June 16, 2017

Defining experiences in life help to shape archbishop-designate’s journey of faith

Archbishop-designate Charles C. Thompson speaks with Dabrice Bartet of St. Monica Parish in Indianapolis after his press conference in the Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara Catholic Center in Indianapolis on June 13. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Archbishop-designate Charles C. Thompson speaks with Dabrice Bartet of St. Monica Parish in Indianapolis after his press conference in the Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara Catholic Center in Indianapolis on June 13. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By John Shaughnessy

Two diverse experiences may be the most defining influences in the life of Archbishop-designate Charles C. Thompson—the new archbishop of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

(See all related stories, photos and videos here)

The first most influential experience for the archbishop-designate occurred while he was growing up in a family that he describes as “very Catholic”—a family in which he has 90 first cousins, the byproduct of his mother being part of a family of 16 children and his father coming from a family of 13 children.

Yet beyond those eye-popping numbers are the deep roots of a faith that has sustained him.

“I’m from a very Catholic family,” the 56-year-old archbishop-designate said in an interview on June 13, the day he became the spiritual leader of the Church in central and southern Indiana.

“Growing up, it never dawned on me to miss Mass. My parents have just a wonderful ease. They’re very salt-of-the-earth kind of people. They just live their faith day by day. We prayed the rosary every night together. We said grace at all meals. It was just natural. It was almost like breathing for me.”

Then there’s the experience that stands in stark contrast to that grace-filled family life—an experience that both initially stunned him and turned his life to thoughts about social justice and the priesthood.

It happened when he attended high school during a period of desegregation.

“We moved to Louisville just a year or two before busing,” recalled Archbishop-designate Thompson, the oldest of his parents’ three children. “The very first year of busing I was bused as a freshman downtown to one of the two schools that were considered the worst in the whole educational system at that time in Louisville, if not Kentucky.

“A lot of violence that year. Just to give you a couple examples, but not to get too graphic, there was a stabbing once. A teacher disciplined a student and the next day all four tires were slit. There was a rape on one floor. There were drug dealings. It was the first time I thought of priesthood in a whole different light.

“I remember asking myself, ‘All this violence and all this inhumanity to humanity, how does my life speak to this behavior, to this kind of violence?’ That’s when priesthood came to me in a whole different light. I went on and dated through high school and college. But halfway through college, that’s when I went to my cousin [who is a priest] about the seminary. It triggered that whole notion of a witness—how does my life speak to something other than that violence?”

Archbishop-designate Thompson shared those two defining experiences in an extensive interview with The Criterion. (See a video of this conversation)

He also shared his thoughts and insights about a wide range of issues and concerns as he prepares to be installed as the spiritual leader of the archdiocese on July 28: the focus on youths and young adults, the role of women in the Church, the importance of marriage and family life, the willingness to embrace immigrants and refugees, and a continuing emphasis on vocations and Catholic education.

Here is the first of two parts of an edited conversation with the archbishop-designate.

Q. From the press conference, you seem to have an easy sense of humor, a foundation of humility, and a commitment to dialogue and collaboration. Talk about the importance of these qualities to you as a leader, especially in leading people to Christ.

A. ‘When you’re my size, you’d better be humble or you’ll be humbled. I’m always in awe of the people I’ve worked with over the years. I’ve got an incredible family. I’ve got incredible brother priests, deacons, lay people I’ve worked with over the years. I’m always humbled by wonderful, holy, brilliant men and women in the Church.

“The dialogue is necessary because no one person can do this on their own. For me to think I’m a Lone Ranger and that I can lead a parish let alone a diocese without collaboration, without working with others, I do damage to myself and the Church. So I think it’s necessary for us to form that vision together and walk together. Pope Francis, I love his word, ‘accompaniment’—that notion of a culture of encounter, that connectedness and that missionary discipleship.”

Q. What impressions do you have of the archdiocese as you begin to prepare to be the new spiritual leader of the Church in central and southern Indiana?

A. “The first words I think of are the richness of its history, the richness of its gifts and its people, the richness of the faith. The wonderful thing for me is that I’m not starting from scratch. I’m building on a wonderful foundation. I’m inheriting an incredibly healthy, vital Church. Not perfect. We all have ways to grow and improve, but what a wonderful foundation.”

Q. Your parents have been married 57 years, and you have 90 first cousins, which gives us an idea of the big family that you have. Talk about the importance of marriage and family and how you hope to make that a focus of your leadership in the archdiocese.

A. “It’s at the center of my experience growing up. And it’s certainly a key concern for our Church today. Marriage and family is the fabric of stability in our society. As the family goes, society goes. The family is where we first learn love, mercy, forgiveness, respect, care for others, the faith.

“And our Church has long taught that parents are the first and foremost educators of our children. So it’s at the core of everything that we’re about in evangelization and catechesis, and growing as a community of faith. We say the Church is the family of families.”

Q. A few months after you are installed as archbishop of Indianapolis, the archdiocese will serve as host for the National Catholic Youth Conference in November. Talk about the way you see that the Church can make a difference in the lives of youths and young adults, and how youths and young adults can make a difference in the life of the Church.

A. “It’s a two-way street. Again that notion of dialogue, interaction and encounter. First, we have to recognize them as the Church of today. It’s not the future Church. They’re the young Church of today. And to treat them as such.

“Young people have to be at the table. People ask me, ‘What’s the vision of the diocese?’ They’ve got to be part of that dialogue. They’ve got to be part of forming that vision. And to be relevant, authentic and credible to them—to speak honestly and transparently, but to speak to the things they’re dealing with and facing.

“On the other side, the young people have to be willing to be engaged, to be a part of that Church. It’s not just what the Church can do for me, but what can I do to be part of that mission.

“That’s part of [the sacrament of] confirmation I remind young people of—that you’re not being given the gifts of the Holy Spirit for selfish reasons. It’s for you now to make a difference, to be part of carrying forth this mission of Jesus Christ, to proclaim this good news and transform the world. It’s that two-way respect and understanding and willingness to work together.”

Q. The archdiocese has a great reputation nationally in the area of Catholic education, having more Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence than any other diocese in the nation. What are your thoughts about the importance of Catholic education in the lives of children and youths?

A. “Just about every parish I’ve been in has had a school. And I was the chaplain of three different Catholic high schools. I loved that ministry. It was always energizing and refreshing. If I was having a bad day, I’d just go over there, and they would pick me up, inspire me and renew my spirit.

“Both in the Archdiocese of Louisville and in the Diocese of Evansville, I’ve been with very strong Catholic school systems. As a result of that, you see the value of Catholic schools and Catholic education, not only on our Church, but on our community, upon our society. The schools are not only striving to produce good members of the Church, we’re striving to produce good citizens. It’s the holistic approach of mind, body and spirit.”

Q. The archdiocese has a strong history of immigrants building up the faith in many ways in central and southern Indiana. And new immigrants and refugees are a growing part of the present archdiocese. What are your thoughts on the importance of diversity in the life of the Church in central and southern Indiana?

A. “St. John Paul II began World Youth Day. I was just at my first one last July in Krakow, Poland. My understanding is that when St. John Paul II began World Youth Day he began it because he wanted young people to experience the universality of the Church—to experience the richness of cultures and languages, and all the beauty of the Church beyond one’s own backdoor, one’s own parish, and one’s own diocese. Just that richness of the diversity.

“It’s the same thing here with immigrants and refugees and migrants. Pope Francis also says in ‘The Joy of the Gospel,’ in serving the poor, don’t think about what we’re giving them, but how we listen to them and allow them to touch us. With immigrants and refugees and migrants, how do we let them touch us? How do we allow them to bring the richness of their culture and languages to our communities as well?”

Q. In the Catholic newspaper for the Evansville Diocese, you wrote a column that appeared in both English and Spanish. At the press conference today, you also made comments in Spanish. Talk about the importance of being connected to the Hispanic members of the archdiocese.

A. “They bring so much to the table of our faith and our communities. Very much at the core of the Hispanic experience, the Latino experience, is family—extended family and that caring for others. We talked earlier about humility and dialogue and those qualities that are so necessary to leadership. I see that in the Hispanic community. The people I know, I see a lot of humility. I see a lot of reaching out and caring for others. We don’t want to lose that richness. We want to build on that.

“That’s not to say there’s not a great sense of family and solidarity and service among other cultures, other traditions, other people. They bring so much to us. And that community is growing leaps and bounds. So I think it’s important for us to not only recognize them, but to embrace them and learn from them and reach out to them as well.”

(The second part of the interview with Archbishop-designate Thompson will appear in the June 23 issue of The Criterion. A video of the full interview with him is available here.)

Local site Links: