’” recalled Archbishop Listecki in an interview in his La Crosse office, a month before he was to be installed the 11th archbishop of Milwaukee. “They said sure, and dismissed it, but I never wanted to be anything else.”
From the time he entered Quigley Preparatory Seminary South High School, a minor seminary, at age 14, Archbishop Listecki was on a direct path to priesthood. His life decisions and areas of study kept him focused on the goal of priesthood, but even so, young Jerry, as he was known to his friends – to family he is Jerome – found time to excel in athletics, academics, and even the fine arts.
Born March 12, 1949, Jerome Edward Listecki, was the older of Alfreda and Harry Listecki’s two children. His sister, Mary Antoinette “Penny” Listecki, is 11 months younger. The family lived in southeast Chicago, often referred to as South Chicago, according to Archbishop Listecki, across from a U.S. Steel mill, where he would later work as a laborer while in college.
From generation of tavern owners
Archbishop Listecki’s father was a tavern owner, the sixth generation of bar owners, but when Archbishop Listecki was 5, his father got out of the business, eventually retiring as a bus driver from the Chicago Transit Authority. Alfreda was a homemaker who encouraged her children to become well versed in many things, including the fine arts. Harry died in 1986 and Alfreda in 2006.
While Archbishop Listecki admitted he doesn’t recall much of the tavern life in his family, he said, that lifestyle influenced his life and subsequent relationships.
His wide circle of friends and ease in relating to people of different backgrounds mirrors his father’s mingling with tavern patrons and residents of the neighborhood.
“I wanted to be a priest since I was 3 years old, and I would like
Nov. 7, 2000, press conference after being named an auxiliary bishop
“To think in terms of taverns, especially the neighborhood taverns, you have to think in terms of the taverns as the savings and loans … early on the taverns were the social centers of the neighborhood. And so, many people would know my dad, but it was a neighborhood so everyone knew everybody else. I have a long list of aunts and uncles who are no blood relationship. This is the way you paid respect to your mother and father’s closest friends, you didn’t refer to them as Mr. or Mrs. you referred to them as aunt and uncle.”
Comes from extended Polish family
While his immediate family was small, Archbishop Listecki has a large extended family, including seven cousins on the “west side” of Chicago, another aunt on the “east side” with one son and several older cousins on his dad’s side of the family.
“My immediate family is very small; it’s just my sister Penny, but she makes up for not having a dozen brothers and sisters,” he said of his sister, a Chicago schoolteacher who resides in Tinley Park, south of the city. “She’s terrific. I depend upon her a great deal. She’s been a tremendous support throughout my life.”
Archbishop Listecki recalled big holiday gatherings when the extended family would gather at his home for a traditional Polish Christmas celebration.
“My mom was kind of the senior of her side of the family so they would all gravitate to my mother’s house for the Christmas Eve celebration,” he said, describing a gathering with fish, borscht (beet soup), and the custom of breaking Oplatki, something his cousins referred to as “kiss and cry.” The family would take the wafer, break off a piece, wish someone else well for the New Year and “like all families you’d hug and kiss,” he explained.
They belonged to St. Michael the Archangel Parish, Chicago, and both children attended St. Michael the Archangel Grammar School.
Alfreda dreamed that her only son, Jerome, would be a doctor, while Harry encouraged him to become a lawyer, but Archbishop Listecki noted that once he expressed his desire to become a priest, his parents were “absolutely supportive.”
Following graduation from high school, he attended Niles College of Loyola University and began graduate studies at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein Seminary in 1971.
Never planned to be Perry Mason or Matlock
Harry’s wish of a legal career for his son came closer to fruition, as then-Fr. Listecki earned his law degree from DePaul Law School in 1976, the year after he was ordained a priest. The degree, however, came at the suggestion of a political science teacher at Loyola University.
“I never envisioned myself as Perry Mason or Matlock or any of the trial lawyers you see on television,” explained Archbishop Listecki. “I viewed law as a language and in my mind, learning the language would be helpful in serving the church and the people.”
