Articles – Bishop Thomas

Articles below appeared in The Montana Catholic newspaper prior to the suspension of publication in January of 2014.

Cultivating Interfaith Dialogue, Steps on a Shared Path

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.


On November 19, 1963, the Archbishop of Strasbourg, Leon Arthur Elchinger, gave a stunning speech before the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council. The bishops were generally unprepared for his words.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, never prone to hyperbole, described the “breathless hush” that came over St. Peter’s Basilica when Archbishop Elchinger delivered his intervention on the topic of ecumenism.

Archbishop Elchinger stated forcefully, “Until now we have often not dared to confess historical facts which are less than favorable to the reputation of our Church. Now the time has come … to admit and confess historical truth, even when it is bitter. Until now, when there were controversies between separated Christians, we rejected as completely false doctrines we thought erroneous. Now the time has come to recognize with greater respect that there is also a partial truth, in fact often a profound truth, in every doctrine taught by our separated brethren, which we should profess along with them.”

Pope Emeritus Benedict described this as one of the “great speeches” delivered at the Council, an intervention which served as a catalyst and clarion call for the Catholic Church to engage in serious dialogue with representatives of the Eastern Patriarchates as well as members of the Reformed Churches.

For the past 50 years, ecumenical dialogue among the churches has waxed and waned. In recent years, serious differences over neuralgic topics such as abortion, women’s ordination, and gay marriage, have had a dampening and discouraging effect on these important efforts.

The winds of change are blowing once again.

Fifty years after the close of the Second Vatican Council, the words of the Council Fathers still echo with a profound and prophetic power: “Concern for restoring unity pertains to the whole church, faithful and clergy alike. It extends to everyone … and leads toward that goal and perfect unity which God lovingly desires.”

During the past year, the pastoral style and personal history of Pope Francis has revived hopes that ecumenical dialogue will be renewed and revitalized, both internationally and on the local level.

Timothy George, Dean of Beeson School of Divinity, wrote a piece last June entitled, “Our Francis Too: Why We can Enthusiastically Join Arms with the Catholic Leader.”

Dean George wrote: “Francis succeeds two men of genius in his papal role. John Paul II was the liberator who stared down communism by the force of his courage and prayers. Benedict was the eminent teacher of the Catholic Church in recent history. Francis appears now as the pastor, a shepherd who knows and loves his sheep and wants to lead them in love and humility. The new Franciscan moment is the season of the shepherd … Without forgetting the deep differences that divide us, now as never before we are called to stand and work together for the cause of Christ in a broken world.”

On December 15, 2013, I spoke at St. Peter’s Episcopal Cathedral at the invitation of the ever gracious Bishop C. Franklin Brookhart.

To the people assembled that evening, I offered five important points of confluence that are helping to advance the cause of ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. I observed:

  1. Among Christians, Baptism is our common inheritance, the spiritual DNA that binds us together as members of the Christian family. Baptism is a bond that links all who have been reborn in Christ. Baptism undergirds our universal call to holiness. Baptism provides a common destiny, a path to unity and a point of departure for all Christians in our common effort to heal divisions that “have damaged the seamless robe of Christ.” Amidst our differences, Baptism compels us to join hands and hearts in prayer and praise as brothers and sisters in Christ, and to share what unites rather than what divides us.
  2. We live in an ever shrinking global village, made smaller by the staggering advancements of technology and transportation. The Anglican communion’s reflection from the Lambeth 2008 stated compellingly, “Christianity is not alone as a world faith, and our modern context means that we have to enter into dialogue with other world faiths” through mutual and respective relations. Therefore we must seek to achieve a more expansive world vision that takes us beyond ecumenical dialogue into meaningful and systematic interfaith dialogue with representatives of all the great religions of the world. Those efforts must be marked by dialogue over diatribe, humility over hubris, invitation over invective, and persuasion over precept.

We must work toward common goals like securing religious freedom for all people, and renew efforts to end acts of violence and extremism that are carried out in the name of religion.


  1. Our churches must all become homes for reconciliation and forgiveness, both on a personal and communal level. Samuel Cavert, the former General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, observed, “The accent on the need for common penance and forgiveness should go far to develop a new atmosphere of ecclesiastical relations, very different from the polemical self-righteousness which often characterized discussions between Catholics and Protestants in the past.” The 1955 song, written by Sy Miller, says simply and profoundly, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”


  1. The Catholic Church has a cherished body of writings, which have come to be known as Catholic Social Teaching. This teaching is predicated upon the conviction that all people are fashioned in the image of God, and have transcendent nature and inherent value. Catholic Social Teaching embodies the vision of St. Augustine of Hippo: if you look deeply enough into the eyes of any person, there you will see something that is divine. The social gospel challenges the forces of unbridled capitalism and consumerism and helps focus upon a theology of solidarity, subsidiarity, community, common good and common ground, always with a preferential option for the poor. It seeks to address the underlying causes of human suffering and injustice. Catholic Social Teaching has many important commonalities with the social teachings of other faiths, and, taken together, has potential to improve the lot of the world’s poor.
  2. The 16th century mystic, St. Teresa of Avila, wrote “God save us all from sour-faced saints.” If we are to attract new disciples and adherents to Christianity, we will do well to radiate the joy that comes from knowing, loving, and serving the Lord. Joy is the hallmark of gospel living, and the sign of Christianity well-lived. Pope Francis is an exemplar of joyful Christianity in action, and is helping to build bridges among Christians, non-Christians, and people of good will. We do well to follow his example.

Only hours after his election, Pope Francis sent a message to Rome’s Chief Rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, personally inviting him to the Mass of Inauguration.

The Pope’s words serve as an important bellwether for the future of both ecumenical and interfaith dialogue:

“I very much hope to be able to contribute to the progress that relations between Jews and Catholics have experienced since the Second Vatican Council, in a spirit of renewed collaboration and at the service of a world that can be ever more harmonious with the will of the Creator.”





Our First Months With Pope Francis

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.


Two weeks before Pope Francis was elected by the College of Cardinals, I prepared a column for the Montana Catholic entitled “Thoughts as we anticipate a new Pope.” I wrote, “I offer this humble reflection on the qualities I would like to see in the one chosen as Pope Benedict’s successor.”

I must say, in all humility, that the column hit a bull’s-eye.

During the past eight months, Pope Francis has exceeded all expectations, and has found a special place in the hearts of people across the globe.

Time and again, individuals who self-identify as non-Christians, non-Catholics, and even non-believers have expressed to me their admiration and affection for our new Holy Father. The reasons they cite are consistent and compelling. Most often, they speak of the Holy Father’s personal humility, holiness, passion for the poor, approachability, and comfort with ordinary people.

The qualities I wrote about last March have come to life in the mission and ministry of Pope Francis:

Personal Holiness In the March column I wrote, “I hope the new Holy Father’s personal love for Jesus Christ will so radiate from his heart that his very person will inspire others to know, love, and serve the Lord.” Clearly Pope Francis is a man who knows Christ intimately, has encountered him personally, and whose very life radiates love for Jesus Christ. His daily example is a silent sermon that is attracting others to the Risen Lord.

Missionary-In-Chief   “The new Holy Father,” I wrote, “must not only be on fire for the gospel, but also media savvy as evangelist, preacher, and teacher, especially as he attempts to communicate to the young, the gospel and spiritual treasures of the Church.” We need to look no further than the Holy Father’s interaction with the youth and young adults in Brazil during World Youth Day, 2013. His ability to communicate the message of the gospel in tangible and practical ways is already legendary among the young. Pope Francis reportedly has 3,339,893 followers on Twitter alone!

Passion for the Poor   Prior to the Pope’s election, I wrote, “The new Holy Father must be an advocate and champion for the world’s poor, and reserve a special place in his heart for the least, last, and lowly.” We he was still serving as Archbishop of Buenos Aries, then Cardinal Jorge Bergolio had a reputation as friend and father of the poor. He wrote, taught, and preached about the Church’s responsibility to be a church of the poor and for the poor. He has admonished clergy to leave the comfort of the sacristy, and to serve on the pavement among the people, with a special passion for the world’s poor. He has personally embodied the values of Catholic Social Teaching.

Interreligious and Ecumenical Dialogue   Before the election of Pope Francis, I wrote “The new Pope must revitalize the church’s commitment to interreligious and ecumenical dialogue … He must be a worldwide pontiff, a bridge builder who initiates respectful dialogue and promotes understanding and tolerance among all religions.”

During the initial months of his pontificate, Pope Francis has already opened up conduits between the Roman Catholic Church and the great religions of the world. It is not by happenstance that Timothy George, the Dean of the Beeson Divinity School, wrote a piece in June entitled, “Our Francis, too: We we can enthusiastically join arms with the Catholic leader.” To a group of interreligious leaders, the Pope wrote, “My wish is that the dialogue between us should help to build bridges connecting all people, in such a way that everyone can see in the other not an enemy, not a rival, but a brother or sister to be welcomed and embraced.” The great religions of the world will find a friend in Pope Francis.

Governance   Last March, I opined, “The appointment or reappointment of effective curial leadership directly affects the particular churches, and is among the most difficult and important responsibilities facing a new pope.”

Pope Francis has initiated the reorganization of the Curia, beginning with the appointment of a new Secretary of State, a highly important office whose closest secular equivalent is a Vatican “prime minister.” The new Vatican Secretary of State is Archbishop Pietro Parolin, a respected apostolic nuncio to Venezuela, who will preside over the administration of the Curia, oversee the Holy See’s diplomatic service and relations with states. Pope Francis has also brought together the “Gang of Eight,” a cadre of trusted Cardinal advisors commissioned to assist him in the reform of the Vatican Offices. Pope Francis stated emphatically, “I believe that we always need time to lay the foundations for real, effective change. And this is a time of discernment.”

Purification   “The new Holy Father,” I wrote, “will inherit the unfinished business of addressing the crime of child abuse of the Church.” Earlier this month, Pope Francis ordered the formation of a team of worldwide experts to address the problems of sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church. Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston, said in a press conference, “The commission will be able to advise the Holy Father about the protection of children and pastoral care of victims of abuse.” This is a hopeful sign for the whole Church, and a major step toward removing the cancer that has diseased both Church and society for so long.

Universal Pastor   “Two thirds of the church’s population,” I wrote, “now resides in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The Pope, as universal pastor, must be the visible sign of unity and guarantor of lawful diversity.” Pope Francis is the first Pope from the Western Hemisphere. He represents the emerging church, and is blessed with the qualities so needed to build bridges between the church and all the nations of the world.

I concluded my March column by writing, “in light of the world’s complexity and the myriad challenges awaiting the next Holy Father, we can say with certainty that the Petrine office is humanly impossible to fulfill.”

The leadership of Pope Francis demonstrates that the Holy Spirit is ever present in the Church, providing our new Pope with the gifts and graces he needs to meet the challenges and opportunities that await him at every turn.

Ad Multos Annos, Pope Francis!

Christ Imbues Hope Beyond the Grave

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.

When I was a child, my family regularly visited Grandfather’s farm in north central Kansas.

I remember those visits with warmth and gratitude.

They were hot summer days, filled with reminiscing, family gatherings and visits with neighbors, all sweetened by an endless supply of farm meals.

Our visits always included a mandatory stop at Spring Branch Cemetery, to pay respect to our loved ones laid to rest on that lonely plot of land.

The cemetery visits left a deep impression on my life.

They stand as powerful testimony to the enduring bonds of love. They serve as a witness to the sacredness of family connections and a stark reminder of the fragility of life.

They helped me appreciate at a young age the power of faith, and the conviction we hold that life endures beyond the grave through the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Since childhood, I have been fascinated by graveyards, and by the wide variety of epitaphs found on tombstones across the land.

