Bilingual masses, LGBTQ Catholics: Q&A with new Diocese of Peoria Bishop Louis Tylka
Earlier this month, Bishop Louis Tylka became the new bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Peoria. The change occurred March 3, when Tylka's predecessor, longtime Bishop Daniel Jenky, turned 75.
The Diocese of Peoria is the largest geographic diocese in the state of Illinois, covering 26 counties and 158 parishes from the Quad Cities to Danville.
A native of Chicago's south suburbs, Tylka was appointed Jenky's successor in May of 2020. He moved to Peoria that summer, and has presided in central Illinois for nearly two years.
In this conversation with WCBU's Hannah Alani, Tylka describes his vision for the future of the Diocese of Peoria ... and how he's embracing his new role.
The following is a transcript of an interview that aired during All Things Peoria on Monday, March 14. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Bishop Louis Tylka: It's an awesome responsibility, obviously, it's very humbling to be in this role. You know, I feel that God has prepared me to to take on this role of leadership. I feel that the calling of the church recognizes gifts in me that perhaps I don't even recognize in myself. I pray every day for the grace of the Spirit to guide me, as I have to deal with many different issues that confront us. You know ... I'm humbled by this, but I'm also bolstered, because I know that the Lord has chosen me. The church has chosen me. The Spirit is here to guide me and the people of God are praying for me.
Hannah Alani: You're originally from the South Chicago suburbs. ... What have your first impressions been of Peoria?
Bishop Louis Tylka: Peoria is a wonderful city and the diocese is a wonderful diocese. It is largely rural when you move beyond the major population areas — which is obviously Champaign, Bloomington-Normal, Peoria, and the Quad Cities — we go out into the rural communities. So the church is very much alive, and very diverse, because of the makeups of the different communities across all those miles. My impression is is that the people of God are the same here as they are everywhere. We all want to be encountering the Lord. We all want to know God's love and mercy in our life. We all want to be fed and nourished by the Word of God and the sacraments of the church. We all want to know that we're part of a community of faith. So, those are universal realities of the church, in our diocese and far beyond. The people of God are just kind, generous, loving people who love the Lord, the church, and want to do what is good, right, and just. And so, I've seen that, across the diocese, their kindness, their openness, their warmth, and their faith is inspiring to me.
... The reality of our local church is similar to many, many diocese across the United States, especially in the northern part of the United States. As people migrate into warmer climates down south, you know, the population growth across the country is in the southern regions. So, there is an exodus of sorts coming from the Northeast, the rust belt, the upper plains. And so the challenge we face is a population shift, which obviously then creates challenges for the church as well, because the folks who were here in the past that supported the church are no longer living in the communities. We also live in a very different world where the reality is people have kind of set aside God and church in their life and the largest growing 'religion' in the world is the nuns, those who have no affiliation with a religious church, religious community, a synagogue or a mosque. This is not a Catholic reality. This is a faith reality, that people are practicing their faith in very different ways. And so our tasks are the same, to reach out and bring others to an experience and an awareness, not only in first or foremost with the Lord, but also with the fact that they need the church. They need a community of faith to nurture and grow them.
Hannah Alani: Did you see attendance go up at all, during the pandemic? I mean, this has been such an existential time for so many. Speaking personally, I started going back to church. I felt like I kind of needed some meaning in my life.
Bishop Louis Tylka: The pandemic has brought about many changes in our world. In relationship to practicing faith, there are those who have used the pandemic as an excuse to quit practicing their faith. It's become easier, because in order to reach out when we could not gather in person, we turn to technology. And we started having mass celebrated and broadcast on Facebook and Zoom and other social media things. And so people got accustomed to celebrating, worshipping in their pajamas as they watched it from their their living rooms.
But at the same time, because the pandemic brought about existential questions, there are those who sought out this experience of God in their life. Were trying to find meaning and purpose. And so they began to look and turn to the church for guidance and for help for support. There's a dual reality. One is, is that there has been some falling off of the practice, for many reasons. Some of them, which existed prior to the pandemic, the pandemic just heightened them. But the pandemic also afforded an opportunity for growth as people were confronting these difficult realities of dealing with their health, dealing with a pandemic. And those questions of meaning and significance brought them further into exploring their faith.
Hannah Alani: I also wanted to ask a bit about your background. Where exactly you grew up, and when and how you realized you were called to priesthood?
