They are men of God, called to serve in some of the most gruesome and extraordinary places on earth. They’ve celebrated holy Communion on the hood of a Jeep, murmured words of love to children dying in their arms, been threatened and shot at, and sometimes, looked evil in the eye. Military chaplains are a breed unto themselves – part soldier, part counselor, part parent, part friend – but primarily a source of spiritual comfort to the people they serve.
Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki understands the ravages of war and the toll it takes on soldiers and their families. As a retired lieutenant colonel in the United States Army Reserves, he served as chaplain for several reserve units, including the 330th Medical Brigade at the former Fort Sheridan, Ill.
After meeting an Army chaplain while studying in Rome in the late 1970s for the Archdiocese of Chicago, and hearing about the need for Catholic priests to serve as chaplains, he devoted his time in assisting the military in their walk with God. For more than 20 years, he ministered to soldiers in the reserves and throughout the world.
Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, archbishop of the Archdiocese of the Military Services, U.S.A., first met the then-Fr. Listecki when he was finishing his post-graduate and doctoral studies in Rome.
“I was also studying canon law and although we lived in different houses, our paths would occasionally cross,” said Archbishop Broglio in an e-mail interview with your Catholic Herald. “I remember him as a serious student and a very outgoing young priest.”
His long service to the military is an example of his commitment.
“I am so pleased because he is committed to the pastoral care of our men and women in uniform. His generosity and his interest in the main concern of (my) archdiocese, that of the military services, tells us a great deal about him,” said Archbishop Broglio. “He will bring many qualities to his new ministry and I am confident that he will also be eager to help us find priests to serve the troops.”
Upon learning that Archbishop Listecki would succeed Archbishop Dolan as the new shepherd of Milwaukee, Archbishop Broglio was delighted.
“His excellent preparation in moral theology, his vast pastoral experience, and his Midwestern roots will serve him well in this important new portion of the vineyard,” he said.
Almost in war
In early February 1991, then Chaplain Listecki was told to prepare to ship out as attempts to liberate Kuwait from Iraq were becoming more intense. More than 500,000 troops were in the Persian Gulf. Life magazine had arranged to chronicle his ministry in a “chaplain goes to war” photo story.
“I was going to be their cover boy,” Archbishop Listecki said with a laugh.
The day he was to ship out, his orders were frozen. The same get ready/frozen scenario occurred again. He prepared a third time, only to be told, “The war is over.”
Archbishop Listecki noted that the on again, off again preparation was an Abraham and Isaac experience.
“Every soldier asks, ‘Am I ready to go into action? Am I ready to lay it down for my country? Am I ready to be there in support of the troops?’ My answer was yes,” the archbishop said.
Close friends for the past 25 years, Chicago native Michael Laird first met Archbishop Listecki in the Army Reserves where Laird was serving as the Staff Judge Advocate General (JAG).
“He is a good example of what a true priest should be,” said Laird. “He is a positive guy and never will be one to embarrass anyone, and he will get along with even those who disagree with him.”
While their career paths were different in the reserves, Laird remembers accompanying Archbishop Listecki to a few military confirmations.
“He would wear his military uniform and his combat books under his vestments,” he said, laughing. “He was always just a true guy.”
Both retired from the reserves when Fort Sheridan closed in 1993, but continue to stay in touch and remain close friends.
“He is a loyal guy with a great sense of humor and a very true friend,” said Laird. “I mean that from the bottom of my heart. Whenever there is a time of need, he will not turn his back on the people – he didn’t do it in the reserves and he won’t do it in Milwaukee. He is there to help, is a wonderful man and a great example of someone living his Catholic faith.”
According to Laird, Archbishop Listecki was always available to assist the soldiers in dealing with problems they might be having and if they had legal issues, the men and women were referred to him.
“He was, first and foremost, there for the soldiers at anytime,” said Laird. “He would stay late many times and went out of his way for them whenever they needed him. He has tremendous faith, is patriotic, a good American and truly one of the nicest men I have met in my life.”
Laird is excited to see Archbishop Listecki bring his leadership skills, compassion and faith to the Milwaukee Archdiocese.
“He will make Milwaukee very proud,” he said. “He is a good, solid guy and a kind of man who can communicate with people. He is respectful of views while holding the church line and does it in a nice way.”
While his praises are high of the proudly Polish archbishop from the southeast side of Chicago, Laird has one complaint of the man he has called a friend for more than a quarter century.
“He is a terrible marcher. Chaplains always seemed to have a problem staying in step,” Laird said, laughing. “Seriously, he is a real good guy. You will like him and think that he is a good friend within a month and I don’t say that about too many people.”