A lawyer and native Chicagoan, Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki heads up the area’s largest, and most talked about, religious group.

A lawyer and native Chicagoan, Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki heads up the area’s largest, and most talked about, religious group.

What are your earliest memories of Chicago?
I was born on the southeast side, in a heavily industrial area with a mix of Polish, Spanish and Hispanic neighborhoods. Very much a Catholic community in the sense that the Catholic parish dominated the area, about 3,800 families, a beautiful church, altar boy growing up, played sports and went over to Quigley [Preparatory Seminary South]. We went to school on Saturdays, and they did that so our relationships would be primarily with the individuals we were going to school with.

And what did you do in the military?
In ’81, I took my oath of office to the military in the Rome embassy, where I traveled back and forth to Schweinfurt, Germany. There was a great need for Catholic chaplains. I was activated for Desert Storm but never got off the ground as the land war was so short.

Tell me about the “postmodern condition.” You referred to it in the call for the recent synod.
There’s a disintegration between individuals and the sacred. The church in the postmodern period has to be the vehicle that connects the individual to the mystery of their own life and to the “more.” Rather than thinking everything can be figured out, or is at one’s fingertips, it’s understanding that individuals are guided by a much stronger and higher power.

What does “the sacred” mean?
It’s appreciating that there’s more than just the material in this world. Sacredness surrounds us and can be found in nature and in the exchange of understanding and beauty and thought. Sacredness is understanding that this comes from more than just human creation, that the spirit alive in our lives is a spirit that calls us to be more than what we think we are.

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What is the biggest misconception people have about the archdiocese?
There are a lot of misconceptions about the archdiocese.

Top five.
Oftentimes that the archdiocese is monolithic, that all the priests and religious- and lay-faithful think alike. The second one is that the church is wealthy. The wealth of the church comes from the men and women who will literally give their lives in testimony to the gospel. I’d say those two would be pretty good.

How do you find your voice on political issues?
“Politics” can be almost a pejorative word, but I go back to politics being more that of the Greeks – when you couldn’t be involved in anything more important than the polis, the city – coming together for the common good. What the church always has to remind everyone is that we have an obligation to assist the poor. After that, we can all argue about how that should be done.

When Pope Francis spoke to the European Union, he warned of “unseen empires” – corporate and economic interests that have subverted the world’s democratic systems. Is that a view you share?
Lord Acton said it well: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” From my perspective, and from the pope’s, there’s only one power that really is important, and that power is from God that gives dignity to men and women. And when that dignity is subverted, crushed or diminished, then the power being exercised should be challenged.

Francis has been criticized for not doing more to raise the position of women in the church.
When you talk about ordination, it has a theological, doctrinal aspect about it. This is a church of 2,000 years, and although the pope hears the voices of those who would like to see movement in these areas, he has to do so with a sense of the church’s teaching.

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How can you navigate something like a bankruptcy while still holding true to Catholic values?
I wear a lot of hats, and I have an obligation to be a good steward and discharge [patrimony of the Archdiocese] for the various charitable uses of the church. Coming out of bankruptcy, there’s a hope that we’re able to continue the mission of the church, which is back to charitable service, worship, those aspects, while meeting our responsibilities to those who have laid claim.

If you’re looking for a power greater than the archdiocese to guide it through these challenges, what clarity or direction have you arrived at?
When you’re stripped of everything, you have to take a look at what you are really about. And basically, what we’re about is leading people toward lives of holiness. Holiness means to be in unity with God, and the church becomes the vehicle where that is accomplished.

Condensed and edited from a longer interview.

This story appears in the February, 2015, issue of Milwaukee Magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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