ROME – Chronologically speaking, George Leo Thomas is America’s most recent archbishop. The Archdiocese of Las Vegas was erected just over a month ago, on May 30, and Thomas was in Rome June 29 for a Mass in which Pope Francis blessed the pallium, or woolen stole, which will be the symbol of his office when he formally receives it from the papal ambassador in a ceremony Oct. 2.
Yet while Thomas’s ecclesiastical status may be newly minted, the 73-year-old prelate is anything but a newbie.
On the contrary, few clerics anywhere in the world arguably have arrived at the rank of archbishop with deeper preparation for the role. A native of Helena, Montana, Thomas served as the diocesan bishop there from 2004 to 2018 before being named to Vegas. He’s been involved in ecclesiastical administration his entire career, having served as the Vicar General, effectively the Chief of Staff, under three different Archbishops of Seattle in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, each with a strikingly different style.
So close was Thomas to his mentors that he actually spoke at the funerals of all three men: Archbishops Raymond Hunthausen, Thomas Joseph Murphy and Alexander Joseph Brunett.
Thomas sat down with Crux for a July 1 interview in Rome looking back over those experiences, and also looking forward to what’s next in one of America’s fastest-growing dioceses.
For a bishop today known as bridge-builder, able to foster friendships across the ideological and theological spectrum, it’s perhaps not entirely coincidental that Thomas cut his administrative teeth under a high-profile prelate who was sometimes a lightning rod.
Famously, Hunthausen, an outspoken liberal who once publicly refused to pay half his income tax to protest the stockpiling of nuclear weapons in his archdiocese, became the target of a Vatican investigation in the mid-1980s for alleged violations of Church teaching. A young Donald Wuerl, the future Cardinal of Washington, D.C., was briefly appointed an auxiliary bishop with special powers, triggering lasting tensions between Rome and the American church.
Looking back, Thomas said he learned some important lessons watching Hunthausen in action, chief among them that a local bishop ignores his connection to Rome “at your own peril.”
“In a holy way, I think he was very naïve,” Thomas said of Hunthausen. “I don’t think he understood the complexities of the universal Church. He didn’t look beyond the borders of the diocese to see how things were impacting the wider Church. As a result, he made some decisions that raised hackles in Rome and became a very serious problem.”
Of his own style, Thomas said he’s proud of a description offered by one of his priests: “Politically savvy, without being political.”
“I don’t think that Hunthausen was politically savvy,” Thomas said, while stressing his deep admiration for Hunthausen’s personal holiness.
“His love of Jesus was so deep and so personal,” Thomas said. “I would knock on his door some evenings at the rector, ask ‘What are you doing, Archbishop?’ His exact words were: ‘I’m sitting here letting Jesus love me.’ It was beautiful.”
He also said Hunthausen taught him something about how to handle difficult moments.
“His legacy was to prefer dialogue over diatribe. He was never afraid of conflict, but he would never raise the temperature in the room with his anger, never. He was on the high road all the time,” Thomas said.
In part, the experience of watching his mentor struggle in his relationship with the Vatican prepared Thomas well for an epoch in which another pope, with a very different style, is also generating tensions. From the beginning, Thomas said he’s stressed not feeding that conflict.
“I wanted to intentionally ensure that we had a very deep communio with the See of Peter,” he said. “When I preached my opening Mass [in Las Vegas], I spoke about the Second Vatican Council and I listed seven markers. One was communion with the See of Peter. I was very deliberate about that.”
By now, he says, the people and clergy of his archdiocese have developed a natural and spontaneous affection for Francis.
“Our people love this pope,” Thomas said. “I think that it’s due in no small measure to the fact that our own priests speak about him positively and lovingly, and certainly the bishop does.”
“That doesn’t mean we don’t have opposition,” Thomas said. “I’ll occasionally get letters about, ‘What’s he thinking? Why did he do this or that?’ But it’s relatively rare.”
Thomas has now encountered Francis twice, and each time the pontiff found a way to joke about Vegas’s reputation as a gambling mecca. The first time they met, Thomas said, the pontiff pantomimed dealing cards; the second, he imitated the spinning of a roulette wheel.
“He got a big kick out of himself, I tell you,” Thomas said, laughing.
More seriously, Thomas said he once broke into tears listening to Francis talk about his compassion for immigrants — a reaction based in part, he said, on the vast ranks of undocumented persons in his own archdiocese.
Of Archbishop Murphy of Seattle, informally dubbed the “white tornado” for his pedal-to-the-metal style, Thomas said he admired his deep love for the priesthood and his capacity to inspire vocations. He also credits Murphy with a bit of wisdom about the Catholic Church, which helps him put the occasional complaints any bishop hears into context.
“The Church is a great bush,” he quoted Murphy as having said, “in which cardinals, crows and cuckoos all roost together.”
From Brunett, Thomas said he absorbed the importance of Catholic education.
“He had a heart for the poor because he had come from the poor,” Thomas said. “He made sure endowments were available, he raised a lot of money for Catholic schools. He called Catholic schools ‘the passport out of poverty.’”
Thomas said he draws on all those experiences in trying to chart a course in Las Vegas, where a dramatic population boom mean he’s not facing the headaches of some American bishops of clustering parishes and closing schools. His problems are rather those of growth.
If he could, Thomas said, he’d open five new parishes tomorrow, an increase of around twenty percent, as well as a couple of new grade schools and a religious community of women.
“We have standing-room-only parishes,” he said. “Two of the parishes now have more than 40,000 people. One of the pastors said they have 35 baptisms a weekend. You can’t believe it.”
“I’m always concerned about the over-growth of a parish,” he said. “There comes a point when you’re around the 40,000 level, when it becomes impersonal. We need to have more individual churches that aren’t these mega-churches in order to maintain our identity as Catholic, and to ensure that everybody is known and has an identity in that community.”
The best way to cope with the strains, he said, is to adopt a collaborative leadership style, in which the burden is shared.
“In Helena and Seattle, I had the capacity to bring wise people around the table to brainstorm,” he recalls telling the papal ambassador when he called to brief Thomas on the assingment in Las Vegas. “Everything is solvable, it’ll just take time.”
“The empowerment of the laity has helped us set the Church on fire,” he said. “The laity and the clergy work very closely together. They open the doors up.”
Another facet of the pastoral challenges in Vegas, he said, is the strong contrast between largely residential parishes in the suburbs, and the hugely transitory nature of congregations in downtown churches, reflecting the 750,000 visitors the city draws every week.
Among other things, Thomas said his downtown churches offer a robust ministry of hearing confessions, and also try to stress the pastoral basics of good preaching and good music.
As he ticks off all the work he sees ahead in the archdiocese, despite being within two years of the usual retirement age for Catholic bishops, Thomas at one point stops, smiles, and then concedes: “It’s kind of fun, actually.”
That, perhaps, is a final lesson America’s newest archbishop has gleaned from a lifetime of leadership in the Catholic Church: Heartache and frustration will always abound, but if you’re not also having fun … well, something has gone wrong.