NEW YORK – Las Vegas is a gambling town, and on Tuesday, a real longshot paid off: This temple to secular hedonism, where even the airport has slot machines, and where a 2020 study of the ratio of residents to restaurants found the answer to be the classically diabolical number of 666, became the first new Roman Catholic Archdiocese in America in 19 years.
While casinos in town weren’t offering odds on “Sin City” getting such a papal premium, one has to imagine it wouldn’t have been considered a sure thing.
The Vatican announced May 30 the creation of the Ecclesiastical Province of Las Vegas, which includes the newly elevated Archdiocese of Las Vegas, as well as the suffragan Dioceses of Reno and Salt Lake City.
Archbishop George Leo Thomas, named by Pope Francis Tuesday as the first Metropolitan Archbishop of Las Vegas, said the move speaks to the “growth and vibrancy” of the archdiocese’s faith community.
“This speaks to the tremendous growth and vibrancy of the local faith and the commitment of the women and men that serve in leadership, including our priests,” Thomas said in a statement. “This is really a remarkable legacy moment in Las Vegas, and for the Catholic Church as a whole.”
The Holy See created the Diocese of Las Vegas in 1995, when it divided the Diocese of Reno-Las Vegas in two, supporting the northern and southern parts of the state respectively. At its inception, the Diocese of Las Vegas had a Catholic population of 250,000, which has more than doubled since.
Today, the Archdiocese of Las Vegas comprises 39,088 square miles in Nevada, and has a total population of 2,322,280, of which approximately 620,000 are Catholic, according to the archdiocese. The new archdiocese has a total of 67 priests and 30 parishes across the five counties it covers.
In a May 30 news conference, Thomas said there are more like 650,000 registered Catholics in the archdiocese, and likely another 200,000 unregistered Catholics as well, giving the archdiocese a total number of Catholics somewhere in the 850,000 range.
Expanding on those statistics, Thomas said there are 58 language groups in the archdiocese, which includes large Filipino and Caucasian communities. He said the archdiocese is also getting an influx of about 50,000 Californians each year, which has contributed to the growth.
Ultimately, though, he credited the dedicated Catholics of the archdiocese for its growth and vitality.
“I feel very grateful to the Holy See and to Pope Francis, who I love very deeply, but I [told the Vatican] the honor and the glory belong to the priests and the lay faithful,” Thomas said. “It is the people laboring out on the fields and in the community who are really responsible for the dynamism here.”
“We are having exponential growth, but our people are receiving excellent pastoral care,” he continued.
Auxiliary Bishop Gregory Gordon of Las Vegas highlighted not just population growth, but the spiritual growth of the region as the reason why the Vatican made this decision.
“Las Vegas has grown in many ways since we first became a diocese in 1995,” Gordon said in a statement. “But there has also been spiritual growth, in the number of baptized, an increase in vocations for our archdiocese and religious life, and we continue to build new parishes and continue to welcome to the priesthood. Our new archdiocesan status reflects that growth.”
The Vatican elevates a diocese to an archdiocese/ecclesiastical province based on certain criteria, such as size and population. An ecclesiastical province is a territory consisting of at least one archdiocese (known as the “metropolitan see”), and includes several dioceses (known as “suffragan sees”). In this case, the Dioceses of Reno and Salt Lake City are those suffragan sees.
Galveston-Houston was the last diocese elevated to an archdiocese in 2004. There are now 33 Latin rite archdioceses in the United States, and 194 total archdioceses/dioceses.
As a new metropolitan archbishop, Thomas will receive his pallium — a woolen vestment conferred by the pope on an archbishop — from Pope Francis on June 29 in Rome, the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, will then travel to the archdiocese in October to vest Thomas with the pallium.
Thomas was appointed bishop of Las Vegas in 2018. He became a bishop in 2000, when Pope John Paul II appointed him auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Seattle. He was then transferred to the Diocese of Helena in 2004, where he served until his appointment to Las Vegas.
Of his elevation to archbishop, Thomas said he is “deeply honored and humbled by this significant recognition by the pope.”
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg