||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 todays 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 youll 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, Im privileged to be your priest. Im privileged to
be your pastor. Im 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 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 didnt worry
about what effect Rome would have on the thick-skinned, good-natured
South Sider, they were concerned about what effect hed 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, hed 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 its 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 Id 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
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 theyll ask, What parish are you
from? And that kind of defines you. If you say, St. Michaels
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 youd
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 couldve 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 Marys 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 thats neighborhood.
The negative is when youre boxed in and, if youre not careful,
you can become provincial. Thats 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, thats OK. One thing I know
is that its not going to happen unless the [Catholic] Church
is the center of it. It was the church that challenged peoples
concepts about black/white issues. It was the church. I didnt
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 theres 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 summersome say Paris, but I say Romeand you
feel like you got to get back home for the parish picnic, or the
parish softball game. Its like getting back to family.
TCNW: Would you define yourself as a South Sider first and a Roman
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, its 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 Im 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. Its 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. Its 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. Whats interesting is because Ive 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
He is at a place where others might have chosen to quit or cut
back, but I dont see that at all. The mans mind is still so
sharp. What has been taken way from him, some of the things he
loved to dohis 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 thats 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
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. Ive been fortunate
enough to teach at Quigley and teach 17 years of post-graduate
work at Mundelein, so Ive 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 dont want to duck the question, but
when I was ordained,
my thought was its all about what the church wants for me.
I wouldnt have chosen to teach at Quigley. In fact, when I was
asked by Cardinal Cody I said, No, Im very happy at Margaret
Mary. I was only there 11 months. I didnt 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 parishessomewho 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. Youre working with
kids. Youre 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 peoples 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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