I have recorded many of those inscriptions in a journal, some of which offer brief insight into the life and death of the survivors or the deceased. Some epitaphs are sad, others humorous and clever. Here are a few of my favorites:


  • From Uniontown, Pennsylvania: “Here lies the body of Jonathan Blake, stepped on the gas instead of the brake.”
  • From Ruidoso, New Mexico: “Here lies Johnny Yeast. Pardon me for not rising.”
  • A man from Battersea, London, named Owen More had these words inscribed on his tombstone: “Gone away Owin More than he could pay.”
  • A fisherman from York, England: “Here lies poor but honest Brian Turnstall. He was a most expert angler until death threw out his line, hooked him, and landed him here on the 21st day of April, 1790.”
  • David Jordan has these words on his gravestone: “Here lies David Jordan – his last words were a shame… There’s a light at the end of the tunnel… Unfortunately it was a train.”
  • John Summers: “Here lies an English teacher who could not only spell the word ‘epitaph’ correctly, but also knew what it means.”
  • In a northern Virginia graveyard: “Let her RIP”
  • In Wiltshire, England: “Blown upward out of sight, he sought the leak by candlelight.”
  • The family of Emily White has these words inscribed on her grave: “Here lies the body of Emily White. She signaled left, and then turned right.”
  • Margaret Daniels from Richmond, Virginia, ordered these words to be inscribed on her gravestone: “She always said her feet were killing her – but nobody believed her.”
  • The family of Jonathan Grober had these words inscribed on his tombstone:“Jonathan Grober died dead sober. Lord Thy wonders never cease.”
  • There is a tombstone in Lee, Massachusetts, with these words: “Open wide the Golden Gates that lead to the heavenly shore. Our father suffered passing through, and mother weighs much more.”
  • An epitaph in Florida has these words: “Ma loves Pa—Pa loved Women—Ma caught Pa with two in swimmin.’ Here lies Pa.”
  • A London, England, tombstone reads: “Here Lies Ann Mann, who lived an old maid, but died an Old Mann.”
  • A new widow in a Vermont cemetery inscribed her late husband’s grave with an advertisement: “Sacred to the memory of my Husband John Barnes who died January 3, 1803. His comely young widow, aged 23, has many qualifications of a good wife, and yearns to be comforted.”
  • Johnathan Fiddle: “Went out of tune.”
  • Harry E. Smith of Albany, New York: “Looked up the elevator shaft to see if the car was coming. It was.”


Epitaphs of the rich and famous also tell much about the deceased:


  • Dorothy Parker: “Excuse my dust.”
  • Al Capone: “My Jesus, mercy.”
  • Frank Sinatra: “The best is yet to come.”
  • Mel Blanc: “That’s all folks!”
  • Hillaire Belloc: “When I am dead, I hope it may be said: His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.”
  • Winston Churchill: “I am ready to meet my maker. Whether my maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.”
  • Merv Griffin: “I will not be right back after these messages.”
  • Rodney Dangerfield: “There goes the neighborhood.”
  • Martin Luther King: “Free at last. Free and last. Thank God Almighty I’m free at last.”
  • Actor Ed Wynn: “Dear God, Thanks.”


A walk through the cemetery reveals a wide array of memorials and tombstones. Some deceased are laid to rest in elaborate marble mausoleums. Others have a simple granite marker containing the barest information about the deceased.

But there is one common denominator that is shared by the great and small alike. The date of birth and the date of death are joined together by a simple hyphen.

When it is all said and done, it is the hyphen that really counts.

On the Vigil of All Souls Day, Pope Francis spoke these words: “At this moment before sunset, we are gathered in this cemetery to think about our future and of all those who are no more, those who have gone before us in life and are in the Lord.”

He commended each person to “think of our own sunset, and to ask the question, ‘Am I looking at it with hope?’”

As disciples of the Lord, we hold the deep conviction that Christ is our light and our hope.

We believe that His life, death and resurrection have changed the course of life and death forever.

“If we die with Christ, we shall live with him. If we are faithful to the end, we shall reign with him” (2 Tm 2:1-12).

Isn’t that enough to fill every hyphen with happiness?


Note: In the upcoming months, the Diocese of Helena will issue a new document on the Order of Christian Funerals. The document follows two years of reflection and study, and has been born out of both pastoral experience and pastoral need. The guidelines and policies will assist the people of the diocese share a common vision through the light of our faith, and provide a means to support those who face the loss of a loved one.

Vatican II and the Laity

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.

On October 28, 1958, the College of Cardinals elected Angelo Guiseppi Roncalli, the aging Cardinal of Venice, to the papacy. He chose the name John XXIII.

Many considered the 77 year-old Cardinal a compromise candidate. Many church observers and pundits predicted that he would be a caretaker Pope, an innocuous leader, and a segue to a more stable and effective papacy.

The same prognosticators were unprepared for the seismic waves that followed his election—most especially when he announced his intention to convene the Second Vatican Council.

Here at home in Montana, the new Bishop, Raymond G. Hunthausen, busily packed his belongings and headed to Rome to participate in the historic Council’s opening session.

The average age of the 2,400 bishops in attendance at the Council was 60. Bishop Hunthausen was a mere 41 years old. Now, at age 92, he is the last living American Father of the Council to have attended all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council.

Upon his final return to Helena, Bishop Hunthausen embraced the Council’s great themes and its spirit of aggiornamento. In 1965, the Bishop actively and systematically set out to implement the Council’s vision throughout every portion of the Diocese. He concentrated in five distinct areas, with particular emphasis on the role of the laity:

Universal Call to Holiness

Bishop Hunthausen first focused on a driving principle that came from the heart of the Council—that all people are adopted sons and daughters of the living God, and through Baptism share in the priesthood of Jesus Christ. All of the Baptized share in the universal call to holiness. This new emphasis on the theology of Baptism supplanted the notion that holiness belonged exclusively to the domain of the consecrated or ordained. The Council document Lumen Gentium stated compellingly, “All Christians in any state or walk of life, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and perfect charity.”

Shared Responsibility

The second value that Bishop Hunthausen introduced into the Diocese was the concept of shared responsibility. In this vision, he asked priests and laity to collaborate together in a new and untested model of leadership. Previously unheard words like “collaboration,” “consultation” and “cooperation” entered the parlance of the Church, and gave rise to new governance structures on the parish and diocesan level, as well as in hospitals, the college and diocesan institutions. The Council Fathers wrote, “Pastors know that they themselves were not meant by Christ to shoulder alone the entire saving mission of the Church toward the world.” (LG30) The Dioceses in the Northwest United States were among the first local churches to implement this vision of lay ecclesial ministry. We have never looked back.

Liturgical Renewal

A third area that received the immediate attention of the Bishop fell under the wider heading of liturgical renewal. The first document to be approved by the Council was the document on Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. “Christians,” the Fathers wrote, “should not be present at liturgy as ‘strangers or silent spectators.’” They insisted on “the full, active, conscious participation” of the laity in the celebration of the liturgy. In 1967, Bishop Hunthausen called together the first Diocesan Liturgical Commission charged with the mandate of implementing the Council’s vision on the local level. The Commission’s task was “to help bring about the full immersion of the faithful into the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s life, death and Resurrection.” That was the vision of the commission, then and now.


Bishop Hunthausen instituted a Diocesan Ecumenical Commission and was among the first founders of the Montana Association of Churches. The bishop challenged the diverse members of the commission to see how they could understand each other better and esteem each other more, and “how the road to the unity of Christians may be made smooth.” Now, in a modern world beset with conflict and violence, not only ecumenical but also interfaith dialogue has become increasingly important as a major ingredient for achieving peace among the nations.

Outreach to Mission Territory

Upon his return from the final session of the Council, the Bishop spoke of the need to reach out to the poor of the world in more concrete ways. The Council Fathers had written, “The Church must walk the same road which Christ walked—a road of poverty and obedience of service and self-sacrifice to death.” (AG5) Bishop Hunthausen initiated outreach to the people in Guatemala as part of our diocesan commitment—sharing personnel and resources with a mission people living hand to mouth. This coming year, the Diocese of Helena will mark 50 years of mission commitment and solidarity with our beloved Guatemalan sisters and brothers. The people of our diocese have embraced this mission endeavor with years of generosity and prayerful support.

For the past five decades, the effects of the Second Vatican Council have been experienced across the globe. But fifty years in the life of the Church is a short time. It would be a major error to view the Council only as an interesting historic event of yesteryear. Many of the ideas and initiatives of the Council are still coming to life after a necessary period of gestation.

Important developments continue to emerge through the inspiration of the Council and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Catholic Social Teaching The foundational principles of Catholic Social Teaching permeate the Conciliar documents. “The social order,” wrote the Council Fathers, “must be founded on truth, built on justice, and animated by love.” (GS26)

Catholic Social Teaching is a new way of seeing, not with physical sight, but “with the eyes of the heart.” It is predicated on the conviction that all people are made in the image and likeness of God and have inherent value and transcendent worth.

Catholic social teaching insists that there are no throwaway people, no castoffs or disposable souls.

Catholic Social Teaching challenges the forces of unbridled capitalism and consumerism in favor of a theology of solidarity, subsidiarity, community, common good, and common ground—always with a preferential option for the poor.

Catholic Social Teaching searches for the underlying causes of human suffering and injustice, and helps explain the Church’s defense of life from conception until natural death. It is the new and distinctive hallmark of our Catholic institutions, and the true test of their mission effectiveness.

Mercy and Reconciliation

There is another signature theme of the Council that is also a major leitmotif of Pope Francis’ preaching and teaching. It is a value that is central to the Gospel, and ever-present in the writings of John XXIII—the medicine of mercy and reconciliation.

Blessed Pope John insisted that the Church should always act “by making use of the medicine of mercy rather than severity … and by showing herself to be the loving mother of all, benign, patient, full of mercy and goodness.”

How important it is for the Church to show the face of humility, to seek pardon when we have injured others, and grant forgiveness when we have been hurt. The Council consistently emphasized a preference for dialogue over diatribe and persuasion over fiat.

Pope Francis has said it well—“The thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; (The Church) needs nearness, proximity … so that no one is ever left behind.”

Communio Theology

The late Archbishop Thomas J. Murphy humorously described the Church as a “great tree in which cardinals, crows, and cuckoos roost together!”

Our Diocese is home to parishes and communities with distinct personalities and a wide array of pastoral gifts and talents. We are comprised of urban, sub-urban and rural and mission communities, spread out over a vast area of 52,000 square miles.

The Council Fathers wisely cautioned the local churches “to foster a unity which does not obstruct diversity, and acknowledge and foster diversification that does not obstruct unity.” The Council Fathers also insisted on the need for the local parishes to move in communion with the bishop and the diocese to move in union with the Universal Church.

Communio Theology, the fundamental ecclesiology of the Council, helps to ensure that our diocese and parishes do not become self-referential or self-enclosed. Communio Theology helps guard against the common error of confusing uniformity with unity. In the words of the Council Fathers, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”

The New Evangelization

The post-Conciliar years have seen a number of casualties, persons who, for a wide array of reasons, have departed company with the Church.

The New Evangelization engages all the baptized, beginning with our own families and circle of friends to invite people home, to encounter Christ anew, to tell others they are loved and cherished, and that our Catholic family is incomplete without them.

In recent years, there has been a troubling theology at play—the theology that espouses a “fewer but more orthodox” mentality. Pope Francis has challenged that premise directly. “This Church … is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest of protecting our mediocrity.”

We must never grow weary of inviting others who do not know Christ to encounter Him personally. We must teach and preach that the doors of our Church and the doors of our hearts remain ever open in welcome. Awakening the sleeping giant of the laity is the key to this golden opportunity.

Liturgy and the Second Vatican Council – Fifty Years Later

Bishop George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.

Fifty years ago, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council overwhelmingly approved the Church’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy – 2,174 bishops in favor, 4 opposed.

In the opening paragraphs of that document, the Fathers forcefully assert, “the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time, it is the fountain from which all her power flows.” (10), they further state, “Mother church earnestly desires that all the faithful be led to that full, conscious, and active participation in the liturgical celebrations.” (14)


In my estimation, that laudable goal has been unevenly achieved.

Fifty years after the close of the Council, it is important to recall the Council Fathers assertion that the goal to be considered above all else is the full, conscious, active participation by the people in the Church’s liturgical life, and to examine how well we have achieved this end.

I offer you four liturgical themes raised by the Council, followed by a series of questions for your consideration:

Fulsome responses: The Council document proposes that the entire assembly should be encouraged to take part in the liturgy by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons and songs, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes. 

  • In your particular parish community, does the assembly participate in the acclamations with enthusiasm and energy, or with passivity and disengagement?
  • Does the full community sing with one heart and voice, or has music become the province of the few?
  • Has instrumental music or chorale presentation overpowered the Council’s expectation that musical expression belongs to the full assembly?
  • Are liturgical gestures intentional and profound, or perfunctory and habitual?

Liturgical Ministers: The Council Fathers envisioned that the laity would be called forth and commissioned to participate in a panoply of offices and ministries, including that of acolyte, server, lector, extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, sacristan, greeter, usher, cantor and choir.

  • Have these liturgical ministries been actualized in your particular parish?
  • Has pastoral leadership provided the training and formation necessary to carry out these duties faithfully and well?
  • Has the pastor or pastoral administrator provided opportunity for the public commissioning of these ministries and offices in the context of liturgy?
  • Has liturgical preparation taken a back seat to other pastoral priorities?