Bishop Louis Tylka: So I grew up in the what are often called the far south suburbs of Chicago. I like to tell folks, 'This is not the first time I've lived south of I-80.' I spent most of my life as a child living south of Interstate 80, in the town of Hazel Crest. I'm the youngest of six kids, I had five older sisters, I was very blessed. Unlike my sisters who started in Catholic education, but when my parents bought a house and moved, couldn't afford that at the time. By the time I was in first grade, I was able to go to Catholic school. And so I went to St. Joe's Grammar School in Homewood, which was my home parish. Was active in the life as a kid in the church, was an altar server. And then I went on to a Catholic high school, Marian Catholic High School, became more involved in the church, more involved in my faith. Was part of the parish youth group, and ultimately helped to begin a retreat program at my high school. And it was after that, that the parish priest from my home parish asked me if I had ever considered being a priest. And honestly, I had not. I loved our priests, they were great men. I loved in particular, one of the priests because he had the same type of dog that we had at home. He was just a neat guy.
Once I was asked the question, the question could never get out of my head. And so after discerning that, I felt the only place I really could come to a better understanding of God's call in my life was to go to the seminary. I went to the college seminary. And then from there on, I just was on that path that the Lord affirmed my calling to the priesthood each and every day. People ask, 'When did you decide to be a priest?' And my answer to that question is always, 'This morning.' Because every day I have to wake up and commit myself to living as God calls me to serve the church as a priest. So I think discernment is a lifelong process. It's not a one moment, and we're done discerning. But it is a daily task of asking, 'How do I want to live my life for the Lord?'
Hannah Alani: I lived and reported in Chicago for three years and our neighborhood had to close parishes, merge parishes, and these beautiful old churches would get sold off. And I was just kind of curious, are those trends here in this diocese, as well? Do you envision that having to happen during your tenure?
Bishop Louis Tylka: Unfortunately, I think that answer is yes. You know, when we look at what we have inherited in our faith, we've inherited structures. And by that, in particular, I mean buildings that fed and nourished a community of faith in years gone by that no longer exists, or is no longer able to support the fact that that parish existed. Coming from Chicago, you know this very well, there could be multiple churches in very close proximity, usually ethnically connected. And those ethnic groups have in many cases moved on from those neighborhoods. In our Diocese of Peoria, obviously, we do have some areas like Peoria or Champaign, Bloomington, where there are a number of churches close by, but we also have, as a rural diocese, many churches that aren't necessarily too close together. We also have to deal with reality that with a smaller population, we have smaller resources coming in to support the work of the church, we have fewer priests, and that is an important resource to have in a parish, obviously, for leadership and spiritual growth. And so we have to look at what the network, if I could use that term, is, and how we can support that network going forward.
The sad reality is that we're probably going to face difficult challenges. And looking and having to ask the questions, 'What are the parishes that we can use to support the mission?' The importance is always to focus on the mission, not the maintenance, the maintenance of old buildings, the maintenance of structures. We have to be willing to let them go, so that we can devote the resources necessary to building up the mission, which is to bring people to Jesus Christ in the world today.
Hannah Alani: Peoria has a growing Hispanic population ...
Bishop Louis Tylka: Yes.
Hannah Alani: And I've noticed at church myself, there's Spanish masses offered at the Cathedral. The mass that you did on Sunday, it was bilingual, not only in the readings, but also in the songs.
Bishop Louis Tylka: Yes.
Hannah Alani: How is the diocese working to include that community? Also ... is there an effort to integrate both communities, the English speaking and the Spanish speaking?
Bishop Louis Tylka: Well, we do have a growing Hispanic community. We also have other ethnic communities across the diocese. Again, because my focus is not just on the city of Peoria, it's on all 26 counties, all 158 parishes that we currently have. ... Obviously, the largest growing population is Hispanic, but not Hispanic in a single homogeneous way. We're not just talking about Mexican immigrants. We have a Guatemalan community. We have folks coming from other Central American countries. We have communities coming from other parts of the world, the Burmese, the Congolese. Especially when you head out west or up to the Quad Cities, we have some of these larger communities coming from Asia and Africa. So we have a lot of folks that are part of our church, help to make up the church. Because the church is not just one ethnicity. It's universal. That's what we believe. 'One holy Catholic and Apostolic church.' You know, universal church. that's what Catholic means, to be universal. As we come together and celebrate the center of our life, the Eucharist, it's important to have them represented, to have people understand that there are the different ethnicities that make up the beautiful tapestry of the church.
Since I came in, from the time that I was ordained Bishop, I have tried to make a very deliberate effort to make sure that we try to do things bilingually. Mostly with Spanish and English, because those are the largest populations. But that being said, as I've gone around to the parishes, and as I've encountered the other ethnic communities, we certainly try to make an effort to incorporate them into our worship, as well. So I was with the Burmese community up in the Quad Cities just before Christmas, and they were very much a part of the mass. They sang some beautiful songs in Burmese. I've been out to Monmouth, Immaculate Conception there. They have a Congolese population. Their choir actually came down to sing when I celebrated my 25th anniversary as a priest last year. They came to offer a song for me.
