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The Catholic New World
The Interview
Jerome E. Listecki
Catholic New World photos by David V. Kamba
Bishop-designate Jerome E. Listecki: "Certainly, the surprise in this appointment tells me I have to turn things over and say, 'God must have a plan for all of this'."

The Interview, a regular feature of The Catholic New World, is an in-depth conversation with a person whose words, actions or ideas affect today’s Catholic. It may be affirming of faith or confrontational. But it will always be stimulating.

This week, Catholic New World staff writer Michael D. Wamble talks with Bishop-designate Jerome E. Listecki.

Student. Laborer. Priest. Canonical lawyer. Teacher. Basketball coach. Broadcaster. Moral theologian. Lawyer. Pastor.

And now Jerome E. Listecki, 51, will add bishop to the numerous titles and experiences that have shaped the life of this son of the Southeast Side of Chicago.

At age 3, relatives offer, beneath the scarlet sky lit by God and U.S. Steel, the oldest child of two, pointed to a priest walking past his family and declared, “I want to be that.”

The bishop-designate confirms the truth of the lore.

“Of course, nobody takes you seriously at 3, they just pat you on the head and expect that you’ll change your mind. But I never did,” said the towering, broad-shouldered prelate-designate at a pre-consecration interview. “Now I am living out my dreams.”

Continued the former parishioner of St. Michael Church, 8237 S. South Shore Drive, “Each day that goes by working with people I think, ‘I’m privileged to be your priest. I’m privileged to be your pastor. I’m privileged to be your teacher.’”

On Jan. 8, the privilege will extend to being an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago. It is a fact that humbles him, to serve the people of God in the second most beautiful city in the world.

The most beautiful city, according to this film-lover and the current pastor of St. Ignatius Parish, is Rome.

When he was sent to the Vatican, he said, instructors didn’t worry about what effect Rome would have on the thick-skinned, good-natured South Sider, they were concerned about what effect he’d have on Rome. And with good reason.

During his time in the “most beautiful city in the world,” the 6-foot-something priest taught Italian amateur basketball players the art of “mixing it up” in pick-up games and single-handedly increased the per capita number of White Sox caps worn abroad.

When guys dribbled toward the lane, said the former college guard and basketball coach at Quigley North, he’d promptly send them to the floor.

“‘Make two here,’ I told the guy in Italian,” he said, pointing to the foul line. “I wanted them to become better players. I wanted them to earn it.” That work-ethic and sense of dedication was formed in the fiery glow of summers at U.S. Steel.

The Catholic New World: When your appointment was officially announced Nov. 7, you said you felt “proud and humbled.” But most of all, you sounded very surprised by the decision.

Bishop-designate Jerome Listecki: Absolutely. This has come out of the blue, you know.

As a pastor of a parish, your life is set in one direction and then comes this selection by the pope, so it’s out of the blue. Surprise. Like all of us, when God comes and drops something into our lives, you embrace it and try to find meaning in it. Your spirituality takes over as something that must be lived out.

The pride comes from the fact that it is a Chicago appointment for a Chicago priest. Here, I am surrounded by great priests I have served with and great priests I have taught. So, at the same time, it humbles you to be selected out of this great group of people of the church in Chicago.

TCNW: The Southeast Side where you grew up has always been a blue-collar area where many people worked in the steel plants. You know about this experience first-hand.

BJL: When I was seminarian, during the summers I worked in a blast furnace centering plant, where there was both a concentration of heat and dust. It is where they take the material to be fused together in order to be fed into the furnace.

TCNW: How did you get that job?

BJL: I was lucky, I guess. (Laughs.)

Well, I went in and, in those days, I was put on a labor gang. There were nine black guys, three Hispanic guys and myself. And they asked me the same question. Then I told them I wanted to become a priest. It was great experience.

These were solid men, hardworking men. That experience taught me that it might be easy to find God in the loftiness of books and thoughts, but these thoughts are really alive where the rubber meets the road. In the slagpit, surrounded by dust, and shoveling into the furnace is where I heard people talk about God.