Liturgy of the Word: The Council Fathers underscored the import and impact of the Liturgy of the Word in the life of the Church. They asserted forcefully, “Sacred Scripture is of paramount importance in the celebration of the Liturgy.” (24) “It is from Scripture that lessons are read and explained in the homily . . . and actions and signs derive their meaning.”

  • Has the Liturgy of the word been given the place of primacy envisioned by the Council?
  • Are the Sunday readings prayerfully prepared and enthusiastically proclaimed?
  • Do the Prayers of the Faithful carry the local community beyond its own boundaries to include prayers for the wider Church, for public authorities and civic needs, and for those oppressed by poverty and suffering?
  • Is the Sunday homily thoughtfully prepared, substantial in content, and meaningfully connected to the daily lives of the people?

Sacred Silence: The Council Fathers stated, “At proper times, all should observe a reverent silence.” The General Instruction suggests prayerful silence be encouraged “before the Liturgy of the Word itself begins, after the First and Second Readings, and lastly at the conclusion of the homily.” It should be noted that the most recent edition of General Instruction of the Roman Missal includes a new paragraph devoted to sacred silence. “Even before the celebration itself, it is a praiseworthy practice for silence to be observed in the church, and sacristy, in the dressing room, and in adjacent areas, so that all may dispose themselves to carry out the sacred celebration in a devout and fitting manner.”

  • Is that sacred silence addressed by the Council Fathers a lived value in your parish community?
  • Has the community understood and embraced prayerful and profound “social silence” as a sign of unity and prayerful communion?
  • Have those moments preceding the liturgy been filled by loud chatter and socializing to the exclusion of that prayerful silence that disposes the heart and community for encounter with Christ in Word and Sacrament?


I sincerely hope that these few observations and questions will help further the Council Fathers’ vision for “full, active, conscious participation” of the laity in the liturgical life of the Church. To that end, I ask that every parish community reclaim the import of liturgical life in the local community.


Following the example of the Diocese, I ask that each pastor or pastoral administrator call forth and support an active liturgical commission in each community. This is one way to help ensure that the high quality liturgical celebration envisioned by the Council Fathers can be evenly achieved throughout the Diocese.


Priesthood and the Second Vatican Council

Bishop George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.


Nearly 50 years ago, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council issued a groundbreaking document on the Catholic priesthood.

In doing so, they provided us with not only a more expansive understanding of the ministerial priesthood, but also fresh insights into the priesthood of the faithful.


The Common Priesthood

The Council Fathers taught that the whole community of believers is a priestly people, and that the lay faithful exercise their priesthood through the unfolding of baptismal and confirmation grace. “Each one ought to hallow Jesus in his heart,” wrote the Fathers, and bear witness to him through the goodness of our lives.


In the Midst of God’s People

The ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood, and is the means by which Christ unceasingly builds up and leads his Church.

By virtue of their vocation and ordination, priests are set apart in the midst of God’s people, ordained to be of the service to the common priesthood. In his inimitable way, Pope Francis told priests to go out “among their flocks” and know the people they serve “like shepherds living with the smell of sheep.”

The common priesthood and the ministerial priesthood, while interrelated, wrote the Council Fathers, “differ both in essence and degree.”

Through the service of the ordained minister, Christ himself is present to his Church as Head of his body, Shepherd of the flock, High Priest, and Teacher of truth. This is what the Church means by saying that the priest acts in persona Christi capitis—in the person of Christ the head. This is the mysterious means by which Christ unceasingly builds up and leads his Church.


The Universal Call to Holiness

Both the priestly people and those called to Holy Orders share a common call and a common destiny—the call to holiness and the hope of eternal life.

The essential foundation of all discipleship, and in particular, the core of priestly ministry, is a deep, personal bond with Jesus Christ.

The priest must be a man who knows Jesus Christ intimately, and has encountered him personally. The priest must be, above all else, a man of prayer, a truly spiritual man. Priestly holiness is a gift to and for the people. “Without a strong spiritual substance,” wrote Pope Benedict, “a priest cannot long endure his ministry.”


A Man for Others

In a challenging reflection on priestly life and ministry, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote the priest “must learn that the main purpose of his life is not self-realization and success. He must learn that he is not in the business of building himself an interesting or comfortable life, or of setting up for himself a community of admirers and devotees, but is working for another and that it is He that truly matters.”


The Word of God

The Council Fathers enjoined each priest to remember that he has as his primary duty the proclamation of the Gospel to all. But before becoming a proclaimer of the Word, the priest must first be a hearer of the Word, and a frequent guest at the Lord’s table.

The Word of God is so essential in the life of the clergy, indeed for all the faithful, that St. Ignatius of Antioch used eucharistic imagery to describe the Word when he wrote, “I commend myself to the Gospel as to the flesh of Christ.”

The preacher of the Word cannot be influenced by the desire to please public opinion, or to win adulation or approval through clever word craft that is empty of meaning or devoid of spiritual nourishment.

The priest is to faithfully re-present the Word of God and the Church’s hallowed teachings, in season and out of season. He must allow the Lord to fill his mind and heart through contemplation of the Word, assiduous study, prayerful attention to the Liturgy of the Hours and commitment to the Lectio Divina. He must never forget that the most profound homily he ever will preach is the witness of his daily life.


The Gift of Eucharist

The Fathers of the Council declared that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the life of the Church. All of the sacraments point to or flow from the Eucharist. For God’s people, liturgy prepared well and celebrated prayerfully is a blessing beyond measure. Each pastor does well to call forth, form and commission the full complement of liturgical ministries envisioned by the Council.

The Eucharist must serve as the center and foundation of priestly spirituality, and the source of the priest’s personal sanctification. In the parlance of St. Augustine, “We become what we receive.”

In calling for the “full, active, and conscious participation” of the faithful in the liturgy, the Fathers understood the power of the Eucharist to change not only individual lives, but also to transform entire communities. Eucharistic Adoration helps us deepen and prolong our communion with the Lord in Eucharist.


Eucharist and Charity

In his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict underscored that liturgy naturally leads to the practice of charity, especially toward the least, the last and the lowliest, both at home and far away.

The priest must help the community make vital connections between Eucharist and charity, liturgy and compassion, mystery and mandatum, love of God and love of neighbor, always with a preferential option for the poor.


Shared Responsibility

The Fathers of the Council underscored the concept and practice of shared responsibility when they wrote: “Pastors also know that they themselves were not meant by Christ to shoulder alone the entire saving mission of the church toward the world.” Words such as cooperation, collaboration, consultation and collegiality emerged from the Council’s vision. Pastors must “know what they don’t know,” and gather together wise and knowledgeable persons and strong consultative bodies in both parish and diocese. The wise pastor welcomes the expertise of the laity, particularly in the management of the Church’s temporal affairs.


Unity and Diversity

As they call forth the gifts of the laity, pastors are admonished not to mistake uniformity for unity, nor diminish the gift of lawful diversity in the Church, especially through the powerful expressions of language, culture, and popular piety.

A wise admonition to bishops from Pope Benedict serves as a useful rule of thumb for all pastors: “They must not pursue uniformity in their pastoral planning, but must leave room for the doubtless often troublesome multiplicity of God’s gifts—always, of course, under the criterion of unity of the faith.”


Teachers of the Faith

In their ministry among the laity, it also is good to remember the 1946 counsel of Pope Pius XII, when he described the lay faithful as “on the front lines” of the Church’s life, and reminded pastors that the laity must be well prepared for the task at hand. Catechetical formation of the youth must hold pride of place in his community.

Priests must never forget that the lay faithful are indispensable in transforming the secular order, building the Culture of Life, establishing a Civilization of Love and carrying out the New Evangelization. Priests must make themselves available to provide or oversee sound theological formation, education, and visionary leadership in each and every parish. Sound formation helps to unlock the immense potential of the laity, immersing people in sound doctrine and introducing them to Catholic social and moral teaching.


Ministry among the Scattered

The priest must constantly ask, “Who is not at the table?” He must include in his ministry to the gathered a fulsome and intentional ministry to the scattered. By word and example, Pope Francis has admonished pastors to move beyond the safety and security of the sacristy, and open their hearts and lives to the poor.

Like Christ the Good Shepherd, the priest sometimes must leave the 99 as he searches for the lost lamb. He should be found regularly at the bedside of sick, at the service of immigrants, in nursing homes and jails and soup kitchens, among the homebound or wherever human need is found.


The Healing Church

The Church, we must remember, is founded upon forgiveness, and is by nature the home of forgiveness.

The priest must be a practitioner of mercy, and work hard to remove from his life the roots of sin, pride, anger, arrogance and selfishness. The spiritual life of the priest, like that of the laity, is predicated on the awareness that all of us need Christ’s tender mercy, and conversion of heart is the lifelong and shared endeavor of every Christian.


Beyond the Parish

Finally, the vision of the Council Fathers encourages us to disallow our parishes and people from becoming self-enclosed, overly introspective or preoccupied with self.

In short, pastors must work to establish deep and meaningful union with the wider Church, communion with the diocesan bishop and with the Holy Father, and intentional outreach to mission territories.

This will help to actualize our people’s understanding that we are a Church that is “one, holy, Catholic and apostolic.”


The Power of Example

The election of Pope Francis has given both priests and people a wonderful example of priestly life well lived. He is an exemplar of humility, holiness, humor, joy, accessibility and love for God’s little ones.

As we celebrate the Golden Jubilee of the Second Vatican Council, I am thankful for the lives and example of so many good and holy priests in our diocese, and I am ever-grateful to shepherd people the Lord has chosen to be his own.

Hermits in Today’s Church

Bishop George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.


On May 31, the Diocese of Helena received its first canonical hermit, Brother Timothy Pida.

Many contemporary Catholics do not know that the presence of hermits has a long and hallowed history in the life of the Church.

The eremitic life, as it is properly called, was seen both in the Old Testament and the New Testament, and even predates the rise of the monastic communities.

Brother Timothy Pida’s consecration places him in deep communion with a long-established lineage of hermits, a tradition that has perdured for centuries before entering a period of fallow.

History is instructive and necessary as we seek to understand and illuminate the eremitic life and its role in the contemporary Church.

The very word “hermit” is drawn from the Greek word eremos, meaning “an inhabitant of the desert.”

Christian hermits were present in small numbers by the second century, and their numbers grew steadily in the next century as the Church entered a period of intense persecutions.

The venerable St. Jerome wrote the biography of St. Paul the Hermit, who lived during the time of the Decian persecutions. St. Athanasius documented the life of St. Anthony of the Desert, the prototype par excellence of the eremitical life. Under St. Anthony’s influence, the number of hermits increased significantly, beginning in Egypt, spreading into Palestine and eventually reaching the Sinai Peninsula.

Monastic communities sprang up in the fourth century, but their rapid ascent did not supplant or extinguish the solitary life. By the Middle Ages, hermits were present in Italy, France, Hungary, Portugal, Spain and Flanders, and flourished well into the 17th century.

Even well-established monastic communities permitted some of their numbers to live as solitaries (anchorites), living under the authority of the abbot and enjoying the support and blessings of brother monks. However, as monastic life increased in prominence, the eremitic life entered a period of dormancy, beginning in the 18th century and continuing to the present day.

In the 1960s, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council called for restoration of the full panoply of vocations, both lay and clerical. This renewal included the eremitic life.

In 1996, blessed Pope John Paul II issued an exhortation, titled Vita Consecrata, in which he introduced the ministry of hermit as one of the many examples of consecrated living.

Consecrated life is rooted in baptism, and is a gift of God the Father to his Church through the Holy Spirit, wrote the Holy Father. It is living testimony in the Church’s belief in the power of prayer.

The revised Code of Canon law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church both recognized those who are called to follow Christ more nearly, and to give themselves to God with undivided hearts. They are called to pray intensely for the needs of the Church. Their lives signify and proclaim in the Church the glory of the world to come.

In living out the life of consecration, hermits are asked to pattern their lives after the heart of Jesus—Jesus the chaste One, Jesus the poor One, Jesus the obedient One. This is why hermits embody and embrace the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience as visible hallmarks of consecrated life in Jesus.

Evangelical poverty urges the consecrated person to become more fully detached from worldly goods and temporal cares, recognizing the harsh reality that “no man can serve two masters.” In monastic life, evangelical poverty is absolute. The hermit, on the other hand, is to live a life of radical simplicity, gradually weaning himself from attachments to worldly goods and temporal desires. The hermit endeavors to become a visible image of the earthenware vessel containing the precious treasure of Jesus Christ.

