Wednesday, February 28, 2018

For Vegas, The Pope's Payout – Amid Growth and Grief, Helena's Thomas Hits The Strip

Resolving the US' largest open seat a bit more quickly than expected, at Roman Noon this Wednesday the Pope named Bishop George Thomas (above) – the 67 year-old head of western Montana's Helena diocese since 2004 – as the third bishop of Las Vegas: carved into a stand-alone diocese just two decades ago, now boomed to some 850,000 Catholics amid Sin City's marked growth.

In the post overseeing the five counties of southern Nevada, the Seattle-bred prelate – once the top aide to Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen at the end of his tumultuous tenure – succeeds Bishop Joseph Pepe, who reached the retirement age of 75 last June.

A prodigal Philadelphian who landed in Vegas in 2001 after a decade on loan in New Mexico, the departing bishop already moved into his emeritus home last fall. Yet even so, there's arguably one person who's looked forward to this day even more: the bishop's 97 year-old mother, still living in the Roxborough house where he grew up, to which "Joe Pep" plans to return during the warmer months while serving as a hospital chaplain.

Needless to say, the road to today's move has unfolded in the shadow of immense tragedy: the October 1st massacre that killed 58 and wounded several hundred concert-goers at the Mandalay Bay casino – the deadliest mass shooting in the nation's history, and just a couple blocks from Guardian Angel Cathedral (below) at that.

Given the unique context, it's especially notable that – having been prominently mentioned for several other major postings over the last couple years – Thomas brings to Vegas a significant background in "community mental health." (Along these lines, the bishop's training in counseling was cited as a rationale for his appointment to Newark, because – as one op mused during the late-2016 process – "the whole place needs therapy." Of course, Francis would have his own eye-popping way of reflecting that concern in the outcome.)

Beyond the fallout of the shooting, the priority issues of Vegas Catholicism boil down to three words: growth, immigration, and vocations.

On the latter front, the diocese's 1995 spinoff from Reno left the new fold with all of 19 active incardinated priests in the trenches today, the rest of the gaping need filled by externs and religious clerics. At the same time, the Catholic expansion in the US' fastest-growing metro area saw the construction of a massive high school at a cost approaching $100 million, the project since become the focus of bitter litigation between the diocese and the contractor.

Here again, the new arrival's travails are quite well-suited – in Helena, Thomas oversaw the diocese's year-long bankruptcy due to 360 abuse cases he inherited, which resulted in a $21 million settlement alongside a mediation process that's been hailed as a model for resolving the suits in an approach that's more pastoral than legal.

In that light, it's especially conspicuous that, with today's nod, Thomas becomes the first US bishop ever to receive a more prominent post after taking a diocese through Chapter 11.

As it's early out West, the installation date and other usual bits remain to emerge.... More to come.

(SVILUPPO: Per a Whispers op, Thomas' Strip-stallation is set for Tuesday, 15 May – two weeks past the normal threshold of the canons, a delay likely due to the normal franticness of the Easter season and Thomas' larger-than-normal plate to wrap up in Big Sky Country.)