ROCK ISLAND, Illinois — When Bishop-designate Louis Tylka was ordained as a priest for the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1996, among the gifts he received was a small statue of a shepherd kneeling to pet a lamb.
The newly appointed coadjutor bishop of Peoria still displays the statue and it has been a guide throughout his ministry.
“My friend’s advice in giving it to me as a new priest was to always remember to be a gentle shepherd,” Tylka told The Catholic Post, Peoria’s diocesan newspaper, in a May 11 phone interview, his first since the appointment. “Every time I see the statue, it’s a reminder that I take to my heart and to my prayer.”
The 49-year-old priest has served in parish work since his ordination, including the last six years as pastor of St. Julie Billiart Parish in Tinley Park, a faith community of 2,600 households. He described his pastoral style as open and welcoming.
“People have to encounter Jesus and know that they’re loved by Jesus if they’re ever going to change their life for Jesus,” he said in the telephone interview. “And so I think I try to be welcoming to everyone. I think it’s important to listen, to hear what is going on in people’s lives and where they’re at. And to shepherd gently and slowly.”
Tylka’s priestly path took an unexpected turn May 4 when his phone rang that morning just as he was sitting down in his office. The caller was Archbishop Christophe Pierre, papal nuncio to the United States, with news from Pope Francis of the appointment. “That was an interesting way to wake up on Monday morning,” he remarked.
“I swing from a lot of excitement and joy, but then I start thinking about leaving my parish, my diocese, the only place I’ve ever lived,” said Tylka. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’m a bit fearful.”
And while Tinley Park, a southwest suburb of Chicago, is only about an hour’s drive from the northeast corner of the Diocese of Peoria, the new bishop will be entering unfamiliar territory.
With the exception of college visits to one of his five sisters and some high school friends, “I have only really driven through the Diocese of Peoria,” he said. While he doesn’t know any of the diocese’s priests, he looks forward to working alongside them and hopes they “welcome me as a brother.”
He is the youngest of six children of Louis and Norma Tylka and has five older sisters. His mother died 30 years ago and his father in recent years moved to a townhouse just a block away from his son’s rectory in Tinley Park.
Mr. Tylka was a field engineer with IBM. His son recalled that the first color television the family owned was hand built by his father. “He never put it in a console so we could see all the pieces that went into it,” said the bishop-designate. “He wanted to show off his handiwork.”
His youngest sister, Mary Lou, has been battling pancreatic cancer since January. She and her husband now reside in Henderson, Nevada, but are making arrangements to move to Chicago and live in the elder Tylka’s townhouse.
Because of coronavirus restrictions, Tylka’s ordination and relocation to Peoria may not happen for some months. He considers it a blessing that he can remain in the area to be with Mary Lou, whose condition is considered terminal. He has asked for prayers as his sister “gets ready to go home to the Lord.”
Regarding the current global health crisis, Tylka said this time of separation is teaching the church valuable lessons.
“People are hungry for the Eucharist,” said Tylka. “People are hungry to experience God’s mercy in reconciliation. People are hungry to receive the spirit in confirmation. Our first communicants are hungry to receive the Lord in the Eucharist. There’s a real hunger that people have that I’m not sure we always appreciate.”
This unique time in history also has the church learning to use new technologies to engage Catholics outside the parish’s physical campus. That must continue as parishes become “more missionary,” he said.
Dermody is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Post, newspaper of the Diocese of Peoria.