The second evangelical counsel, the gift of chastity, opens up the vestibule of the hermit’s heart to Jesus Christ, and reserves this portion of his soul to receive Christ and others in freedom, peace and joy. St. Francis of Assisi wrote, “I am poor. I have nothing. Therefore I will give my heart.” The Church asks nothing less of the canonical hermit.

Obedience is the third evangelical council, a lifelong process of self-denial. Obedience is the first step in a lifelong journey of self- renunciation. The canonical hermit promises obedience to the diocesan bishop.

Of all the steps that must be taken by the hermit, the denial of one’s will is clearly the most difficult. It is difficult because self-interest, self-promotion, self- protection and self- regard are deeply embedded in the human psyche. To master obedience requires supernatural grace.

St. Benedict devoted the entire fifth chapter of his rule to the subject of obedience, realizing that obedience to one’s lawful superior is a lifelong and difficult endeavor.

The goal of the eremitic life is the praise of God and prayer for the Church, goals attained through silence, solitude, contemplation, prayer and penance.

The lay faithful and all persons in the diocese have a special and important role in assisting a hermit as he lives out a vocation of desert spirituality.

It is incumbent on all of us to pray for the hermit, knowing that he will also pray for our needs. It is equally important to know that desert spirituality will flourish and bear fruit only when it is cultivated in an atmosphere of holy solitude and prayerful silence.

I appeal to the faithful of our diocese to help Brother Timothy live and labor in quiet and prayer.

We ask him to pray daily for the needs of the Church, through prayerful attention to the Divine Office and the Lectio Divina, through intimate communion with Christ in the Eucharist, and by a lifelong commitment to manual labor, self-denial, prayer and penance.

I commend Brother Timothy to Mary’s maternal care, asking her to keep him close to the heart of her Son.

I also humbly ask Our Lady to remember all of us and pray for us, that we, too, may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.


Pulled quotes:


In living out the life of consecration, hermits are asked to pattern their lives after the heart of Jesus.


Of all the steps that must be taken by the hermit, the denial of one’s will is clearly the most difficult.

What is a Neophyte?


Most Reverend George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.


The word “neophyte” is unfamiliar to most Catholics. It is used to describe the newly baptized who celebrated the Sacraments of Initiation at the Easter Vigil.

The word “neophyte” is drawn from botanical imagery—describing a plant that has just been introduced into the area. On May 5, I celebrated the Mass for Neophytes at the Cathedral of St. Helena.

The excitement in the air was palpable.

Lindy Miller, one of the newly baptized, spoke for so many when he wrote, “Baptism was personally exciting and fulfilling, allowing me to partake of a tradition that goes back 2,000 years… At the tender age of 66, I never thought I’d have such an experience of joy and awe… I feel like a child again.”

The first stage of RCIA, beginning with the Rite of Election, helped our catechumens realize that the seeds of faith were planted in their hearts through the mysterious initiative of God.

Connie Smith wrote, “I am very thankful that God continued to call and invite me many times over the years to come home. My prayer is that this light will help me to forever surrender to God’s will….”

The first step in RCIA recognized and gave thanks to God for the persons who inspired baptismal faith in their hearts—most frequently husbands, wives, coworkers, friends and relatives who were instruments of God’s amazing grace.

Tim Taylor wrote, “It turns out that after meeting my fiancée and going to Mass on a regular basis that that was enough motivation to be baptized. Being baptized finally gave me a sense of belonging and allowed me to grow with my fiancée in a religious aspect, as well.”

The RCIA included a time of purification and enlightenment for those preparing for baptism.

They asked for God’s help in healing anything and everything that was unsettling their souls and instilling doubt in their hearts. The time of purification serves as a powerful reminder that all of us are sinners, and all need God’s grace.

Mary Bryggman wrote, “I feel like a whole new person. Baptism wiped away Original Sin, and made me realize how much better it felt with God than without.”

In the 17th century, Father Jean Pierre de Caussade wrote, “You can make the root below the soil flourish and you can make fruitful the darkness in which you keep me.”

The time of purification helps all of us remember that discipleship necessarily involves a share in the suffering and cross of Christ. More importantly, it reminds us that Easter always follows Good Friday.

The Easter Vigil in all of our parishes was marked by the lighting of the fire, the singing of sweet hallelujahs and the joy of the resurrection.

Nine-year-old Christian Zehr shared, “I felt excited because it meant I could finally receive Jesus’ body in the Eucharist, and I got to wear a white robe… After I was baptized I felt proud that I had received my first holy Communion… And people were congratulating me!”

The newly baptized and those received into the Church experienced firsthand that Jesus Christ is the light of the world.

Megan O’Leary shared her thoughts that “becoming a Catholic is like being given a really great flashlight—even though everything else in the world is dark, I got a little bit of light to walk by now.”

The season of mystogogia, following the Easter Vigil, is the time to deepen and to live the mysteries of faith.

It is the time when the whole Christian community, parish and diocese alike, express deep bonds of faith with the newly baptized, along with our sincere desire to help all those who were received into the Church at Easter.

Sam Bryggman said succinctly, “The thing that has hit me through my baptism experience is the importance of community. With community comes hope, and the knowledge that you always have support. You know that there are people who care about you and are willing to help. This is the place where people can put aside their differences and love each other.”

Mystogogia is a time for the newly baptized to make new connections between sacrament and service, faith and forgiveness, prayer and compassion, love of God and love of neighbor.

It is also the time for the newly baptized and those who professed their faith at Easter to take their rightful place in the assembly of believers.

As their own faith grows and develops, they will, in due season, become new sowers of the seed. They will help the Church awaken in others the experience of living with Christ and growing in the Church, a community that rests on the shoulders of the apostles.

At the Mass of Neophytes, we gathered in a spirit of joy and thanksgiving, grateful for the bountiful harvest standing before us as a sign of the Church’s eternal springtime.

How happy the people the Lord has chosen to be his own!

Books Success Mirrors Human Desire to Know What Awaits Beyond Grave

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.

“Proof of Heaven” is a fascinating book that has topped The New York Times bestseller list for 22 weeks in a row. The author is a highly regarded neurosurgeon, a graduate of Duke University Medical School, a doctor with years of experience as a researcher and practitioner. At the peak of his career in medicine, Dr. Eben Alexander’s life was plunged into crisis.

At age 54, he contracted an aggressive and sometimes fatal E. coli infection of the brain. Dr. Alexander plummeted into a deep coma for seven days, teetering on the brink of death.

That he returned to consciousness at all is a miracle unto itself. But the real story involves Dr. Alexander’s near-death experience and his self-reported foray into the afterlife.

Down through the years, Dr. Alexander described himself as one step above a “Christmas and Easter” Christian. He was a busy physician and scientist.

“I wanted to believe in God and heaven and an afterlife,” he wrote, but “my decades in the rigorous scientific world of academic neurosurgery had profoundly called into question how such things could exist.”

“The place I went is real,” insists Dr. Alexander. “Real in a way that makes the life we’re living here and now completely dreamlike by comparison.”

Since his return from a coma, Dr. Alexander has struggled to put his experience into words. His decision to go public has placed his standing in the medical and scientific world at risk. But he refuses to be silent.

“I know there will be people who will seek to invalidate my experience anyhow… Because of a refusal to believe that what I underwent could possibly be scientific, could possibly be anything more than a crazy, feverish dream. But I know better,” he writes.

That “Proof of Heaven” received prime-time placement on talk shows and moved onto bestseller lists is an indication that people across the nation are hungry to know what awaits them beyond the grave.

America is a nation that has raised denial, avoidance and the cosmetic sizing of death and dying to an art form.

Dr. Alexander’s book opens an important conversation, and gives the Church a golden opportunity to provide people with life-giving teachings drawn from Scripture and from the Church’s hallowed tradition.

This side of the grave, it is difficult, even impossible, to accurately assess the verity of Dr. Alexander’s near-death experience. Some of what he describes is indeed consonant with images of heaven contained in sacred Scripture—words such as light, life, happiness and peace.

In the end, even sacred Scripture concedes, “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Cor. 2:9)

In 1999, in the autumn of his life, blessed Pope John Paul II used his General Audience to present a series of teachings on the subjects of heaven, hell, and purgatory. He did not gloss over the difficult topics such as the final judgment and eternal damnation.

Echoing the teachings of the catechism of the Catholic Church, the late Holy Father proclaimed, “Heaven is the ultimate end fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness” (n. 1024)

His presentations serve as a hopeful message to all who view death and dying with anxiety or dread.

Read closely what the late Holy Father said in his General Audience of July 21, 1999. His words are balm for the weary or fearful soul.

“When the form of this world has passed away, those who have welcomed God into their lives and have sincerely open themselves to his love, at least at the moment of death, will enjoy that fullness of communion with God which is the goal of human life.”

Here is where we come to our most important point of departure from the writings of Dr. Alexander.

When preaching and teaching about the kingdom of heaven, the Church, first and foremost, presents not a dogma, not a program, not a place, not a proof, but a Person!

We preach and teach of One who has died and has risen from the dead.

We preach and teach that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has opened the gates of heaven through his cross and resurrection.

He is our way when there is no other way. He is our hope when there is no hope. He is our light when the night overcomes us, and the path becomes obscured in darkness.

Jesus Christ is heaven sent, and has shown us the way to the Father.

Through baptism, we have died with him! Through baptism we had been raised with him.

Our baptismal faith, however imperfect, however fragile, is our passport to eternal life.

Dr. Alexander, Jesus Christ is the reason for our faith in heaven! He is all we need.

“Jesus Christ is the definitive answer to the question of the meaning of life.”

Jesus Christ is the definitive answer to the question of the meaning of death.

He is the reason we sing hallelujah with full voices and overflowing hearts.

By his cross and resurrection he has set us free!

In the last century a man named Lewis Howell prepared chilling words and had them inscribed on his tombstone before he died:

As you are now, so once was I

As I am now, so shall you be.

Prepare for death and follow me.

Not to be outdone, an acquaintance of the deceased prepared a clever retort to Lewis Howell’s onerous epitaph:

Wherever you are, I wish you well.

Whether in heaven, or down in hell.

But to follow you, I’m not content

Until I know which way you went!



Thoughts as We Anticipate a New Pope

Bishop George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.

In hindsight, we should have seen it coming.

In 2010, German journalist Peter Seewald interviewed Pope Benedict XVI. In that exchange, the Holy Father stated, “If a pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.”

The pope’s words were prophetic.

This spring, I was with my brother bishops from the Western states when we met in private audience with Pope Benedict. He appeared fatigued and weary, clearly laboring under the weight of his office. In retrospect, his decision to resign the Petrine office should have come as no great surprise.

I think his decision is humble and courageous.

By the time this column goes to press, we may already have a new pope. In anticipation of that momentous event, I offer this humble reflection on the qualities I would like to see in the one chosen as Pope Benedict’s successor.


Personal Holiness. I hope the new Holy Father’s personal love for Jesus Christ will so radiate from his heart that his very person will inspire others to know, love, and serve the Lord. Pope Benedict, when writing about the priesthood, says it well. He must be one who “knows Christ intimately, who has encountered him and learned to love him…he must be a truly spiritual man.”


Missionary in Chief. Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., provided that wonderful description of the future pope. The new Holy Father must not only be on fire for the Gospel, but also media savvy as evangelist, preacher, and teacher, especially as he attempts to communicate to the young the Gospel and the spiritual treasures of the Church.


Passion for the Poor. The late Pope John Paul II wrote, “The Church wishes to be the Church of the poor. The poor deserve preferential attention, because in them the image of God is obscured and violated.” The new Holy Father must be an advocate and champion for the world’s poor, and reserve a special place in his heart for the least, last, and lowly.


Interreligious and Ecumenical Leadership. The Holy Father must revitalize the Church’s commitment to interreligious and ecumenical dialogue in our complex and ever-shrinking world. He must truly be a worldwide pontiff; i.e., a bridge builder who initiates respectful dialogue and promotes understanding and tolerance among all religions. He also must courageously seek to advance and to protect religious freedom, which is under siege in many parts of the world. This value is best secured through dialogue, diplomacy, and respectful relationships between the Holy See and both religious and secular leaders.

Governance. The Holy Father conducts the affairs of the universal Church by means of the Roman Curia, which fulfills its duty in his name and by his authority for the good and service of the churches. The appointment or reappointment of effective curial leadership directly affects the particular churches, and always is among the most difficult and important responsibilities facing a new pope.