The law degree is only one of many pursuits the archbishop has embraced.
From an early age, Archbishop Listecki’s interests have been varied.
At the strong encouragement of his mother, he took jazz and ballet lessons with his sister for about five years beginning around age 5.
“My mother always felt the arts were very important and dance was part of it. My mother sent my sister – this cute little blond, type of thing and so she needed a partner, and a partner obviously could be her brother so the two of us we did dance together and, of course, did the recitals. We did ballet and tap, but don’t ask me to get to a barre to do the exercises because I can’t do that,” he described. “My sister, she contracted a little bit of kidney infection and so with the dances you do lifts so we weren’t able to do any of the lifts, and it gave me an opportunity to gracefully bow out of my Fred Astaire career,” he added with a laugh.
Viewed as ‘a renaissance guy’
In high school, he excelled academically, but also athletically where his close friend Jesus (Manny) Sosa described him as a terrific athlete.
“He was one of those guys, I consider like a renaissance guy in that whatever he does he does with excellence. He had many, many interests and there wasn’t a sport he didn’t try,” he said in a telephone interview with your Catholic Herald. Seminarian Listecki was captain of the high school tennis team, played basketball, and seminary intramural sports such as track and field and soccer, according to Sosa. Additionally he has a musical background, having taken piano lessons for four years, and playing in a guitar band with two close friends during college for folk Masses and weddings.
After ordination on May 14, 1975, he was assigned to St. Margaret Mary Parish, Chicago from 1975-1976 and in 1976, was appointed dean of students at Quigley Preparatory Seminary North and as a resident priest at Mater Christi Parish in North Riverside.
Three years later, he began graduate studies in canon law and moral theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, earning a licentiate and doctorate degree, to complement his civil law degree.
Chaplaincy became longterm commitment
“Take any aspect away and it wouldn’t give a total picture. Although I am diverse in a lot of fields, I am unified in the priesthood.”
Speaking of the diversity of his background in relation to his vocation, at the time of his ordination as an auxiliary bishop of Chicago, Jan. 8, 2001
While in Rome, he met an Army chaplain who introduced him to military chaplaincy.
“There was a need, I was asked to do it and I fulfilled it,” Archbishop Listecki explained of his career as a reserve chaplain in the U.S. Army. “Really the approach was to help out while I was in Rome, to occasionally go up to the troops in Germany to be able to support them. When I returned from Rome, I didn’t think I was going to stay in the reserves, but I got a call from Cardinal (Joseph) Bernardin who asked me to go to the 327th on Manheim and Higgins – it’s at the corner of the O’Hare Airport – and talk to the colonel there who was requesting a chaplain. They were in dire need – and the military still is – especially for Catholic chaplains to be able to support our troops.”
Thus, in 1981, he began a 23-year-commitment with the U.S. Army. During those years, Archbishop Listecki served his weekend a month and annual training at Fort McCoy in the La Crosse Diocese. He also accompanied Major General Thomas McCue to Honduras, he said, explaining as a chaplain he developed a special appreciation for the men and women that sacrifice to serve the country.
“Oftentimes, unfortunately, we take for granted a lot of the freedoms we have and we fail to realize that there is someone who is actually putting their life on the line so we can enjoy the freedoms we have,” he said. “It has renewed my appreciation for the men and women who are truly patriots, they understand they are doing something that is more than a job, a duty. They are giving of themselves because they believe in the country.”
While he retired from the reserves in 2004, Archbishop Listecki said he continues to serve the military when asked. For example, while bishop of La Crosse, he was asked occasionally to address or meet with troops soon to be deployed overseas from Fort McCoy.
After returning from Rome, then Fr.-Listecki taught canon law and moral theology at the archdiocesan major seminary, the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill, until August 2000 when he was named pastor of St. Ignatius Parish, Chicago.
But that pastorship was short-lived as a mere three months later, he was appointed auxiliary bishop of Chicago by Pope John Paul II and was ordained a bishop on Jan. 8, 2001.
