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Q&A: Bishop Tylka reflects on his first year leading Peoria's diocese

Catholic Diocese of Peoria Bishop Lou Tylka poses outside the WCBU newsroom on the Bradley University campus in this 2022 photo.
Hannah Alani
Catholic Diocese of Peoria Bishop Lou Tylka poses outside the WCBU newsroom on the Bradley University campus in this 2022 photo.

It's been a little more than a year since Bishop Lou Tylka assumed leadership of the Catholic Diocese of Peoria, following the mandatory age 75 retirement of Bishop Daniel Jenky.

Tylka arrived in Peoria from Chicago's south suburbs in July of 2020 to serve as coadjutor bishop ahead of Jenky's departure.

He now presides over a diocese that also includes Bloomington-Normal, Champaign-Urbana, and the Quad Cities, and serves more than 120,000 Catholics.

In the second part of an in-depth interview with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon, Tylka assesses his first year as leader of the Peoria diocese.

This conversation and transcript have been edited for clarity and brevity.

You've officially been Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Peoria for a little more than a year now. How would you assess the first year of your leadership?

Bishop Lou Tylka: I think the first year serving as the diocesan bishop overall has gone well. The nice aspect of being a coadjutor bishop for the time I was, was it afforded me an opportunity to really get to know the diocese, to talk with the priests and to conduct the listening sessions so that when I became the diocesan bishop, in a sense I already had marching orders. So we were able to kind of move quickly into what we are now doing, especially with our effort of pastoral planning which we call “Growing Disciples,” as well as, as we talked and heard of the need to make some revisions in the diocesan offices and to begin to put those things into place.

So, I would say that the first year overall has gone very well. People seem very receptive and encouraging for the vision that we're starting to lay out and starting to enact. Being able to serve as diocesan bishop, now I have the responsibility, but I also have the authority to do the work that I believe the Lord is calling both me as a bishop, but us as a church to do at this time.

You said that one of your tasks is some revisions in the offices?

Bishop Tylka: The diocesan offices are here to serve our parishes and our priests, and over the years there's been different offices that were in existence that no longer are staffed. The need for revision or renewal in the curial offices, the diocesan offices, is also about focusing us on our mission, making sure that we're not just simply trying to maintain the past, but really to create opportunity for the future.

Just as an example, in the past there was an Office of Evangelization. When we go forward, we think of evangelization as being the key task that we all must do. So, as we are rethinking our Office of Evangelization, we may not have a Director of Evangelization. But we might – as we've begun our revisions, we have a Chief of Mission, who constantly calls us to make sure that we're focused on the mission, and we might have some folks working under the Chief of Mission to fill out some of those roles.

So, instead of having five or six different directors, we might have only two or three key mission specialists who will help us stay focused and on task of ensuring that evangelization is the component that must be in each and every office – whether it's actually promoting and developing programs for evangelization specifically, or whether it's working in our finance department or the marriage tribunal – and to make sure that we always never lose sight that what we're doing is to serve the mission of the church.

What conversations or ideas came out of the spring assembly day for priests earlier this month?

Bishop Tylka: We had a spring assembly day; normally these happen in October, but we had a spring assembly day with our priests to bring them along in the process of Growing Disciples, to share with them the work that has been done since we launched the process and to initiate our first round of conversations with the priests that are now going to include our lay leaders.

So our diocese and commission will be meeting, and then our key parish leaders will be meeting in April to receive and hear the same information that the priests shared about the process in this first stage of looking at the affinities, the connections of parishes, to make sure we're looking in the right groups. So (it was) to give them an understanding of where we're at, and to also begin to get their feedback. A big part of our spring assembly day for the priests was the opportunity for them to offer their insights into the process.

As we know, hard data only tells part of the story. Soft data, which is the stories behind the statistics, that's what needs to be shared and listened to so that we can make and discern the right decisions for the future. So it was good conversation by the priests and will be good conversations, I'm sure, by our diocesan commission as well as our key parish leaders over the next two months, so that we can take all of that and move to the next stage of the process.

What message can you give to former or lapsed Catholics to bring them back to the church?

Bishop Tylka: The message is, I think, quite simple, and that is that Jesus loves you. And the church wants to be a place and a space for you to come and experience Jesus’ love for you. Our responsibility as a church is to be an open space, where those who wish to come will indeed find and encounter an authentic witness of the relationship that Jesus desires with each and every one of us.