Purification. The new Holy Father will inherit the unfinished business of addressing the crime of child abuse in the Church. He must not only take definitive action to remove and heal this disease in the Church. He also must ensure that new measures of accountability are introduced to discipline those in leadership who failed to protect children on their watch. The faithful have a right to expect high standards from Church leaders, and these issues are among the most pressing concerns awaiting direction and definitive action from the new Holy Father.


Universal Pastor. Given that two-thirds of the Church’s population resides in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, the Holy Father would do well to have facility in languages, cultural sensitivity and acumen. The pope, as universal pastor, must be the visible sign of unity and guarantor of lawful diversity.


Conclusion. In light of the world’s complexity and the myriad challenges awaiting the next Holy Father, we can say with certainty that the Petrine office is humanly impossible to fulfill. Yet we believe that the Holy Spirit is ever present in the Church, and will provide the new Pope with the gifts and graces he needs to meet the demands and opportunities that await him.


O God, our eternal shepherd, who guides your people with a father’s care, grant to your Church a pope acceptable to you in holiness of life, one entirely consecrated to the service of your people. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.


Navigating the “C’s” of marriage

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas Ph.D.


Down through the years, I have known some amazing married couples.

Within my own family and circle of friends, in our parishes and diocese, I have been blessed by couples whose marriages have flourished “in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health,” couples whose marriages get better and better with the passage of time.

Each of these couples, in their own way, confides that marriage is hard work, plain and simple.

How have some married couples managed to defy the societal odds of divorce and separation, and continue to grow stronger and stronger as time goes by?

Most will tell you that a sound marriage requires commitment and renewal, flexibility and creativity, faith in God, and no small measure of amazing grace.

As I have observed and reflected on the blessings of married life, I see a number of characteristics that these diverse couples have in common. Undoubtedly, you will have others that flow from your own experience.



Married couples whose relationship remains strong and vital value each other as best friends. They are companions, life partners, and co-equals on the journey of life. As true friends, they not only cultivate common interests, but also step out of their respective comfort zones to accommodate and support the interests of their mate. They not only share deeply with each other, but also walk hand in hand with the Lord. Companionship is the first characteristic of the strong marriage.



The secret of staying in love requires a commitment to communicate meaningfully, deeply, intentionally, and daily. Couples who communicate well also are comfortable with silence. They understand the power of a smile, a wink, a wince, a nod across a crowded room. Communication is built on little things—a note, a rose, a text or Tweet. Good communication is undaunted by distance, and like good wine, it gets better with age.



This word comes from a Latin word that means “to bring together and to unite in harmony and peace.” Every relationship has its share of hurts, disappointments, injuries and bruises. Conciliation introduces a soothing salve that helps heal the wounds of hurt and sorrow. Conciliation understands the power of simple phrases such as “I’m sorry,” “I was wrong,” or “How can I make things better?” Conciliation never allows the sun to go down on anger, and prompts the couple to close each day with a kiss. Conciliation acknowledges that a married couple can have differing points of view on important topics. It avoids name calling, labels, and the silent treatment, and regularly meets the Divine Physician in the sacrament of reconciliation. Conciliation welcomes professional help if problems become overwhelming, or serious difficulties encroach into the marriage.



This value seeks the other’s happiness above one’s own. Compromise means giving up something of value and making concessions to the other, for the sake of love. The late President Lyndon Baines Johnson opined that the secret to a happy marriage is to “let your wife thinks she’s having her way, and second, to let her have it.” Compromise is a value that cherishes selflessness for the sake of others. Writer Jane Wells said it well: “Learn the value of compromise, for it is better to bend a little than to break.”



Happy couples continue to date with regularity, making time for each other despite hectic schedules and full calendars. Courtship is a value-added investment in the children, and pays high dividends over time. Courtship helps the married couple cherish intimacy as the years go by, and helps the marriage remain ever young as the years become decades.



Even though young people sometimes fall short of their job description, the Church still describes them as the “supreme gift” of married life. Effective couples don’t confuse the role of parent with buddy. They are not afraid of the word “no.” They indulge their children, not with material goods, but with the gift of their time. They take seriously their baptismal promises as mentors in the ways of faith, and introduce their children early to the spiritual treasures of the Church. They make school attendance and Mass attendance non-negotiable as they form the minds and souls of their young. They relish each child on his or her own terms as an unrepeatable blessing from God.



Author Richard Heffern wrote, “Humor is the byproduct of living deeply.” Some readers who are old enough to remember comedian Victor Borge will remember his famous quip: “The shortest distance between two people is a good laugh.” Happy couples let their household redound in laughter, knowing that laughter is good medicine for the soul.



Marriages that flourish do not allow their families to become self-enclosed. They are involved in the wider community, build strong friendships outside the home, and serve others in greater need than themselves. They invest their time, talent, and resources in their parish community, develop a deep sense of global solidarity with the poor, and value meaningful communion with the wider Church.



Every strong marriage is founded upon a true and lasting friendship with Jesus Christ, who is the center, soul, and author of Christian marriage. Jesus Christ is the wellspring of grace, grace that binds a couple together both in times of joy and days of hardship. Christian marriage is built on prayer, and nourished by a strong and steady sacramental life. Marriages that last are built upon communion with Jesus Christ and enlightened by the teachings of the Church. They put into practice the adage that “life is fragile—handle with prayer.” Marriage is a sacrament that comes from the hands of Providence, a grace-filled gift that keeps on giving as a couple walks together down the path of life.


During the month of February, I give thanks for God’s blessing of Christian marriage. I thank the Lord for so many couples who enrich the Church and community as living witnesses to the power of married life and love. St. Valentine’s blessings to each of you.

Life of Faith, Life of Service


Most Reverend George Leo Thomas Ph.D.


Father Lee Hightower is best described as “one of a kind.”

Called to priesthood as a youngster in Butte, he was ordained to the priesthood on June 25, 1961, just as Pope John XXIII was preparing to convene the Second Vatican Council.


Father Hightower’s 52 years of priestly life have been marked by series of grace-filled and unexpected twists and turns. Today, at age 77, he faces one of the most daunting challenges of his life.

Father Hightower’s priestly career began at Carroll College, where he formally served as professor of French. Like every other priest on campus, he also was expected to assist in various aspects of student life, attempting to keep holy order in the dormitories, and to provide spiritual care for students and staff.


During the 1960s and ‘70s, powerful currents swept across the political, cultural, and religious landscapes. Father Hightower regularly and sometimes vociferously voiced his concern about the college’s direction and future. His native Butte pugnacity caused him to cross swords more than once with the powers that be. During the last seven years of his tenure at Carroll College, Father Hightower simultaneously undertook a new ministry as a U.S. Army Reserve chaplain. This part-time appointment served as a segue into a new chapter of Father Hightower’s life.

In 1983, he accepted a full-time commission in the Army chaplaincy, where he was a beloved and ubiquitous presence among active-duty personnel and their families. Among the ranks of Army men and women, Father Hightower’s name is synonymous with self-sacrifice, availability, a no-nonsense style of preaching and teaching, and tenderness for the underdog.


In 2002, Father Hightower transferred to the Archdiocese of Seattle, and was assigned to St. John Bosco Parish in Lakewood, Wash. Retired or active-duty military personnel constitute a critical mass of the parishioners. The assignment was tailor-made for a priest who devoted nearly 30 years of ministry to men and women in uniform.

About a year ago, Father Hightower began to experience physical difficulties that impinged upon his ability to serve in full-time parish ministry. The last few months have been marked by a difficult diagnosis and precipitous change.

Father Hightower no longer is able to speak. His limbs have grown uncooperative, and he takes nourishment through a feeding tube. But his mind is active and lucid, his spirit lively and unbroken, and his sense of humor ever at the ready.


Early this month I visited him at an assisted-living facility in Dupont, Wash. He communicates by using an iPad screen, laboriously pecking out his thoughts one letter at a time.

His room is filled with pictures and cards from family and friends. Each week he receives a steady stream of visitors, most of whom have been the beneficiaries of his selfless pastoral care.

As we neared the end of our visit, Father Hightower typed out a message marked by Hightower humor. He wrote, “I now have double vision. It has been wonderful visiting with both of you!”


Double vision.

That is the phrase that syndicated columnist Father Ron Rolheiser uses to describe the gift of faith: “Certitude is not the real substance of faith. Faith is a way of seeing things. It is meant to change our eyesight…What faith does give us is double vision.” Faith helps us to see life, no longer with just physical eyes, but with the eyes of the heart.

As he faces physical limitations and challenges, Father Hightower stands as a strong and silent witness to the power of faith—faith in Jesus Christ, faith in the Church, and faith that God accompanies us on each step of our pilgrim journey into eternal life.


He is living testimony to words written by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council: “Through Christ and in Christ, the riddles of sorrow and death grow meaningful. Apart from his Gospel, they overwhelm us.”

You, Father Hightower, are among that great company of witnesses God sends into our lives to keep the eyes of our hearts fixed on his Son. Your faith, your insight, your perseverance and example are blessings beyond measure, blessing others more than you will ever know.


In this Year of Faith I, and so many others, count you among the graces God has sent into our lives.

Your double vision is helping us to see more clearly.



The Challenge and Importance of the Homily

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.

The people of God have spoken.

In survey after survey, our people have called upon Church leaders to improve the quality of the Sunday homily.

Their concerns are, in far too many instances, urgent and legitimate, echoing the Holy Father’s call for the renewal of the preaching ministry.

“A steady diet of tepid or poorly prepared homilies is often cited as a cause for discouragement on the part of the laity and even leading some to turn away from the Church,” the U.S. bishops say in a document titled “Preaching the Mystery of Faith: the Sunday Homily.” Bishops approved the document last month.

Surely they can’t be talking about we in the Diocese of Helena, can they? After all, I have appointed Fulton Sheen-like homilists in every parish across the diocese, haven’t I?

For those of us who humbly acknowledge a need for improvement in our preaching, we know that a homily prepared well and delivered skillfully has the power to transform the heart of the listener.

As noted in “Preaching the Mystery of Faith,” a powerful homily prayerfully proclaimed can “stir the hearts of our people … renewing their living the faith in the Word and participation in the Church and her Sacrament.”

The primary audience is “our brother priests, who, by virtue of Presbyteral ordination, share the apostolic office to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” The bishops include deacons “who may preach the homily in accord with the prescriptions of canon law as ministers of the Word.” Both priests and deacons should take these challenges seriously.

As we reflect together on the power of good preaching, I offer a few practical words of advice for prayerful consideration.

-Good preaching always is born in prayer and contemplation. Jesus Christ is the center and foundation of our preaching, and effective preaching always flows from and leads to more intimate communion with him.

-The homily must faithfully re-present the spirit of the Gospel and the teachings of the Church. The effective preacher strives to “think with the Church,” and to share its rich spiritual treasury with the people entrusted to his care.

-The effective preacher leads the listener to deeper communion with Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. As “Preaching the Mystery” states, “This is why virtually every homily preached during liturgy should make some connection between the Scripture just heard and the Eucharist about to be celebrated.” Every effective homily is a summons to both conversion and communion with the Word made Flesh.

-The effective homily connects the Word to works of justice and charity, with a preferential option for the poor. Good preaching inspires and renews our common commitment to mission and ministry.

-The effective preacher reads the “signs of the times” and helps his people apply the Word of God to the daily concerns and cares in their lives. The preacher should strive to be a student of life, an astute observer of culture, who offers the Word of God as a lamp for his people and a light for their lives.

-The homilist does not avoid difficult topics that weigh on the hearts of the people. Pope Benedict wrote: “We must never remain silent before evil. I am thinking of all those Christians who, out of human regard or purely personal convenience, adapt to the prevailing mentality rather than warning their brothers and sisters against ways of thinking and acting that are contrary to the truth and do not follow the path of goodness.” While assiduously avoiding partisan politics, the homilist offers the people sound moral guidance that leads them to sound moral acting and timeless principles that aid them in their daily lives. At the same time, Christian admonishment must never be motivated by accusation or recrimination.

-The effective homily always draws deeply from the wisdom of the Gospel, and goes beyond an interesting story or clever wordcraft. All effective homilies have a sense of urgency and freshness that focus on Jesus Christ and reveal the beauty and promise of his kingdom.

-Subscription homily services can be useful in triggering ideas or serving as a catalyst to creative thinking. However, the effective homilist cannot substitute canned homilies for the serious, prayerful and important investment of time as he carries out responsibly his ministry of the Word.

-Pope Benedict reminds preachers that “the catechetical aim of the homily should not be forgotten.” A homilist occasionally should direct time and energy toward presenting the four great pillars the Catholic faith – the Creed, Sacraments, Christian morality and the meaning of Christian prayer. In doing so, he should not mistake the liturgical gathering for the theological classroom, nor confuse a liturgical assembly with the academic audience.