Bishop of the people in La Crosse
About four years later, on March 1, 2005, he was installed as the ninth bishop of the Diocese of La Crosse.
While in La Crosse, then-Bishop Listecki developed a reputation as being a bishop of the people, but he was reluctant to take too much credit for his popularity.
“That’s an observation that everybody else makes about me,” he said about his people-skills. “That’s just something I do. I basically just love people; I love their stories. I am inspired by their commitment in faith, by their struggles. In one sense, I guess it’s the pastor’s heart and why the priesthood, from early on, was just something I desired.”
Looking back on his time in La Crosse, Archbishop Listecki was most proud of a successful $50 million “We Belong to Christ” campaign to benefit diocesan efforts, the completion of a pastoral plan which prepares for the future management of the diocese to the year 2025, the computerization of the diocese, the incorporation of all parishes and schools, the cutting of the Catholic school debt in half, and four visits to the diocese’s two Latin American missions in Bolivia and Peru.
Yet, Archbishop Listecki stressed the team effort in all his accomplishments.
“First of all, I’ve accomplished nothing. We have accomplished a great deal,” he said of the work of his staff.
Not ‘the political bishop’
While in La Crosse, Archbishop Listecki generated national attention in his defense of church teaching by challenging Catholic politicians or Catholic institutions who have strayed from church teaching. Yet, he rejects the notion that he’s “a political bishop.”
“If you are conscious of what is going on in your society, you’ve got to be involved in politics or the political aspect, but I think that came out of the fact that someone characterized me as the ‘political bishop.’ That is not what I am,” he said, explaining that his response to Nancy Pelosi’s erroneous presentation of church teaching was “basically a corrective.”
“There was a need for a bishop’s voice to make sure the corrective would be done with the faithful so they would hear a bishop’s voice, saying, ‘No, this is not the way we think, this is not how we view life, this is not part of our teaching,’” he explained.
Similarly, Archbishop Listecki said he spoke out against President Obama’s appearance at and honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame to support a brother bishop.
“There was the need to come back and say, this is something that should be done. This is something that Bishop (John) D’Arcy had every right to object to and which obviously Cardinal (Francis) George objected to as head of the conference, and I was lending my voice in support of theirs,” he said.
Shocked by appointment to Milwaukee
Even though his name had surfaced to fill the open position at the helm of the Milwaukee Archdiocese, Archbishop Listecki said he was shocked when he received a call from the pro-nuncio, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, in late October, informing him that Pope Benedict XVI had appointed him the 11th archbishop of Milwaukee.
“It was a shock, it was a surprise. I know sometimes everybody pays lip service and says it was an honor to be mentioned – and it was an honor to be mentioned – but my focus was I’m here (in La Crosse) and if you ask my administrative assistant, Sue Vlasak, she’ll tell you that plans were being made into 2010, 2011, into 2012 so there was no anticipation I might be moving into Milwaukee,” he admitted, noting he was focused on his work in La Crosse.
When the call came, however, he admitted he felt inadequate.
“You feel very vulnerable because you are losing everything you are connected to, everything you are a part of, but at the same time, that’s what happened when I came to La Crosse and I have a great confidence and trust that this where God wants me to be and so I open myself up to be used as an instrument in however he should choose to use me in Milwaukee, and try to build the same kind of sense of family we have built in La Crosse.”
Archbishop Listecki said he looks forward to getting to know the people personally in the southeastern part of Wisconsin.
“One of the great mysteries of life and friendship is discovery so there are probably chapters of my life that people will learn about because they’ll encounter me and they’ll strike a chord, and that’s the beauty of relationships,” he said. “I could try to tell everybody everything, and they can look at all my life, but the great aspects of the true aspect of the dignity of the person, is that none of those aspects are ever the person. The person is apart from the whole sum of everything that they’ve done, and that’s because of the dignity of God. There’s always the potential for other things, for other encounters, for other aspects. Maybe that’s why – I’d like to let people know – that’s why I like relationships so much.”