So, you know, we have to recognize that the church is not just one set of people. The church is a very diverse and richly filled community with all of these cultures and expressions of our faith. And so the more we can kind of incorporate that, the better we are as a people, and as a church. You know, I myself have had very little Spanish in my life. I took Spanish 13 weeks total, many years ago. But I have made an effort to begin practicing my Spanish again. I on occasion will celebrate mass in Spanish, either at the Cathedral or one of the other parishes. They are a very forgiving community, and are patient with me, because my Spanish, no es bueno. But we have to make the effort to make sure that we incorporate and include and invite all to the church.
Hannah Alani: I had no idea that the Quad Cities and Monmouth were areas anchoring those particular immigrant communities. That's so interesting.
Bishop Louis Tylka: Well, the immigrant folks, in particular, they've come in, in those cases, in those areas. They work in the meatpacking places and, you know, they've come to do hard, hard work. And obviously, because of issues and troubles in their own countries, they've sought a better life. And this is a place that they can have that better life.
Hannah Alani: So something that, to me, is unique about Peoria, is that the diocese is headquartered in a community where there's also a very big Catholic hospital headquarters. Is that unique to Peoria? Are there many other dioceses where you're anchored in a place that has something like an OSF?
Bishop Louis Tylka: Well, the wonderful gift of Catholic health care has been around in many parts of the country, many parts of the world. In particular, many religious communities, including OSF, were were started (by women) and brought into the diocese to care for the sick and the poor. And they've done a wonderful job of that for well over 100 years. Not every diocese has a large Catholic health care system as we do with OSF Healthcare. But most diocese have at least one or two Catholic hospitals or clinics within their boundaries. OSF Healthcare reaches beyond the Diocese of Peoria. It's in the Diocese of Springfield, because it's in Alton, Illinois. It's up in Michigan. It's in the Diocese of Rockford. The challenges and need for health care are universal. We're just very blessed to have such a large institution like OSF to carry on health care in a way that values the dignity of human life from its conception to natural end.
Hannah Alani: In your first official homily, as bishop, you talked about Lent. Obviously, we're in the season of Lent, and just kicked it off. Is that shaping this experience for you at all?
Bishop Louis Tylka: It's just, I suppose, coincidental that Lent coincided with Bishop Jenky's 75th birthday. ... But it is, you know, Lent is always a time of preparation, a time of introspection. ... I've been doing a lot of introspection, not just about the last 19 months of serving as adjudicator bishop, but even reflecting upon how I arrived at this calling from the church, becoming a priest. I look back and think about all the prayer that was necessary. All the efforts that was part of my life to allow me to say, 'Yes,' as God calls me. As I tried to emphasize in my homily, you know, Lent ... we often kind of look at it with this, almost like a negative sense. Like, 'Oh, I have to give something up.' And it's a sad time. The Church teaches Lent as a springtime ... new growth. To look at it from the perspective of being a spring, a beginning, a new life starting. ... I mean, it's a natural connection to make as I transition into this role, because it's my responsibility to bring new growth and new life to the church, as we build upon the foundation of what we are inheriting.
Hannah Alani: The role of the American bishop can be, and it seems maybe increasingly so in recent years, can be political. Sometimes even at odd at odds with what the Vatican is saying. And I'm thinking of two specific examples of this in the last couple of years. The Diocese of Marquette, as of late last year, is advising priests to withhold communion from transgender and non-binary Catholics. The Archdiocese of New Orleans advised parishioners not to take the Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine because abortion-derived stem cells were used in the production of that. And these were, you know, these were things that made national headlines. At the same time, there are a lot of organic movements within the church, from among parishioners themselves, to try to encourage priests and bishops to become more inclusive. Saying, 'Hey, we have a membership problem, we need people coming in. We need to not be shutting people out.'
I'm curious if this is something that you're thinking about at all, as you're taking on this role. And just kind of generally, where do you see the role of the American bishop? Do you see it as one that takes a stand on stuff like this? Or even at times goes against what's coming out of Rome? If you feel it's right.
Bishop Louis Tylka: There's a lot of layers to the question. So let me talk about that in different ways. I think the role of the American bishop is no different than the role of any bishop. Our first role is to be the chief shepherd of a diocese. That is what has been entrusted to us. As chief shepherd, we're here to, obviously, feed the hungers of people's faith. To bring people to an encounter with Jesus Christ to preach the gospel and the teachings of the Church. To celebrate the sacraments. So my role as bishop, whether I was an American or European, South American, no matter where in the world, our role is to shepherd the people into a relationship with Jesus Christ. We live in a world that has become increasingly more polarized. We live in a world where, because of polarization, we have a lack of good communication. We struggle to listen to each other. And we certainly judge each other a lot more. I don't think that it's my role as a bishop, to run around and judge. It's rather to run around and invite people into a relationship with Jesus.
The Lord accepted people for who they are, and where there are, and tried to lead them to a better life, to lead them to a life that was more holy, a life that was more filled with His love and mercy. A life that was not self-centered, but self-giving. That's the example he showed to us. At times, the church needs to be a voice in the public square, but the church's voice should never be dictated by the public square. We should always be in communion with the Holy Father, who is the Vicar of Christ. We should be able to have honest, forthright debates, to learn from each other, to help garner an understanding of where the Lord is calling us. And hopefully to to grow together to be united.
Unfortunately, the church as much as divinely instituted is still a human institution. And so there's bound to be disagreements. And the divisions and disagreements, unfortunately, in the world today. are often, as they are in politics, and in even in families, broadcast across the world. And social media, news outlets, newspapers, you name it, which is really unfortunate, because, as is the case in many of our own relationships, when we can take the time to really sit with another person, learn from them, have a dialogue, without having to be afraid of what the public reaction is going to be to that, we can come to better understanding. We can grow together. We can find those areas where perhaps we're going to have to learn to disagree, but we can do so in a respectful way that still brings unity and harmony to our lives.
And so the church is no different. The bishops are no different, in the fact that, the way the world is today, those things kind of get in the way, as far as not being able to have that space and time. You know, the Holy Father, Pope Francis, has initiated what we call the Synod on the Synod over the next several years. And biggest thing that the Holy Father says to us is, 'We need to listen.' We need to listen first to the Lord, for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And we need to listen to each other. And that's where I think we often fall short. Because we don't listen. We might hear, but we don't listen. And we don't take the time to then discern what it is that God is calling us to. I personally find it very disheartening, when we hear things saying, 'Well, we're going to exclude people, we're going to push people away, rather than bring them in.' I may not understand them, I may not understand the issue. But the only way I'm going to learn to understand, and appreciate them, is if I'm willing to engage with them. To sit down and talk with him.
You know, I believe that the Synod on the Synod is not just about a process for the next three years. But it really is the way the church is supposed to be. That we are constantly supposed to be in prayer and in dialogue with one another. Because all of us have the gift of our faith. All of us are inspired by by the Lord to share that gift of faith, and therefore all of us have something to contribute to help us grow together and better in the life of our faith and in the church.
Hannah Alani: Is your door open to LGBTQ Catholics?
Bishop Louis Tylka: Absolutely. Absolutely. My door is open to anyone who wants to seek the Lord with a sincere heart.
Hannah Alani: I think that's a really powerful message to broadcast out into the world.
Bishop Louis Tylka: When I read the scriptures, when I hear the stories of Jesus's encounters, you know, he came and he met with those who are on the margins. He brought a message of love and mercy, forgiveness, He would say to the person, 'Your sins are forgiven, and go and sin no more.' So, no matter what the sin is, we have to try to live that more holy life that the Lord calls us to. And our identity, who we are, created in the image and likeness of God, is not a sin. You know, God did not create sin. So we have to look at everyone as a child of God. We have to see their inherent dignity that God has given to them. And we all have to call each other to that life of holiness. And so we have to first make people make sure people know that they are loved by God, and therefore loved by the church, loved by the people that they encounter. And then we can work with them to find and discern that path of how their life is supposed to be led.
Hannah Alani: Is there anything that I didn't ask you about that you'd like to share with the community?
Bishop Louis Tylka: I think this is an exciting time for the church. There are many people who may look and say, for their own agendas, 'The church is is dying ... people don't practice their faith.' You know, they want to point to the scandals that have plagued the church, to tear down the church and tear down our faith. Which is very unfortunate. But my perspective is that this is our moment. God has called us to this moment. And in this moment, what is most important that we do is that we give witness to that faith, as a disciple of Jesus Christ, that God has loved us and saved us. And that makes all the difference in my life. And I think it should make all the difference in everybody else's life. And so it's a wonderful opportunity, despite whatever challenges we face, to be that instrument, used by God, to remind the world of His love and mercy. And that's, I think, the calling that we all have.
Jesus said, 'Go make disciples,' which is why I chose it as my Episcopal model. To go out into the world, a world that's often darkened by sin, by polarization, by things that divide people, and work to go out and say, 'No, there's a different way, there's a better way.' And that better way, of course, is Jesus Christ. That better way is his love and mercy. And so it's exciting to see ... what are the possibilities that we can create? Because I firmly believe that the spirit will guide us if we're willing to call upon the spirit, and give ourselves to that task.