-A good homily is characterized by its economy of words, poignant message and skillful delivery. Eleanor Roosevelt has been quoted as saying, “If I had taken more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

In my own seminary days, our homiletics professor stated clearly and unequivocally, “If you don’t strike oil in 12 minutes, stop boring.” The master preacher, the late Walter Burghardt, told his homiletics students that even in his advanced years, he invested two hours of preparation time for every minute he preached. A homily well prepared and preached brings the Scriptural message to life in a way that helps the faithful realize that God’s word is present and at work in daily life.

To be sure, preaching is hard work, replete with difficulties and golden opportunities.

In this Year of Faith, I encourage the priests and deacons of our diocese to reflect prayerfully and deeply upon “Preaching the Mystery of Faith,” and upon the vision and values the document contains.

Good preaching has the power to form, inform, reform and ultimately transform the hearts of the people. I am deeply grateful for the many pastors whose homilies form and inspire their congregations, leading them ever deeper into encounter with Jesus. We must be ever vigilant and conscientious that this ministry continues to nourish the souls and lives we shepherd.

We in the Diocese of Helena will take seriously Pope Benedict’s admonition “to make this a new era of proclaiming the Gospel to our Catholic people and indeed to the whole world.”

The Year of Faith and the New Evangelization (part II)

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.

In last month’s Montana Catholic, I wrote about the Special Synod of bishops in Rome, convened in October by our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI. I stated that the convening of a Special Synod indicates there are pressing issues on the Holy Father’s mind and heart, concerns needing worldwide consultation and expertise.

We know from his speeches and writings that those issues include:

-religious indifference.

-the spread of secularism.

-the ascent of atheism, especially in nations where religion and the Christian life flourished previously.

In calling for the New Evangelization and a Year of Faith, Pope Benedict also has expressed special pastoral concern for persons:

-who are baptized but inadequately catechized.

-who have been evangelized but largely uncatechized.

-who are marginalized or disenfranchised from the Church.

-whose faith and public life are disconnected, standing as counter-witnesses to the Catholic faith.

The Holy Father called together bishops from around the world to explore theological and pastoral approaches to address these serious matters.

Last month I explored two of four foundational planks that will serve as essential elements in the New Evangelization.


Encuentro theology is fundamental to the New Evangelization, and the Year of Faith. Encuentro theology describes the need for each person to personally and communally meet Jesus Christ in his or her life.

Conversion (in the Greek, metanoia) describes the radical change of mind and heart that occurs when we meet the Lord face to face.

Now we will examine Communio theology and Catholic social teaching, the third and fourth foundational planks.



Communio Theology

Communio theology includes many elements.

Sacramentally, baptism is the gateway to communion in the Church, and the Eucharist is the living and lasting center around which the entire community gathers.

Blessed John Paul II wrote, “Through communion with Jesus Christ, we enter into communion with all believers.”

Communio theology includes deep and meaningful solidarity with the local and wider Church.

Communio theology is essential to the Church’s nature, and is made visible in real and concrete ways: through our community prayers for one another; through communion between parish and diocese; through communion between dioceses and the universal Church; through global solidarity with mission peoples; and through communion with the Petrine ministry of the Holy Father, to name a few.

Our communion is expressed most dramatically through the prayerful celebration of the Eucharist, the outstanding moment of encounter with the living Christ.

Communio theology includes deep understanding of Church teaching through sound catechesis. Communio theology requires that diocese and parish provide each generation with teaching so that each individual has the ability “to think with the Church” and also to live and love her life and teachings as their own.

The local bishop is responsible for intentionally building communion in the Church. He is described as “the visible principle and foundation of unity,” and the guardian of lawful diversity who must always “respect and foster plurality and diversification which are not obstacles to unity but which give it character and communion.” (Ecclesia in America, 60)

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who now is our Holy Father, once wrote that “the local bishop must not allow the diocese to become self-enclosed. He must open her up to the whole and also introduce into the universal Church the particular voice of his diocese, its particular charisms, assets and afflictions . . . He must leave room for the doubtless and often troublesome multiplicity of God’s gifts, always, of course, under the criterion of the unity of faith.” (“Called to Communion” Page 100)

A major outcome of the Special Synod and the Year of Faith will include new initiatives to systematically teach, form and, in some cases, re-form the minds and hearts of our people, helping them to grow in understanding of the teachings of the Church, especially as they are presented in the Catholic Catechism.

Communio theology also places special emphasis on the Second Vatican Council’s vision of shared responsibility, or what Pope Benedict has described in recent months as “co-responsibility” for the propagation of the faith. Lay persons are on the front lines. Their purview is the transformation of society and culture, the marketplace, the classroom and the public square.

Another major element of the Year of Faith will be forming, empowering and mobilizing the lay faithful as necessary agents of New Evangelization.

Every family has experienced the heartbreak of the sons, daughters, members of extended family and circle of friends who were once Catholic but drifted away or decisively defected from the Church.

Many will prayerfully consider coming home, especially when encouraged or invited to do so by someone who loves Jesus Christ and is an active member of the Church. People of the laity are necessary catalysts for successful evangelization and by turning to them in our diocese and parish, we awaken a sleeping giant.



Catholic Social Teaching

Catholic social teaching is the language of charity made visible. Catholic social teaching flows from the vision that every person is made in the image and likeness of God, and that this dignity is the source of human rights and duties.

To rediscover and help others discover the inviolable dignity of every human person “makes up the essential task, in a certain sense the central and unifying task of the service which the Church and the lay faithful in her are called to render to the human family.” (Christi Fideles Laiici, No. 91)

The problems and challenges we face as a Church and society are daunting and sometimes discouraging. In recent years, the Church has encountered a new brand of secularism, characterized by militancy, organizational savvy, funding sources and political acumen.

Groups like Planned Parenthood, NARAL, Compassion & Choices and various lobbies with agendas antithetical to the Church have displayed growing momentum in the past 10 years. On the national level, we face pernicious U.S. Department of Health and Human Services mandates that violate the Catholic conscience.

On the legislative front, in some jurisdictions, these lobbyists and special-interest groups have successfully redefined marriage, targeted the Catholic Church with look-back legislation and passed assisted-suicide laws.

What they have failed to secure in the halls of the legislature, they have taken up in the courts of the country.

Radical secularism on the one hand and religious indifference on the other have made life challenging for the Catholic Church across the land. The laity must become galvanized, organized and mobilized to help turn away these forces and bring into view a culture of life.

St. Augustine once proposed that “if you look deeply enough into the eyes of any person, there you will see something that is divine.” Our vision of the human person gives birth to our preferential love for the poor and the Church’s goal of ensuring no one ever is marginalized.

The Lord’s mandate to serve others is the silent witness that evangelizes culture and society. In his first encyclical, titled Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict writes clearly and compellingly that “charity is the silent witness that brings others to Christ.”

Our vision of the human person gives birth to our preferential option for the poor and a theology of the common good. Catholic social teaching holds up the vision that no person ever should be marginalized or set aside. All have value and worth that comes not from the state, but from the very heart of God. Together, we can build up the culture of life and lead others to the heart of Christ and the Church by our witness to the sacredness and goodness of every person, every soul.

I have said this before and I say it again: no more camouflage Catholicism! The New Evangelization and the Year of Faith accord each person, parish and diocese a new and blessed opportunity to meet the Lord anew, share his name with others and give powerful and profound witness to the life, death and resurrection of Christ, who is ever in our midst as one who serves.

The Year of Faith and the New Evangelization (part I)

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.

The Holy Father’s Plea

On May 30, 2011, Pope Benedict announced the convening of a special Synod of Bishops in Rome, beginning Oct. 7, 2012. Bishops from all over the world, including four from the United States, were invited to participate in this gathering.

A special Synod indicates there are issues and concerns of particular urgency on the Holy Father’s mind, issues and concerns that require expansive consultation and expertise, and intensive prayer.

We know from the Holy Father’s writings and addresses just what is weighing on his mind and heart.

On Sept. 21, 2010, Pope Benedict wrote, “Whole countries and nations where religion and the Christian life were formerly flourishing… are now put to a hard test, and in some cases, are even undergoing a radical transformation, as a result of a constant spreading of an indifference to religion, of secularism and atheism.”

Indifference, secularism and atheism, coupled with what the Holy Father has called “moral relativism,” constitute pressing problems for the Church. We see all around us evidence of an encroaching spiritual desert, a spreading void, as individuals and whole groups of people attempt to live lives without God.

We also know from experience that not all the problems we face are external to the Church.

In 1990, Blessed Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Redemptoris Missio, wrote, “Of all the painful difficulties the Church is not confronting are those which are internal to the people of God: the lack of fervor, division among Christians, the de-Christianization of Christian countries, the counter-witness of Christians, and religious indifferentism, the belief that one religion is as good as the other.”

What does Pope Benedict have in mind as he gathers bishops from all over the world?

What kind of solutions will emerge as the bishops attempt to counter the pernicious forces of atheism, secularism, relativism and indifference?


The New Evangelization and the New Pentecost

The answer begins in our midst, in our hearts and homes, and in our parishes and dioceses.The Holy Father has called for a New Evangelization for the transmission of the Christian Faith. It is no accident that this ambitious initiative serves as the centerpiece for the Year of Faith, and coincides with the golden anniversary of the Second Vatican Council.

In short, Pope Benedict is calling for a “New Pentecost,” with the “liberating grace of the Gospel” to serve as an antidote for the toxins that disease both Church and society.

That New Pentecost re-proposes to all humanity “Jesus Christ as the one Savior, yesterday, today, and forever.” The Synod re-proposes the Church as “the first and necessary instrument of this work of Christ because it is united to him as a body to its head.”

This New Pentecost begins with you and with me, and with that “universal call to holiness” spoken about by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council.

What is new about the New Evangelization?

The Holy Father first points out the missionary nature of the Church, and her need to preach the Gospel to those who have never heard the name of Jesus Christ. In short, “the Church exists to evangelize,” and therefore never ceases to bring the graces of Christ and the Church to the ends of the earth (missio ad gentes).

But there is also pressing need for a New Evangelization, for the sake of:

  • those who are baptized but are inadequately catechized.
  • those who have been evangelized but are largely uncatechized.
  • Catholics who are marginalized or disenfranchised from the Church.
  • Catholics who are baptized, but are largely indifferent toward their faith.
  • those whose faith and public life are disconnected and stand as counter-witnesses to the faith.


Four Foundation Planks

As they speak and write about the New Evangelization, the Synod Fathers will undoubtedly explore four foundation planks that are the essential elements for the Year of Faith. The planks are Encuentro Theology, Conversion (metanoia), Communio Theology and Catholic Social Teaching. At the same time, “The variety of situations demands careful discernment; to speak of a new evangelization does not in fact mean that a single formula should be developed that could hold the same for all circumstances.” (UeS3)

The first great theme of the New Evangelization, Encuentro Theology, is described by Pope John Paul as that encounter with the Risen Christ that transforms believers by giving them new life. Encounters with Christ are both personal and communal:

Encuentro Theology bids us to ask hard questions:

  • How am I, spiritually, at this moment, this hour?
  • Have I wholeheartedly embraced my identity as a baptized member of the Lord’s house?
  • Do I encounter Jesus Christ daily through prayer and contemplation?
  • Am I leading my children and grandchildren to love and serve the Lord?
  • Have I ensured that our participation at weekend liturgy is a non-negotiable priority?
  • Is Jesus truly the Lord of my life?
  • Do I turn to him in good times, or only in bad times?
  • Do I listen to his voice in the prayerful reading and proclamation of his Word?
  • Is my faith strong and vibrant, or tentative and tepid?

In the final analysis, the Church will be renewed internally, not by a formula or a program, but by a deep, loving and lifelong relationship with the person of Jesus Christ. An encounter with Jesus Christ changes everything.



The second theme that you will hear frequently in the days ahead is the theology of conversion, in Greek, metanoia. The Church Fathers will tell us that “today, more than ever, evangelizing means witnessing to the new life, transformed by God, and thus showing the path” to Christ.

Metanoia means a radical change of heart and soul.

Conversion and witness go hand in hand.

Conversion bridges the gap between faith and daily life.

The Synod Fathers have given special emphasis to the sacrament of reconciliation in order to “evangelize the evangelizers.” In short, they call us to encounter Christ the Divine Physician, who offers us healing and mercy before bringing the message of salvation to the world.

