Q: As the archbishop of Milwaukee you're the head of a multi-million- dollar corporation. You were the head of an ecclesiastical multinational before that. What do you know about poverty today?
A: That's a good question. I don't live in poverty. In fact, I always say that two things happen to you when you become a Roman Catholic bishop: It's the last time you hear the truth. It's the last time you have a bad meal.
On a day off, I can put on old clothes, take a bus down to Chicago and go to a Burger King. But I can't do that every day.
Q: Talk a little bit about your own personal experience with poverty.
A: I was raised in a small town in Pennsylvania -- Patton -- about 3,000 people. My father died in 1932.
Q: What did he do before he died?
A: He had a hotel on the main corner of the city. Most of the towns around were mining towns. Patton was kind of the offices for the mining towns and the hotel served the mining industry. The hotel had burned the year before. My father died of pneumonia.
Q: How old were you then?
A: Five. And my youngest sister was 6 months. Oldest was 8 or 9.
Q: How many children in the family?
A: Six of us and my mother. My mother was 35 at the time. So the hard question was, first, some people wanted to divide the family and put us into foster homes. My mother fought to keep us all together. I think that was a wise decision, even though we had to move out of the house we were in to another house where there was no cellar and no central heating.
Probably what I remember most about those early years -- I thought that all adults hated candy and ice cream because there was never a moment when we would have candy or ice cream that my mother would eat any. She'd always say oh, that's kid stuff. That's for kids, that's not for grownups. So that we would have more. I remember her anguish when we couldn't do things that other kids did. Like we would cry and want to go to the movies with everybody else and there just wasn't the money.
I remember very well in those years the coldness. Now that's funny. That town is way up in the Appalachian area. I think it's 2200 feet above sea level. The winters are very bitter. Very bitter. We had no central heating but a stove in the living room and a stove in the kitchen. No heat upstairs in the sleeping areas. I just took it for granted all mothers would haul in the coal, and chop the wood -- do things like that because we were all too small -- and keep those fires going.
So I remember those winters with her sleeping on the couch in the living room and keeping the fires going through the night. I remember how we used to -- with long underwear on -- we'd all undress behind the stove in the living room. Race upstairs to those beds where she had put heated bricks wrapped in cloth so we wouldn't freeze. And in the mornings how we would run out of that bed, down, and of course the fires were always going and things were always the way they should be.
The food was scarce. As I recall we got free milk from the government and $31 a month. I don't remember why it was $31 but that must have been after the rent was taken out. I think it was $9 rent. There was $31 left over which was about $1 a day for food and clothing for seven people. That's pretty rough living. We would have meat very very seldom. Sunday lunch might be meat loaf or something. But otherwise we didn't seem to have that much meat.
I remember so well how other kids got toys for Christmas. We always got clothing. I got hand-me- downs because my brother was a year older. I never had anything new or of my own until I went away to high school. That was my first new suit. I outgrew it immediately but at least I had something.
Q: You would have been what, 17?
A: I would have been, at that time I would have been 14 or 13. I remember also very well how I hated the clothing we got that was made by the WPA. (The WPA was a Roosevelt-era jobs program -- the Works Progress Administration.)
Q: What was it?
A: Brown corduroy knickers. Oh how I hated brown corduroy knickers. Because as soon as you entered the class with those brown corduroy knickers, everybody knew you were on the poor list.
Q: It was the uniform of poverty?
A: It was the uniform of poverty. And that always angered -- . I remember when we couldn't use clothes and things anymore and they were still good. Mother would always wash them, iron them, everything neat, and then anonymously she always placed them somewhere where people poorer than we were could get them. But we were never allowed to let anybody know that we had put them there. Because my mother never wanted people to feel indebted to us. It was just that idea of not being indebted to anyone.
My mother would occasionally do work around the church. She began to teach part-time in the school.
Q: Church school?
A: Church school. Parochial school. When one of the nuns was sick. And of course the pastor had the problem of how you pay. Because if you're paid, then the welfare check would have been reduced. So we used to find anonymous baskets of fruit and vegetables and canned goods on our porch. Of course we knew where they came from. That was probably illegal -- in-kind (aid). But that didn't bother the old pastor much.
He was very good to me, he recognized my musical talents when I was about in the seventh grade, and insisted then that I get piano lessons and music lessons free.
Q: From somebody in the church?
A: From the sister who taught music in the school. The sisters were very good to me in school. They gave me all kinds of extra attention.
We had, at home, an old upright piano, plus 10 volumes of music. Three were theory and seven were piano pieces. You see these around occasionally -- "The World's Greatest Music." They had been bought by my grandmother for my mother somewhere around the turn of the century.
Q: Tell me about your first paycheck and how old you were?
A: My first paycheck came when I was in high school. I was working in the drug store. I was a soda jerk. Remember soda jerks? Made sodas and milk shakes and sundaes and things. Of course, that check I always had to give to mother.
