Las Vegas' new Catholic Bishop: Plans to listen, learn

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Bishop George Leo Thomas has barely caught his breath.

“If you asked me what my number one priority is, it’s, number one, finding my light switches, and number two, dealing with all those boxes,” he told News 3 in his office at the Chancery of the Las Vegas Diocese. “My house is 10 times worse than what you see here.”

The bookshelves were empty and the walls were bare, and yes, there were boxes piled next to the desk where he will sit. It’s been a busy 24 hours.

Tuesday, 2,000 local Catholics stuffed the Shrine of the Most Holy Redeemer to watch Thomas be installed as the third bishop in the young Las Vegas Diocese’s 23-year history. Thomas replaces the retiring Joseph Pepe, who led the local Catholic Church for 17 years.

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The installation Tuesday featured several dozen bishops from around the country, a few cardinals and the Pope’s representative in the United States, called the Apostolic Nuncio.

“I woke up this morning after a good night’s sleep and found I was very peaceful,” Thomas said. “I think the internal message is I’ve come home.”

A home different from where he spent the past 14 years, leading the Diocese of Helena, Montana, Catholic population of about 60,000.

“Las Vegas Diocese in population, Catholic population alone, would be 15-times larger, so in some ways, I think I’m going from retail to wholesale,” says the new Bishop.

Larger, and growing, and about 60 percent Hispanic. Thomas repeated what he said back in February, that a solution must be found to allow immigrants brought here as children, the so-called “Dreamers,” to stay in this country.

“I say legal resolution. I think that the Church needs to work very closely with the various branches of government to find a way to assist young people in this time in their lives,” Thomas says, adding he believes the larger piece, immigration reform, must happen.

“I do not think that a continuing illegal immigration world is helpful to anyone. Hundreds of thousands of people who are serving here are helping our own economy, helping Americans live well and we need them.”

Immigration is a political hot button. How active will his new Diocese become in political issues? Thomas said he tipped his hand on that topic in the homily he delivered at the Shrine Tuesday.

“I said that my style is preferring dialogue over diatribe, persuasion over polemic, invitation over invective, so I don’t feel that a ‘bully pulpit’ is really helpful,” he says.

Before his time in Montana, Thomas served in the Archdiocese of Seattle for 29 years in various capacities, which Thomas says will help guide his pastoral mission in his new home of Las Vegas.

“So I’ve worked in the urban areas, I was in the downtown core a long time. I have a real heart for the poor, and as you may know from my resume, I was night chaplain for the jails for 13 years,” he says.

During his time in Helena, Thomas came front-and-center with the church’s child-sex scandal, with victims coming forward saying they had been abused.

“We had 384 individual claims that were 30 to 60-years-old. Talk about a tsunami – that is a real, live tsunami,” Thomas told me. Financial claims forced the Diocese of Helena into Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

In Montana, his approach was not to fight the victims but to help them heal. “I was advised by good lawyers, but I did not allow them to be in the driver’s seat. Pastoral care needs to be the theme,” Thomas says.

“I also will add that we have a really strong responsibility to screen, to do background checks for anybody serving in the church,” says Thomas. “Child safety has to be the number one priority and on my watch, it will be.”

In the meantime, he will unpack and learn a new city and Diocese that covers five counties and almost 40,000 square miles.

His approach?

“My style of leadership is attentive listening. I don’t come with a preconceived notion or an agenda,” Thomas says, promising a pastoral style that puts him out into the community.

“I think what you see is what you get,” he added. “I described myself in an earlier interview as a parish priest who also happens to wear a mitre.”

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