Bishop Jerome Listecki was installed as head of the Diocese of La Crosse on March 1, 2005.
Since arriving, he's initiated "We Belong to Christ," a campaign to raise $50 million in five years that is the largest diocesan-wide fundraising effort in its history.
He also formed the Pastoral Planning Committee in the summer of 2005, which was charged with developing a comprehensive plan that addresses both the expected decline in the number of priests over roughly the next two decades and ways to increase ministry in the diocese.
The committee came up with a plan that gives the diocese the ability - if needed - to shrink from 165 parishes to 75 parishes without closing a single church building.
The plan awaits Listecki's possible revisions and approval. For more details, see Sunday's Tribune.
The bishop Monday talked about that plan and other diocese issues since his arrival more than two years ago in an interview with the Tribune.
Below are excerpts from that conversation.
Q: One of the other numbers that the Rev. (David) Kunz talked about that was important to this pastoral planning committee was the 210,000 Catholics in the diocese and the 70,000 in the pews on Sundays, attending Sunday Masses.
A: One-third, that's usually a national statistic.
Q: As bishop of this diocese how do you respond to that? One thing the Rev. Kunz said was we need to ask ourselves if we can be creative again in ministering. And he talked about not just taking care of - He said maybe we, as pastors, have gotten into a rut because we have so much going on in taking care of this institution and we've put less effort into evangelizing and bringing Christ out to people. And I just am curious to hear, when you look at that number, the 1/3rd, across the country but also in this diocese, how do you respond to that? Where do you see that coming from and what do you say to Catholics? How do Catholics respond?
A: First of all, that number disturbs me and it has from the outset. In fact I raised that question at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops four years ago when I was named chairman of the Pastoral Practices Committee. And the question of Sunday Mass attendance is symptomatic, I think, of the larger loss of appreciation of the prioritization of church and organized religion in the lives of not only Catholics but people throughout our country.
So it disturbs me, because I see it as a loss, as a loss in helping to form individuals in terms of the importance of worship in their lives, but looking at that worship as primary and connected to who they are as responsible citizens within the society.
So again, it's the faith that informs and then individuals who help form the society. And worship does that. If worship is a priority, you're making a statement by saying, "God's first," and you're doing it objectively. You're not doing it in the privatization of your own home. You're doing it as a public statement. This is important.
I see my faith as important. I would see it as important if I were not a bishop. I see it as important.
I want everybody to be Catholic. That does not mean I don't respect those who are not Catholic. It does not mean I do not honor their faith traditions. I want everybody to be Catholic because I know how vital and how important and what a great sense this faith is for me and how it has fashioned myself. I want that same type of sense to be with others. So, yeah, it disturbs me when we're talking about only a third of our own Catholics, who are professing to be Catholic, are not in church.
But there are various reasons why people are not in church. Lack of formation in their own lives, that's one; they haven't been brought up to understand the importance of the faith. No. 2, kind of a rejection of some of the church's teaching, maybe that's a part of it. No. 3, the whole sense of not feeling that they belong. There's a sense of belonging that is present. Those are various factors that could be there.
But in every statistical analysis that is done, the No. 1 reason why people don't go to church is they don't have time. That's the most disturbing one. The other three I understand, we can deal with. We can dialogue.
The "I don't have time" already says there's something at the very basis and at the very root of people's understanding of the priority of God in their life, the understanding of mystery in their life. That suddenly compartmentalizes it in such a way as to eliminate it from a priority status.
Q: So what's the response?
A: So basically the response is we can do many things. You can enhance the choir and singing. Two things that people say immediately that most draw them into church are the homily and the choir. Being a person who understands the Eucharist and the Mass, I would say those two are important and certainly kind of pull people in naturally, but the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist would seem to be the primary sense.
But understanding both of those, you can enhance the choir. You can give sermons with more pizzazz, if you want to talk about it, but that doesn't seem to be the answer. The answer seems to lie in awakening the mysterious in people and that takes time. That doesn't happen overnight.
There is no silver bullet that suddenly creates and solves the problem. There is a sense of awakening the mysterious in people and when that mysterious is awakened, then all of a sudden people do respond. Sometimes it happens with tragedy. I don't like that avenue at all, myself. But when you see a national tragedy, where's the first thing that people run to? They run back to their churches. You have bells ringing and you have people flocking to the churches to pray, or they discover God again, the need for God.
God's easily disposed of and pushed off to the side when there isn't this perceived sense of crisis. It would be good if individuals would come to the understanding of the depth of that mystery within their own lives, so that it's reflected by the way they live, but that takes time. It takes time to point out the various aspects of mystery in people's lives. It takes formation. It takes, as Father Kunz said, evangelization.
When you evangelize, you're evangelizing not so people get excited and so they embrace something and leave it go in three or four months, but they're embracing something that they're intimately connected to. It's like a marriage. You don't expect the wedding to be the high point and people to leave after the wedding. You expect that wedding to be the beginning of the deepening of a relationship. So an understanding that you're wedded to your faith is an important aspect, and that takes time. You've got to live it out.
Q: What has your relationship been with people and leaders from other denominations, other religions, in La Crosse since you've been here?
A: The primary relationship with those outside has been probably with April Larson, Bishop April Larson (bishop of the La Crosse Area of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). I've had a wonderful meeting with her and also with a shared, joint project with the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and awards with Bishop Larson. She's been probably the primary person outside of the Catholic faith.