We can't be a church, though, that simply waits for people to come. We have to be a church that goes out and shares our experience, give witness to our faith. We have to be a church that is evangelizing. So we have to, again, renew our own relationships and use the gift of the Holy Spirit that God gives to us to learn how to be empowered and equipped to better go out and meet people in the world where they're at, to invite them to share what we experience, which is Jesus' love for us.

So, if someone is lapsed in their faith, if somebody has walked away because they're disillusioned, if there's somebody that has never had the experience of knowing Jesus' love for them, the church is here to give witness to that reality and would love for the opportunity to share that with them.

When you spoke with us a year ago, you indicated a desire to make a deliberate effort to try and do more things bilingually. How much progress has been made in this regard?

Bishop Tylka: I wish I could say that a year later, my Spanish has gotten better; I don't feel that my Spanish is much further along than it was a year ago (and) I accept that responsibility. The reality is I haven't been able to take the time, and I haven't deliberately set aside the time, to further my own ability to better my ability to speak Spanish. The reality in our diocese is that we do have a growing Hispanic population across the diocese, not just in one area or one corner. We also have other languages beyond Spanish that are important in the diocese as well.

So we are doing our best to encourage, in particular, our seminarians studying now that they all learn Spanish, if they're able to with the aptitude; some people just don't have strong aptitude to learn other languages. But to the extent that we can, we're moving our seminarians in the direction so that will increase our ability to have bilingual priests for the future. We are also of course attentive to those who are ministering today, and are there ways that we can help support them and encourage them to make sure we are meeting the needs of the Hispanic community as well as other language speaking communities across the diocese.

The other thing that we've done that I've directed is, is that especially when we gather for diocesan events – so we're almost to Holy Week and one of the diocesan events that occurs in Holy Week every year is the Chrism Mass, where the oils that are used in the sacraments are blessed and consecrated. So as a diocesan event, it is my expectation that as we plan those events, that we make sure that we use languages that are represented in the diocese – so to have a scripture reading in Spanish, or French. Those are important things.

It's not – I don't see it as like simply being a token to say, “well, this is part of who we are.” I think it is honoring the fact that we have folks whose first language is not English that are part of our communities in our church. So we want to try to, at least in some way, honor that and show that diversity that exists, that beautiful diversity that exists in the church and in our communities.

Lastly, do you have any updates on the canonization efforts for Archbishop Fulton Sheen? Is there a timetable for the next steps or is the process stalled?

Bishop Tylka: So the good news regarding the process of canonization for venerable Archbishop Sheen is the next step is, of course, his beatification.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: The Diocese of Peoria had scheduled a beatification ceremony for Sheen on Dec. 21, 2019. Before that date, the ceremony was delayed after the Bishop of Rochester, N.Y., raised concerns over Sheen’s handling of a 1963 allegation of sexual misconduct by a priest in that diocese.)

When I was in Rome back in September for the new bishops’ formation, I stayed in Rome for a few extra days. I was very fortunate to meet with the Cardinal who is the head of the dicastery for saints – that's the group responsible for overseeing the process of canonization. I also was very fortunate to have a meeting with Cardinal (Pietro) Parolin, who is the Secretary of State – basically the No. 2 person in the Vatican – to discuss the situation with the cause. There are those who said the cause is dead, and that is not the case. I was assured of that by both of those Cardinals that I met with.

We are making efforts to move the cause for beatification and then ultimately canonization forward; it takes time. It was out of prudence that it was paused, but I have no doubt that as we continue to move forward, good things will come. Again, it's not something that we are able to just simply, in a sense, snap our fingers and have it happen tomorrow. There are things that need to be discussed further, that we are promoting and entering into those dialogues.

I have every belief that venerable Fulton Sheen deserves to be a saint, and I think God wants venerable Fulton Sheen to be a saint, obviously, because he's been confirmed to have a miracle happened through him. I know many people in the world want this to happen. I think in time, that it will. But it's not something new.

I often joke about the fact that when I was named Bishop to Peoria, people (asked) when am I going to make him a saint, and I don't have that authority as the Bishop of Peoria. I do have the authority, the responsibility and the commitment as the Bishop of Peoria to ensure that his legacy is something we continue to promote. We're working on that, and – to the extent that we can – to enter into whatever is necessary as far as our conversations both with Rome and with the bishops here in the United States to move the effort forward.

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.