Q: How much did you make?
A: It wasn't much, I can assure you. A few bucks.
Q: What did it feel like?
A: That was to me the important thing. You suddenly become a contributor to society. Your worth is being recognized. That to me was a very important psychological moment.
Q: There are those who would argue that poverty builds character.
A: I would say that there are certain things that happen in poverty. One of them is that little things that you do have mean so much more -- like those music books, the piano. I think poverty also gives one a sense of sharing. Because anytime any one in our family earned anything, you really couldn't use it on yourself. That idea that you contributed early to the whole family I think is something we lack today.
Q: So, in a sense, it worked to your benefit.
A: It worked to my benefit, very much so, I'm sure much of that also had to do with my mother's own -- nobility of character is the right word for it. And ability to make sacrifices so that we could all develop.
Q: What do you think was your ladder out of poverty?
A: My ladder out of poverty undoubtedly was the church and education both. After I finished eighth grade was the big debate whether or not I should go away to St. Vincent Prep School in Latrobe. God's been good to me. I spent four magnificent years at St. Vincent's in high school there, free. I got a free education from the Benedictines in the old classical tradition of heavy Latin, Greek, German, French. After that went on to college and they -- after I entered the novitiate -- sent me to Rome to study and then to Juilliard and Columbia. All along, my way out of poverty has been somehow through the church and education.
Q: You're the only bishop I know that has a degree from Juilliard.
A: I admire my own monastery at Latrobe for that. When I finished the novztiate and the philosophy program there, I was 21. The old abbot called me in and he said, now, I'm sending you to Rome to study theology. But I don't want you to do a degree in theology. I'm sending you there so that you can live in the International House in Rome and get a broad world view of people. So that you can learn various languages and study music. He said, I'm sending you more for culture than for studies. That is, I think, a very, very bright kind of superior.
When I came back from Rome as a priest, I remember going into the abbot and he said, well, what's the best? And I said, well, Juilliard is the best. And he said, fine, then why don't you do it. That kind of tradition probably one finds still among Benedictines, that you might not find in other groups.
I was 36 when the older abbot retired. I was elected abbot. I was abbot for four years when I was elected head of the whole Benedictine order in Rome. I was 40. I had 10 great years there as head of the order. Half the time I would spend in Rome and the other half would be visiting monasteries throughout the world. In those 10 years I visited over 500 monasteries around the whole globe. Almost every year I'd make a trip behind the Iron Curtain to Yugoslavia, Poland, those countries. Then I made five trips to South America, two trips, three trips to Africa, three months each. Twice made trips to Tokyo and back from Rome, visiting all our monasteries in the Orient. So I had a great 10 years of travel.
Q: You spoke about not living in poverty. Where do you live?
A: When Izarrived in Milwaukee I inherited a new house that my predecessor had bought in the suburbs. Gorgeous, beautiful home. I didn't unpack. It was too isolated for me. I just felt awful coming home at night. Five bedroom home and me and my secretary wandering the corridors.
So the next spring -- my first year there in Milwaukee -- I decided to sell that house with the house next door where three nuns lived who looked after the bishop. Sold the two homes when the market was good. And I moved down to the cathedral rectory, which is downtown Milwaukee, right in the heart of the city. I have three lovely rooms there which are more than adequate for anybody. I have a lovely library, living space with my grand piano, and since I am a monastic in background, I like the idea that there's six of us living in the house, six priests. There's always a kind of community there.
Living downtown to me has been a Godsend. I can walk everywhere. I walk to concerts at the performing arts center, occasionally to a Bucks game at the arena. I can walk down by the lakefront. It's nice living.
How does one keep in touch with poverty? I'm out there in the field a lot. I'll be out in parishes all over the diocese. I go early and have dinner, hang around, then have a town hall in the evening where people can come and ask the bishop anything they want.
Q: What kind of questions do they have?
A: Because of the questions in Milwaukee of large numbers without shelter and the soup kitchens, I often get questions about what parishes can do to help. I get a lot of questions dealing with education. The future of the parochial school system seems to be a constant worry.
Q: Is the Catholic school system doomed?
A: No, the Catholic school system isn't doomed. It's just oing to cost more.
Q: Which comes back again to the people who can't afford it.
A: And that's a real worry for all of us. That perhaps we will end up educating only those who are well enough off to pay for it. We keep increasing our scholarship funds. But when I think back about myself, everything I got was free. When I say free, it meant that other people in the church were paying for it.
Q: What do you do with your music now?
A: Unfortunately I don't have much time to play. And I'm a perfectionist. So I just can't play for my own amusement. I have to practice. I'm awful that way. Last summer the symphony asked me if I'd show off their new 9-foot piano and I loved that. I played some of the late Brahms things. But I don't have a chance to do that regularly. Oh, it's, I have so much to do in my retirement.
Q: Bishops can't retire until theyre 75.
A: I know, I know, I know.