July 28, 2017

Past shepherds greatly influence Archbishop Thompson

Retired Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly of Louisville ritually lays hands on Father Charles C. Thompson on June 29, 2011, at Roberts Municipal Stadium in Evansville, Ind., during the Mass in which Father Thompson was ordained and installed as the fifth bishop of the Evansville Diocese. (Photo courtesy of Louisville Archdiocesan Archives)

Retired Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly of Louisville ritually lays hands on Father Charles C. Thompson on June 29, 2011, at Roberts Municipal Stadium in Evansville, Ind., during the Mass in which Father Thompson was ordained and installed as the fifth bishop of the Evansville Diocese. (Photo courtesy of Louisville Archdiocesan Archives)

By Sean Gallagher

To be formed for the priesthood, men spend several years in a seminary taking classes, ministering in parishes and other settings and entering more deeply into prayer and community life.

But when a priest is selected to serve as a bishop, he is to begin that ministry in four months or less, according to the requirements of the Church’s Code of Canon Law.

Given the weighty responsibilities of a bishop in the pastoral care of an entire local Church, how do they prepare to carry them out in such a short span of time?

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson did this in part when Pope Benedict XVI selected him in 2011 to be the bishop of Evansville, Ind., by leaning on the example of bishops who had been influential in his priestly life and ministry.

Among the bishops closest to him have been Louisville Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly, who retired in 2007 and died in 2011, and Archbishop Emeritus Daniel M. Buechlein. He also appreciates two bishops from further back in history: Bishop Benedict J. Flaget, the first bishop of the Bardstown, Ky., Diocese, which later became the Archdiocese of Louisville, and the Servant of God Simon Bruté, the first bishop of the Vincennes, Ind., Diocese, which later became the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

Ultimately, however, Archbishop Thompson identified Christ as his primary influence on his approach to ordained life and ministry, a fitting focus for an archbishop whose episcopal motto is “Christ the Cornerstone.”

‘Pastoral hearts’

A common bond among all the bishops that have influenced Archbishop Thompson is what he describes as their “pastoral hearts.”

“It was the pastoral heart, the heart of a shepherd,” Archbishop Thompson said. “They cared about people.

“They approach things, not in a combative way, but first trying to pull out the goodness, the beauty, the truth of a situation or of a person. Yes, deal with a challenge, but first make sure that that person knows that they’re cared about and respected.”

He experienced that first with Archbishop Kelly, who was appointed to lead the Archdiocese of Louisville a year before Archbishop Thompson became a seminarian for the Church there.

Archbishop Kelly continued in that ministry until his retirement in 2007. He ritually laid hands on Archbishop Thompson when he was ordained a transitional deacon in 1986, a priest in 1987 and a bishop in 2011—less than six months before he died.

Earlier, he sent Archbishop Thompson to study canon law, appointed him as pastor of various parishes and as vicar judicial of the Louisville Archdiocese in 1993.

After retiring in 2007, Archbishop Kelly moved into the parish rectory where Archbishop Thompson lived. They resided together for the next four years.

So, it is understandable that Archbishop Thompson looked to Archbishop Kelly in his early days as bishop in Evansville. He said that when he was facing a situation to deal with or a choice to be made early on, “More often than not, I’d think, ‘This is what [Archbishop] Kelly would do.’ ”

“He cared about people,” Archbishop Thompson said of Archbishop Kelly. “No matter how difficult the situation, he always kept before him the dignity of and respect for the human person. He had a gentleness about him. He had a sense of concern and kindness.”

The two kept in touch after Archbishop Thompson began his ministry in the Evansville Diocese. In fact, Archbishop Kelly visited him there only a few days before he died.

The day before Archbishop Kelly died, he wrote a note to Archbishop Thompson. It arrived two days after he died.

“I keep it in my Bible,” Archbishop Thompson said.

‘A Benedictine … through and through’

would have known at the time when Archbishop Emeritus Buechlein was installed as the fifth archbishop of Indianapolis on Sept. 9, 1992, that one of his successors was sitting close to him during the liturgy?