The late Pope Paul VI once wrote, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and when he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”

  • Am I a public witness to Christ and the Church, or am I just one more camouflage Catholic?
  • Do I remain mute as the Church is assailed, silent as the Church is excoriated, hidden as the Church and her message of life are criticized and belittled?
  • Do others see evidence in my word and example that I am a committed disciple, or do I blend into the scenery of secularism?
  • Do I understand and embrace the challenging words of Philippine Archbishop Socrates Villegas, who told Synod Fathers, “The new evangelization calls for a new humility…the Gospel cannot thrive in pride”?
  • Am I allowing the Holy Spirit to activate my gifts and talents in service to the Church?
  • Is my faith tepid and tentative, or courageous and transparent?
  • Am I allowing the Lord to heal the wounds of sin and division in my own heart, and am I actively reconciling broken relationships in my family and circle of friends?
  • Am I an informed Catholic, able and willing to articulate the Church’s beliefs, and able to faithfully re-present her teachings?

On Aug. 24, 2012, Pope Benedict spoke to a group of Romanian pilgrims. He told them, “The world needs your courageous and credible testimony to bring the hope of the Gospel to all areas of culture and society.” He told them they were “co-responsible,” along with the clergy, for actualizing that mission of hope for the world.

The New Evangelization calls for the whole Church and each individual Catholic to become courageous witnesses and agents of evangelization. The New Evangelization beckons Catholics to embrace anew Jesus Christ and the Church’s life and teachings “in season and out of season,” in private and in public, in thought and in action. It speaks of the power and necessity of both word and action to lead others to Christ.

Am I a witness or a counter-witness to the faith? Am I there at the time when Christ and the Church need me the most? Am I a Catholic whose daily life and example lead others to Christ? Or not?



In the next issue of The Montana Catholic, I will look at the power of communio theology, and the vision of Catholic social teaching as the third and forth essential elements in the blueprint of the New Evangelization and the Year of Faith.

Evaluating Issues, Candidates? There’s Help

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.

Election season rhetoric has taken a turn for the worse.

Politicians’ pledges to engage in civil dialogue have devolved into acrimony and name calling.

Television and radio stations are reaping the benefits of negative infomercials devoid of content and substantive information.

We deserve better.

The U.S. bishops, in an effort to help Catholics make good political choices and navigate the turbulent waters of election 2012, have re-proposed a practical and accessible document titled “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.”

It does not provide us with a voters’ guide, a scorecard of issues or directions on how to vote.

“Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” does, however, give conscientious Catholics useful tools and moral principles to help “shape their choices, form their consciences, and contribute to civil and respectful public dialogue.”

The questions we face as a nation are daunting and complex. Some involve intrinsic moral or social evil.

Consider what the Catholic citizen or politician is to do as we face a plethora of contemporary concerns such as:

-The continuing destruction of unborn children through abortion and other threats to the lives and dignity of others who are vulnerable, sick or unwanted.

-The renewed efforts to force Catholic ministries in health care, education and social services to violate their consciences or stop serving others in need.

-The increasing efforts to redefine marriage and enact measures that undermine marriage as the permanent, faithful and fruitful union of one man and one woman, and a fundamental moral and social institution essential to the common good.

-The economic crisis that has devastated lives and livelihoods, increased national and global unemployment, poverty and hunger, increased deficits and placed a massive burden of debt on future generations.

-The failure to repair a broken immigration system through comprehensive measures that promote true respect for the law, protect the human rights and dignity of immigrants and refugees, recognize their contributions to our nation, keep families together and advance the common good.

-The wars, terror and violence that raise serious moral questions on the use of force and its human and moral costs in a dangerous world, particularly the absence of justice, security and peace in the Holy Land and throughout the Middle East.

“Faithful Citizenship” provides us with valuable tools, information and guidelines that help us to think clearly and critically, and to evaluate the issues and candidates through the lenses of Catholic social and moral teaching.

It challenges us not to make blind choices based on party affiliation, uncritical ideology or selfish personal interests.

It encourages voters to pay close attention to the endorsements that accompany a candidate’s name and voting record.

“Faithful Citizenship” helps us to evaluate policy positions, party platforms and candidates’ promises and actions in light of the Gospel and through the lenses of Catholic moral and social teaching.

It raises up the clear and compelling obligation we hold as voters to oppose those intrinsic evils that never can be justified, and to prayerfully consider those issues that require us to forge new paths to justice and peace.

It challenges politicians to lead from a base of sound moral principles rather than governance by political popularity or by the latest polling results.

“Faithful Citizenship” acquaints the reader with the foundational elements of Catholic social teaching—values such as the inherent worth and dignity of every person, the right to life, a preferential option for the poor, the theology of the common good, an emphasis on family and community, the dignity of work and the rights of workers, global solidarity and caring for God’s creation.

“Faithful Citizenship” is practical, accessible and easy to digest. The information it contains helps us to make those well-formed decisions that flow from the well-formed conscience.

This important document challenges us to avoid what I have called “camouflage Catholicism,” i.e., the radical privatization of religion that unhinges the connection between faith and public life, religion and morality, prayer and compassion, worship and justice, or in Gospel parlance, love of God and love of neighbor.

You can find “Faithful Citizenship” at

Words of Counsel for New Deacons in our Diocese

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.

On June 29, a Friday, 17 men were ordained to the permanent diaconate for the Diocese of Helena.

For nearly five years, they engaged in an intensive program of preparation through spiritual, intellectual, pastoral and human formation. Along with their wives and families, our deacons invested deeply and sacrificed greatly in response to this call from the Lord.

The members of our deacon class are distinguished by their high caliber and commitment, their long track records of parish involvement and a level of talent rivaling that of deacon classes across the land.

The permanent diaconate is built upon a threefold ministry of Word, Worship and Witness.

As ministers of the Word, deacons are commissioned to preach and teach in the local parish, faithfully representing the Gospel and the magisterium of the Church, forming, reforming, informing and ultimately transforming the hearts of the people through the light of the Gospel.

During the ordination rite, I admonished the deacons to “receive the Gospel of Jesus Christ whose heralds you have become. Believe what you read, teach what you believe and practice what you teach.”

I advised them to be frequent guests at the table of the Word, seeking spiritual sustenance themselves before nourishing those entrusted to their care. Furthermore, I asked they never forget that the first and most important homily they preach is the example of their daily life.

As ministers at the altar, they are commissioned to carry out particular responsibilities in the name of the Church.

They receive the gifts of bread and wine from the people, and help to prepare the altar for the eucharistic liturgy. They give voice to the prayers of the faithful, and at the request of their pastors, they celebrate the sacrament of baptism, assist at marriages, bring viaticum to the dying and conduct the rites of funerals.

As witnesses to the Gospel, deacons are asked to animate works of charity among God’s people.

Both their ministries of Word and Worship point to this reality. Diaconal ministry helps our communities to make deep and meaningful connections between Word and charity, sacrament and service, worship and justice, always with a preferential option for the poor.

This threefold ministry of Word, Worship and Witness serves as the basic foundation for diaconal life wherever permanent deacons minister. But there is more. In the Diocese of Helena, I have particular expectations of those entrusted with diaconal ministry in this local church.

I offer seven hallmarks or special qualities that will help give diaconal ministry depth, flavor, color and texture.

  1. The first of these hallmarks is the virtue of humility, described by both by St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine as foundational for all other virtues in Christian life.

The word “humility” comes from the Latin word “humus,”, meaning soil or ground. Humility is the spiritual soil that helps the other virtues germinate and flourish. Humility replaces arrogance, pride and hubris with a servant spirituality. Humility is the great equalizer that allows ministers of the Gospel to recognize the equality and dignity of every person. Humility allows us to become lifelong learners, able to seek and accept wise counsel and correction from others. In the words of Deacon Owen Cummings, who teaches at Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon, humility is the basis for collaboration, communion and collegiality. All are necessary for fruitful ministry.

  1. The second hallmark is the universal call to holiness, a call that originates in baptism and is the goal of every Christian.

The beginning point for holiness of life is that deep, personal encounter with Jesus Christ. The very purpose of diaconal ministry is to introduce others to him, and to give Jesus a hallowed place in every heart and home.

Deacons are asked to help others encounter Jesus in their daily lives, especially through the Eucharist, sacraments, daily prayer and works of charity.

  1. Diaconal ministry must redound in happiness.

St. Teresa of Avila prayed, “Spare me, O Lord, from sour-faced saints.”

Happiness is the byproduct of beatitude living and is an irresistible force for leading others to Christ. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the reason for our radical optimism and the source of our happiness, which the world never can rival.

  1. Deacons are to be visible signs of hope.

In their pastoral ministry, deacons quickly become familiar with the many burdens our people carry. They soon discover a world of hidden and silent suffering and are commissioned to offer our people “the hope that does not disappoint.” (Romans 5:5) We know this hope has a name. His name is Jesus Christ.

Deacons in this diocese are to be visible symbols of hope, preaching and living the deeply-held conviction articulated by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council: “Jesus Christ is the definitive answer to the question of the meaning of life.”

  1. Deacon ministry is to be characterized by the charism of healing. Deacons are to be agents of healing, a prayerful presence among our people, a listening ear and a conduit for the healing of the Holy Spirit.

Deacons are to prefer persuasion over power, dialogue over diatribe and civility over censure. I ask them to make frequent use of the sacrament of reconciliation, pointing others to the divine physician. Through their example, they are to teach our people the power found in those three little words that can mend broken hearts: “I forgive you.”

  1. Hospitality must be the next hallmark of diaconal ministry. Deacons are to ask constantly, “Who is not at the table?” They must help both parish and diocese open their arms in welcome and pastoral care.

A third-century document describes the deacon as the ears, mouth, heart and soul of the bishop, helping to extend apostolic ministry into every portion of the Church. Deacons are to be lived reminders that in our community, there must be no castoff people, no disposable souls, no throw-away communities. Their ministry must go beyond parish boundaries, to the prison and hospital, to nursing homes and shut-ins, to soup kitchens and shelters. They must minister among the people, helping all of us see in the eyes of every person the image of the Lord himself.

  1. Deacons must reflect a lively sense of humor, described by author Richard Heffern as “the byproduct of living deeply.” Recall the wise counsel of the late pianist and humorist Victor Borge when he said, “The shortest distance between two people is a good laugh.” Diaconal ministry must be marked by buoyancy and lightheartedness that lift the hearts of the people, and bring joy into their lives.

These are the particular qualities that characterize not only the mission and ministry of the permanent diaconate, but also the lives of all, lay and ordained, who serve the mission of the Church.

We must keep the eyes of our hearts ever fixed on Christ the servant, who is our example and our hope, and is ever present among us “as one who serves.” (Luke 22:27)

Living the Baptismal Call Through Vocations, Diaconate, Lay Ministry

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.

For the past five years, the Diocese of Helena has been guided by the Pastoral Plan titled “Come to the Light.”

Among the many priorities and goals we selected and highlighted, vocations to the priesthood and religious life, along with the permanent diaconate and lay ecclesial ministry, surfaced across the diocese.

The people of our diocese took to heart the words of the Second Vatican Council Fathers, who wrote, “The task of fostering vocations devolves on the whole Christian community, which should do so in the first place by living in a fully Christian way.”

Now five years later, it is good to look back on the remarkable progress we have made in our common vocations effort.


Vocations to the Priesthood

I am pleased to tell you that this fall, 17 men will be enrolled in various stages of seminary formation. This is the largest number since 1968, when 22 men were enrolled in seminary formation.

All are college graduates and are characterized by their deep love for Christ and the Church, and by their desire to serve the people of God. Our men are at Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon; St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Colorado; Theological College at The Catholic University of America in Washington D.C.; and North American College in Rome.

The rectors of these seminaries often ask, “How are you recruiting such high-quality men for the Diocese of Helena?”

I am deeply grateful to Father Marc Lenneman, who is our vocations director; the Vocations Committee; and the priests and people of this diocese for making this effort so successful.

The promotion of priestly vocations is a task ever-close to my heart, and I am heartened and grateful to God for providing our diocese with such wonderful seminarians.

It is my sincere hope and desire that the example of these seminarians, coupled with the prayerful support of priests and parents, will inspire even more young men to hear the call of Christ the Good Shepherd deep within their hearts.



The Permanent Diaconate

Five years ago, under the watchful eye of Father John Robertson, our diocese initiated a comprehensive formation program for permanent deacons.

Seventeen men and their wives have participated wholeheartedly in the labor-intensive process of spiritual, intellectual, pastoral and human formation.

Dr. David Thomas and a faculty of priests, religious and laity have provided a high-quality formation experience.

Our deacon candidates are now prepared, and will present themselves for ordination at the Cathedral of St. Helena on June 29, the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul.