I've met other members of the faith outside of the Catholic community at various functions, but any one particular event, there hasn't been that. There hasn't been that opportunity.
Q: Looking at the church in 2025 - I'm just thinking that's the end of that CARA report - the people who are going to be the leaders in the church are young people right now. So you, as bishop, if you had all those people gathered here, what would you want to say to them? Also, what are they facing that's new? What are they facing that you didn't face when you were their age?
A: I didn't have to face the rampant secularization of a culture. By secularization, I mean where God is pushed off to the side.
The culture in the '60s, when I would have been a teenager growing up, and then when I was ordained in '75, the culture was still pretty much permeated by a sense of appreciation for religion and appreciation for faith. The whole period of time in the '70s went through, if you want, a distrust of authority, and the church was placed in that distrust, distrust of the government, distrust of parental authority by children, distrust of the church, which many see as an authority or authority figure.
So there was that kind of distrust that was present. That kind of still lingers on today, but today it's not so much an aspect of distrust as disinterest. When you're distrusting somebody, you have a distrust for them because you have placed some type of trust in them, then all of a sudden you felt that this might be violated in some way. You talk about disinterest, it's basically, "I don't care."
And I would say our younger priests have to confront a secular society that basically says to religion and to faith, "I don't care." And I honestly kind of believe that that aspect of "I don't care" is detrimental to a society. If society doesn't appreciate the impact of religion on the lives of people, it will sorely underestimate both what the society can do and sorely underestimate the ability of the society to achieve.
Let me give you an example. I think our government underestimated the impact of Islam within the culture of Iraq and Afghanistan. By not understanding the influence and the impact of faith, and of that particular faith, I think we're sorely paying a consequence for it. The idea of democratization might have been a wonderful idea, but it has to be seen within the context of the dedication of the people and what really influences and supports those people.
So I go back and I kind of say, the same thing could be here in the United States. If we more and more divorce ourselves from an adherence or appreciation of the impact of religion, we more and more become disinterested in terms of the impact of religion on lives, we'll quickly see ourselves in a rootlessness, if you want. Nothing pinning us down or holding us down.
(Pause) Sorry to go a little apocalyptic on you.
Q: No, no, get apocalyptic, that's just fine. So what do you say to them, the young people?
A: So I say to young people what Mother Teresa of Calcutta said. That success is not measured in the achievements or the failures that the society views, but success is measured in faithfulness to the Gospel.
So what priests have to be today is they have to be faithful. They have to be faithful to the teaching of the church and to the Gospel, to the devotional life. And place that trust in God and don't worry. God will use you as an instrument and God will use you in a manner that God deems best, and with that, you have this, literally, confidence that people of faith should have.
And that will be true for them as it was true in the year 100, when the apostles, disciples were evangelizing. It's going to be true to this day 2,000 years later, to this day today. Faithfulness to the Gospel.
Q: Have you been to the shrine recently?
A: Yeah, I visit the shrine periodically.
Q: I know it's not a diocesan project … but it's nonetheless a significant project taking place in the diocese. How do you see that affecting the landscape here?
A: There are always people who are going to question … a project, to the extent of time, effort, resources invested into that project.
But I think you have to take a look at it as a manifestation of, again, of faith. That shrine is going to be in the face of many people, calling their attention to something which is sacred, beautiful and to what really we're called to. We're called to something which is really outside of this world, and shrines do that. Shrines are places of holiness that suddenly call upon the sense of the presence of God and then reflect it back up to our responsibility of God.
The measurement of a shrine is not seen in its immediacy, but it's seen in its history as it develops. If a shrine produces a saint or great, dedicated social leaders in the church, then it's going to be known by its fruits, and certainly (at) the shrine there have been very many dedicated people who have offered their time, their talents, their resources in order to say something about the presence of God in the life of this Catholic church. So that can only be applauded, I think. You're going to do something beautiful for God. I applaud you for doing that.
Q: Can you talk about how you see the Holy Spirit moving in this diocese, in this pastoral plan and elsewhere in the diocese? I don't know if you can speak to that…
A: That's your best question. The rest of the questions can be filled with basically statistics and demographics, but the question of the Spirit is the ultimate question, and what I see immediately is, I see people who are dedicated and committed to serve the viability of the sacredness of the church and to present, if you want, a plan which will somehow envision doing that.
And talking in terms of the movement of the Spirit, it's already people who understand how vitally important the sacraments are and how that presentation of Christ in the community is. How important worship is every Sunday, and taking a look and trying to be inspired as ways of calling people together to be able to do that. And that's the movement of the spirit.
One of the things I was told immediately by a lot of the committee members was when the plan was presented, usually you expect the plan to meet tremendous resistance. … Instead, it was met with, "Is this for the betterment of our whole Catholic community?" And that's the movement of the Spirit.
The Spirit looks beyond my own particular needs and looks to the aspect of the fact that we're being drawn together and being pulled together to formulate the body of Christ for the world. That sense, I think, although maybe not articulated, was the sense that a lot of our committee members had in relationship to the Catholics who attended a lot of these meetings. That they were looking at how can we embrace a plan that will help us to do the things necessary to continue to provide both the sacraments, church and church community, and worship for our larger Catholic community.
That's movement of the Spirit. That's movement of the Spirit.