Most Reverend Jerome E. Listecki
Archbishop of Milwaukee
Some moments in our lives are unforgettable. One of those moments for me was February 22, 1980, which is George Washington’s birthday. I was a new priest-student in Rome sent for studies in preparation to teach at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary. It was on this day that the new pope, St. John Paul II, chose to meet the seminarians and priests of the North American College. It boggles my mind to think that at this time Pope John Paul II was just 59 years of age. However, he was already a rock star in terms of Catholic culture. He and Mother Teresa of Calcutta revived the spirit of the listless worldwide Catholic religion. One of the characteristics of Pope John Paul II was that he was magnanimous in the generosity of his time. He was the people’s pope and he made himself available to all he encountered. I am 71 years old now, and at that time he was 12 years my junior with already a stressful enough schedule to kill a horse.
Now, he could have easily given a presentation at the North American College and then gracefully exited. Instead, he met with each person individually as we lined the corridors of the college. When he approached, I greeted him with a traditional Polish-Catholic greeting that I learned at the south side Polish parish where I was an altar server. The phrase, said before beginning morning Mass, in English is: “Praise be the name of Jesus Christ.” The response, which the Pope himself replied to me, is “Now and forever.” Little did I know that at that moment I would forever become a second-class relic (a second- class relic is anything that was touched or worn by the saint). He threw his arm around me, pulled me close and said, “Listecki, when are you going to Poland?” I told him that I was making plans to go that summer. The pope replied, “Good. You know, I have a few friends there.” “Yes,” I said, “about 35 million of them and they all claim to be your cousins.” He laughed and then continued his journey through the crowd of seminarians and priests.
I did fulfill my promise to the Pope and visited Poland in the summer of 1980. Fr. Marijan Dus, who was a dean in Warsaw, escorted me throughout my visit. Fr. Dus was later named an auxiliary bishop of Warsaw, Poland. For me, it was a bit like a Polish version of the movie “Roots.” My relationship with my heritage was cultural, but I was American. I came to understand the struggles of the Polish people under the Nazi occupation and now under Soviet Russia. There is little doubt in my mind that the suppression of freedoms under communism and the claims of universal equality by socialists are blatant lies.
Reflecting on my travels, two moments emotionally moved me. One moment occurred at Jasna Gora Monastery, the shrine of the Black Madonna, otherwise known as Our Lady of Czestochowa. It was there that I saw the deep faith and commitment of the Polish people as they moved on their knees in veneration of the sacred icon to Our Lady, Patroness of Poland. I was able to celebrate Mass there, which was a great privilege.
The second moment of emotion was during my visit to Auschwitz. It is difficult to imagine the brutality and suffering inflicted upon fellow human beings. The Nazis were meticulous in record keeping. Realize, they thought that they were doing the world a service by eradicating the Jewish people to purify the human race. In one section of the camp was the children’s section, and there, on the walls, were pictures of children being admitted into the camp. They looked like traditional pictures of criminals with front and side profiles. You could see the terror in the eyes of these young children. Historically, we know that many left the camp and were likely fuel for the furnaces.
Walking through the camp, I came upon a cell in which the floor was covered with fresh flowers. I asked my guide, Fr. Dus, whose cell this was. It was the cell of St. Maximillian Kolbe, who had offered his life in place of a Jewish man, a husband and father, who was scheduled to go into the ovens. Even before the Church declared him a saint – St. John Paul II canonized him in 1982 – the people of Poland recognized and honored the sanctity of this man. This reminds me of the signs and chants after John Paul’s death saying, “Santo Subito,” or “Sainthood Immediately.” People recognized the sanctity of this man who would become St John Paul II.
August 14 is the feast day of St. Maximillian Kolbe, the martyr of Auschwitz. Fr. Kolbe had a great devotion to the Blessed Mother and is likely very honored to have his feast celebrated the day before the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Mother. With his martyrdom, Fr. Kolbe fulfilled the Gospel passage, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for a friend.” (John 15:13) As Jesus said, “You are my friend if you do what I command you, LOVE ONE ANOTHER.”
Note: This blog originally appeared as the August 11, 2020, "Love One Another" email sent to Catholics throughout the Archdiocese of Milwaukee by Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki. If you are interested in signing up for these email messages, please click here.