Archbishop Thompson, a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville at the time, was chosen to sit by Archbishop Buechlein because of the close relationship the two began to form 10 years earlier.

At the time, Archbishop Buechlein was a Benedictine monk and the president-rector of Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad. Archbishop Thompson was beginning his priestly formation there for the Archdiocese of Louisville.

Four years later, Archbishop Buechlein was appointed bishop of Memphis, Tenn. Archbishop Thompson, then a transitional deacon, served as deacon during Archbishop Buechlein’s episcopal ordination and installation Mass.

They later collaborated when Archbishop Buechlein asked then-Father Thompson to take on canon law projects for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

When Archbishop Thompson looks at the influence of his predecessor, he sees his deep immersion in prayer and the Church’s liturgy that was formed in him at Saint Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad.

“Archbishop Daniel is steeped in that,” Archbishop Thompson said. “He’s a Benedictine. He was raised in it. He was formed and shaped in it. So, he’s carried that with him. He’s a Benedictine monk through and through.

“That Benedictine sense of prayer and liturgy kind of permeates his being. That was an inspiration and model.”

Over the years, the two have vacationed together, giving Archbishop Thompson the opportunity to see the importance of prayer in the daily life of Archbishop Buechlein.

But their relationship changed as Archbishop Buechlein experienced numerous health challenges that led him to live in Saint Meinrad’s infirmary after his retirement in 2011.

“I miss not being able to collaborate with him and seek his advice and wisdom, because he’s not capable of doing that,” said Archbishop Thompson. “The friendship is still there. He’s a great model. He suffers so heroically in his courage, his humility. He’s not in denial of the situation, but there’s a lot of gracefulness to it. You won’t hear him complain.”

‘Frontier bishops’

On the evening of June 12, just hours before the announcement of his appointment as shepherd of the archdiocese, Archbishop Thompson prayed at the tomb of Bishop Simon Bruté in the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier in Vincennes, Ind., in the Evansville Diocese.

Bishop Bruté was appointed the first bishop of Vincennes in 1834. The Diocese of Vincennes later became the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. Archbishop Thompson is thus the 12th successor of Bishop Bruté, whose beatification and canonization cause was opened by Archbishop Buechlein.

Bishop Bruté was a close friend of Bishop Benedict J. Flaget, the first bishop of the Bardstown, Ky., Diocese, which later became the Louisville Archdiocese for which Archbishop Thompson was ordained a priest. Before becoming a bishop, Bishop Flaget ministered in Vincennes.

Archbishop Thompson’s first pastoral assignment after being ordained a priest in 1987 was as associate pastor of the Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral in Bardstown, which Bishop Flaget had built in the middle of the Kentucky wilderness.

Bishop Flaget and Bishop Bruté were both born and raised in France, but followed God’s call to serve as missionaries on the American frontier, something that Archbishop Thompson sees as relevant for the Church in central and southern Indiana in the 21st century.

“Bishops Flaget and Bruté were two great frontier bishops, truly missionary disciples, who made great sacrifices to go out to the margins and peripheries of their day for the care of souls,” he said.

‘My focus is on Jesus Christ’

A priest looking back to his time in seminary can sometimes recall specific classes, ministry assignments, relationships or experiences of prayer that were pivotal in his priestly formation.

While Archbishop Thompson appreciates the influence of various bishops in his own formation in episcopal life and ministry, he said that their influence was subtle and deep.

“It was amazing to me how much they were forming me, shaping me and influencing me when I didn’t even realize it,” he said.

As important as various bishops, both contemporary and historic, have been to Archbishop Thompson, he said that his first influence is Christ.

“Ultimately it’s not about any of them,” he said. “My focus is on Jesus Christ. It’s not any other bishop or archbishop. The legacy I’m looking to carry on is the one of Jesus Christ. That’s ultimately what it’s about.” †

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