I never regretted my five summers in the steel mills. It was tough, hard work. I guess if you sat me down at [age]18 and asked me if I’d like a clean, office job for X amount of dollars instead of $2.14 an hour at the steel mill, well….

But I lived across from U.S. Steel where most people worked. At one time, from 79th Street to Gary, Ind., you had the single most contiguous industrial area in the world. The experience taught me an appreciation of what it meant to work for a living on the Southeast Side.

TCNW: In a recent interview, you mentioned that growing up you were formed partly by a “neighborhood mentality.” How important is that sense of community?

BJL: When [Cardinal] Francis George came back to Chicago, he said Chicago is a city of neighborhoods. Unfortunately, we are losing that sense [of community]. We are in a state of transition.

There was a time when people identified with their neighborhood church. Your church was the cornerstone of most gatherings. Talk to a life-long Chicagoan and they’ll ask, ‘What parish are you from?’ And that kind of defines you. If you say, ‘St. Michael’s on South Shore Drive,’ the first thing people think of are the steel mills. So then, they see you as a steel mill kid. Then you’d further be defined by which side of Burley that you lived. I lived in ‘the bush.’ In neighborhoods, you were defined, but hopefully not boxed. And definitions can give you a sense of identity. If you were from the Southeast Side, it was presumed that you were ‘tough.’ I could’ve been a wimp….

TCNW: But were you?

BJL: Of course not. Do I look like a wimp? (Laughs.)

Neighborhoods also give you a sense of extended family. My first parish was St. Margaret Mary on the North Side between Western and Ridge and Chase. While you have that North Side-South Side rivalry, I once said to them, “I mean this as a compliment. You could pick up Margaret Mary’s and drop it on the South Side of Chicago and never miss a beat. You have that same sense of extended family where half the kids at the kitchen table are from other families. It is that extended. And that’s neighborhood.

The negative is when you’re boxed in and, if you’re not careful, you can become provincial. That’s when you have neighborhoods that are just black or white or Asian. The positive part is when we are all welcomed at the table and where we all struggle together.

TCNW: Are we losing that positive part?

BJL: Well, we are losing neighborhoods. If another model emerges that creates a better sense of unity, that’s OK. One thing I know is that it’s not going to happen unless the [Catholic] Church is the center of it. It was the church that challenged people’s concepts about black/white issues. It was the church. I didn’t see any great shakes from local politicians. They preached whatever was in their self-interest. It was the priests and the sisters in the parish who were saying, “Break down those barriers. This is what the Gospel says.”

When I was 14, I remember trotting down with a group of seminarians with Father [Joseph] Richards at Holy Angels to work in their summer program. That was barrier that was broken down. Then you had the example of Quigley [South]. So when you have the church working with the neighborhood, then there’s hope. You have hope. But sometimes when you leave the neighborhood up to its own device, then it can become self-serving, provincial.

As a South Sider, you could be in the most beautiful city in the world during the summer—some say Paris, but I say Rome—and you feel like you got to get back home for the parish picnic, or the parish softball game. It’s like getting back to family.

TCNW: Would you define yourself as a South Sider first and a Roman second?

BJL: I love Rome, it is an eye-delight. I think of Rome as the Disney World of the world, for adults. If you have any sense of history, culture and art, it’s a visual trip that delights the senses. I thoroughly enjoyed my four years in Rome, immensely. I had the best of two worlds. I was a priest studying in Rome. But I’m a Chicagoan. I bleed Chicago. I am comfortable in the city. My roots here provided me with a grounding to appreciate the realities of the world including the church in Rome.

As a South Side kid growing up with church as the center of your community and the center of your life, it was wonderful to live in the capital of Christendom, but this is home.

TCNW: What did you most enjoy about Rome?

BJL: First, just being there. It’s hard to describe being somewhere that has an ancient history, a Middle Ages history and a modern history. It truly is the capital of the world. It’s the crossroads.

Second is the blessing of being there through the early part of the pontificate of John Paul II, the first non-Italian pope in over 450 years. Seeing first-hand the excitement brought on by the pontificate of this robust man kissing babies and skiing in the hills of Rome. What’s interesting is because I’ve had that experience of him, I appreciate him even more now with all the physical debilities he has now. That drive that he has! The Gospel message is really fulfilled in him, “I take the weak and make them strong.”

He is at a place where others might have chosen to quit or cut back, but I don’t see that at all. The man’s mind is still so sharp. What has been taken way from him, some of the things he loved to do—his facial expressions to the crowd, his singing, his interplay with the crowd. He worked crowds, in the positive sense, better than any world leader. Now that’s all taken away from him. In light of that, now he literally becomes a living presence of God without the personality trappings that might be there. That Gospel message is truly fulfilled in him. And he still has a remarkable gift in connecting with the young. He is an inspiration.

TCNW: He is still teaching us lessons.

BJL: Imagine what his life says to someone physically-challenged or to someone nearing the end of life. God is using him as an instrument.

TCNW: Do you feel that God also is using you as an instrument?

BJL: Certainly, the surprise in this appointment tells me I have to turn things over and say, “God must have a plan for all of this.” You must open up and let God use you.

TCNW: Given the numerous experience that have taught you life lessons and your time as an instructor, do you view yourself as a student or as a teacher?

BJL: I view myself as both. A disciple is a student, but a student learns from the master and then in turn teaches. I’ve been fortunate enough to teach at Quigley and teach 17 years of post-graduate work at Mundelein, so I’ve been there in the classroom struggle to get people excited about learning. And really any priest who is in love with their field has to be a teacher.

TCNW: Some priests are tapped for administrative positions because they demonstrate certain gifts. Other priests are assigned to parish life or classroom settings because of how well they work with communities or individuals. Which area has been most enriching in your life?

BJL: I don’t want to duck the question, but…when I was ordained, my thought was it’s all about what the church wants for me.

I wouldn’t have chosen to teach at Quigley. In fact, when I was asked by Cardinal Cody I said, “No, I’m very happy at Margaret Mary.” I was only there 11 months. I didn’t ask to go to Quigley. The cardinal said to me, “How are we going to have good, happy priests unless we have happy and good priests teaching them?” And he was right. That was what the church was asking of me.

Being a pastoral person comes from having a “pastoral” attitude. There are priests in parishes—some—who are not very pastoral. There are priests who are teaching who are very pastoral. There are priests in administrative positions who are very pastoral. It all about recognizing or making an attempt to do your best to meet on a personal level and see them as Christ.

The wonderful thing about a pastor is that he has the excitement of the parish. You have the young married. You’re working with kids. You’re working with singles and senior citizens. The spectrum of colors is so wide. That poor guy in administration making sure the books are balanced is really making a sacrifice. The excitement of seminary work was always there, especially around ordination time. To see the guy who came in five years ago now entering the priesthood brings you such joy.

Working as a lawyer you get to meet other lawyers on a professional level and hear their spiritual struggles. On the outside, you may see this wonderful lawyer, but on the inside, the $300-an-hour lawyer has the same questions as the $9-an-hour laborer at U.S. Steel: “Where is my life going? What does it mean? What place does Jesus have in my life?”

As priest, you have to respond to it, not as a matter of what you want, but what does the church ask you to do.

TCNW: After more than 25 years, the church is asking more of you. How will these lessons experienced over 25 years as a priest carry over into your first year as bishop?

BJL: I hope they will establish the ground work by which I function as a bishop. I hope that I will be able to draw upon an insight into people’s struggles and difficulties and proclaim the Gospel message to them here and now.

Now as bishop, I have a larger responsibility connected to the church as the diocese in the country and our conference. My first responsibility is to support the cardinal as an auxiliary to serve the people of God through him as priest.

Certainly, it will be exciting to confirm, public confirmation as a bishop. To have that as an ordinary function will be wonderful. I am very excited.


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