These permanent deacons will soon be entrusted with a threefold ministry described in Church documents as “the ministry of the Word leading to the ministry of the altar, which in turn implies the exercise of charity.”

Once again, this ordination class is characterized by quality, dedication and a deep sense of service. The priests and people of this diocese will be the beneficiaries of their wholehearted response to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.



Lay Ecclesial Ministry

The building up of the Body of Christ is the task of the whole people of God. The lay mission is described in the documents of the Second Vatican Council “as a right and duty founded upon baptismal dignity.” The Council Fathers wrote that “within the ecclesial community, the laity offer invaluable assistance to the pastors … in various fields: they carry out liturgical functions, participate in diocesan structures, various pastoral activities and parish catechetics.”

The lay faithful also have a distinctive role serving “on the front lines” in culture and society.

The Second Vatican Council Fathers described the lay apostolate in service across the vast horizon in society through the promotion of a just social order, participation in politics, the evangelization of culture and society and the exercise of citizenship to defend the freedom of religion.

The Diocese of Helena has taken seriously the call of the laity to serve in various ministries within the Church, as well as preparation to become “salt and light” in culture and society.

On March 24, 31 individuals received their certificates of completion of the Program of Formation for Lay Ministers. For the past two years, they met monthly for sessions on theology, Scripture, history of the Church, liturgy, catechetics and Church law.

Beginning this fall, Dr. Chris Fuller and the Carroll College theology faculty will coordinate the PFLM. The sessions will continue for two years and will be held at Blessed Trinity Parish in Missoula. John Fencik, director of Formation Services, is working on PFLM-2 sessions to provide additional training in discrete areas. These sessions will begin after the 2012-2014 PFLM session concludes.

The Liturgical Commission has made available formation and education opportunities for lay ministers involved in the liturgy, including musicians.




The Diocese of Helena has a long and impressive record of shared responsibility and collaborative efforts among priests, deacons and lay ecclesial ministries in our ardent desire to build up the Body of Christ and evangelize culture and society through the light of the Gospel.

As bishop of this local Church, I am grateful to God and to the men, women and youth who have taken so seriously their baptismal call, and have followed the voice of the Lord by full, active, conscious participation in the life of the Church.

To the Threshold of the Apostles

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.

Every five years, each diocesan bishop travels to travel to Rome for a journey entitled “ad limina apostolorum”—“to the threshold of the apostles.”

I have just returned from this pilgrimage of faith in the company of brother bishops from dioceses in Great Falls-Billings, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska.

The purpose of the “ad limina” visit is described in the Code of Canon Law. “The diocesan bishop is to go to Rome to venerate the tombs of the blessed apostles, Peter and Paul, and to present himself to the Roman Pontiff.”

In preparation for the visit, the bishop and his staff prepares a quinquennial report, “a state of the union,” describing in detail the positive dimensions of his particular church, its strengths and blessings, along with the difficulties and challenges he has encountered in his diocese. The report also asks for the bishop’s appraisal for the future, along with his hopes and pastoral plans.

This quinquennial report is shared with the various officials of the Roman Curia with whom the bishops visit in person.

Our face-to-face meeting with the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, was a time of profound blessings and grace.

Our visit, along with the celebration of Eucharist at the tombs of Peter and Paul, served to fulfill the purpose of the “ad limina” visit, i.e., to express solidarity with the Successor of Peter, and to deepen communion with him and the Universal Church.

Our quinquennial report, submitted well in advance of the visit, reflected many positive developments in the Diocese of Helena: Our strong and effective outreach to youth and young adults; a surge in applications for seminary; seventeen men soon to be ordained to the permanent diaconate; a renewed commitment to our historic Guatemala mission; the strengthening of Catholic mission and identity at Carroll College; good morale among clergy and laity, and a strong cadre of lay ecclesial ministers assisting the clergy in our geographically vast diocese.

So, too, our diocesan report reflected the challenges we are facing as a local church, including the damaging fallout from past cases of clergy sexual abuse, concomitant financial pressures and the uncertainties of litigation, along with an aging body of priests.

Like other dioceses, we are also encountering the effects of societal secularization, challenges to religious liberty, coupled with the need for our diocese to engage fully and systematically in the New Evangelization.

On a much lighter note, one of the best parts of the journey was time spent with our seminarian Chris Lebsock, who is studying at the North American College in Rome. Chris and I visited many stational churches, praying at the tombs of saints and martyrs, and usually followed by a visit to a local gelato stand. These wonderful events helped transform my days into a true pilgrimage and time of renewal.

I have returned to the Diocese of Helena with a renewed sense of gratitude for the rich diversity and apostolic foundations of the Church, along with thanksgiving to the Lord for the unmerited grace of serving as your bishop.

When Good News Gets Lost in the Shadows

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.

For the past 160 years, the Vatican has published a massive book titled “Annuario Pontificio,” which in English is “Pontifical Yearbook.” This 2,500-page volume is largely unknown to the ordinary Catholic, and never will appear on The New York Times bestseller list.

The yearbook contains a treasure chest of information about the Catholic Church locally, nationally and across the globe.

“Annuario” is a vital resource for bishops and church leaders wanting to gauge the ebb and flow of the Catholic population, wishing to monitor the number of priests and seminarians and to assess one of the most important health indicators in the life of the Church—the number of catechumens and candidates entering the Church each year.

The raw numbers reflect good news.

For example, did you know that:

  • There are 1,166,000,000 (that’s billion!) individuals worldwide who self identify as Roman Catholic.
  • The overall Catholic population in the United States is 77.6 million, which is 25.1 percent of the general population.
  • The Catholic Church is growing fastest on the continent of Africa, where conversions outpace the overall population by 0.5 percent each year. Asia is quickly following suit.
  • The Church in the United States welcomes 555,000 new Catholics annually, even after you back out the numbers of those who have died or defected from the Church in the prior year.
  • Catholic Relief Services continues to serve the overseas poor in 100 counties, with an annual budget of $88 million.


In the Diocese of Helena:

  • 160 men, women, and children joined the church at the Easter vigil.
  • We will have 16 men in the seminary this coming September.
  • 17 candidates will be ordained in June to the permanent diaconate, following five years of intensive education and formation.
  • Beginning this fall, Carroll College will assume leadership of the Diocesan Program for Formation of Lay Ministry (PFLM), a two-year program with additional academic standards for those wishing a Pastoral Certificate for Ministry.
  • We welcomed 300 high school youth to Helena this month for the Catholic Youth Coalition Convention, a living testimony to the Church’s vibrancy.
  • The future of our mission in Guatemala, led for four decades by Father Jim Hazelton, has been secured through the appointment of Father Kevin Christofferson.


What is missing from aggregate numbers, sweeping statistics, charts and tables is one vitally important fact.

The true story of the Church cannot be told by numbers alone.

The seeds of the Gospel are planted by the Lord himself in the hearts of his people, one heart, one soul at a time.

The example of believers, the power of Word and sacrament and the witness of the Church’s mission among the poor always will overcome bad news, mediocrity, cynicism, fear, complacency and hostility.

Catholicism is the religion of the perennial springtime, the community of new beginnings, the faith of Pentecost renewal, second chances and Easter hope.

This good news, however, cannot allow us to rest on our laurels or neglect for a moment our ongoing work of conversion, purification, fervent prayer, evangelization and humble service.

The words of hymn writer Robert Lowry, penned over 100 years ago, captured the spirit of Easter and the good news we celebrate.

“The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart, a fountain ever springing;

All things are mine since I am His—how can I keep from singing?”

Religious Freedom – State of the Question

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.

Catholics across the land continue to raise their collective voices in protest against an unprecedented government intrusion into the internal workings of the Church.

The core reason for this strong reaction centers on the fact that a government bureau, Health and Human Services, is attempting to define what constitutes Church ministry and how it can be exercised.

On Jan. 20, when the final HHS rules were announced, two realities became clear: Religious freedom has come under attack, and we cannot cease in our struggle to protect it.

Clearly, the administration underestimated the public firestorm that ensued following the announcement that the choking HHS mandates would remain in place.

On Feb. 10, President Obama announced what he described as a religious “accommodation,” stating that insurance providers would have to pay the bill, rather than payment being expected from churches, schools, hospitals, clinics and a vast network of charitable organizations. Sadly, the accommodation did little to address the underlying issues.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Bishops, wrote, “We will still have to pay and, in addition to that, we’ll still have to maintain in our policies practices which our Church has consistently taught are grave wrongs in which we cannot participate.”

The administration gave not even a nod to the deeper concerns about government intrusion into religious freedom, or about mandatory attempts to define the “what and who” of religious ministry.

A federal regulation that compels virtually all employers to provide sterilization and contraception, including abortion-inducing drugs, to employees without co-payment has a religious exemption. However, religious ministries qualify for the exemption only if the people providing the service are Catholic, and the ones being served are Catholic.

We must insist that it is the Church, and not the government, that defines ministry. Sister Mary Ann Walsh of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said it well: “We Catholics are called to serve others because we are Catholic, not because they are. We help others because of their need, not their creed.”

In many ways, the announcement of Feb. 10 solved little and complicated a lot. “We now have more questions than answers, more confusion than clarity,” opined Cardinal Dolan.

Therefore, the U.S. bishops, Catholics, ecumenical and interfaith leaders across America will continue to voice public and strong opposition to this infringement on religious freedom. We ardently continue to seek a rescinding of the mandates that require us to violate our deeply held moral convictions.

At least, we will insist on a much wider latitude to the exemptions so that churches can be free of the rigidly narrow definition of church, minister and ministry that prevents us from helping those in need, educating children, healing the sick and providing outreach to the poor, regardless of their religion or lack thereof.

As Cardinal Dolan wrote, the U.S. bishops’ conference will continue to accept invitations “to meet with and to voice our concerns to anyone of any party who is willing to correct the infringement on religious freedom that we are now under.”

We also will continue our attempts at constructive dialogue with the Congress and administration, while exploring our legal rights under the Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

But in Cardinal Dolan’s words, “We cannot rely on off-the-record promises of fixes without deadlines, and without assurances of proposals that will concretely address the concerns in a manner that does not conflict with our principles and teachings.”

Local discussion and national debate have raised some heated and divergent points of view. Some have attempted to repackage this issue as a “women’s health issue.” Others have accused Church leaders of being “co-opted by the GOP.” One woman, who ironically described herself as “an obedient Catholic,” publicly dismissed the College of Bishops as a “cabal of old men.”

To the Catholics of our diocese, I have a simple request. When writing, conversing, blogging or opining in the local paper, seek to understand the core issues before pushing the send button. Travel the high road, stay on topic and avoid mean-spirited characterizations and hurtful rhetoric, which ultimately polarize the Church.

We need each other in times of duress and pressure. We need to pray for each other, respect each other and ask the Holy Spirit to guide the Church’s leaders with wisdom, courage, and clarity of mind and heart as we attempt together to find to an acceptable and pastorally sound resolution to this complex and highly charged situation.

Religious Liberty Central Issue in Insurance Debate

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.

On Feb. 1, I asked pastors across the Diocese of Helena to bring to your attention an alarming and serious matter that strikes at the fundamental right to religious liberty for all U.S. citizens, of any faith.

In my pastoral letter, I wrote of a new U.S. Department of Health and Human Services mandate that would have forced virtually all employers, including Catholic employers, to offer their employees health coverage that includes sterilization, abortion-inducing drugs and contraception. Individuals like yourselves would have been forced to purchase those “services” as part of your insurance coverage.

In so ruling, the administration cast aside the First Amendment of the Constitution, thus denying Catholics our nation’s first and most fundamental freedom – religious liberty.

I stated clearly and unequivocally, “We cannot—we will not—comply with this unjust law.”

In response to pressures from church leaders of every denomination, and reacting to a firestorm of protest from Catholics and from citizens of every faith, President Obama announced changes in this insurance mandate. Unfortunately, in seeking a middle ground, the president has raised new moral concerns, and left many serious and vexing problems unaddressed.

By these regulatory changes, the president has retained his “core principle” of preventive care, continuing to mandate insurance coverage for sterilization and contraception, including some abortion-inducing drugs.

Health and Human Services is grouping pregnancy with the other mandated services designed to prevent disease, appearing to classify pregnancy as just one more preventable disease.

The HHS mandate imposes a burden of unprecedented reach and severity on the consciences of those who consider immoral the “services” of sterilization, abortion-inducing drugs and contraception.

Insurers are now forced to write policies including this coverage.

It appears the government is creating its own definition of who is “religious enough” for full protection.

It appears that self-insured plans (in which a religious organization is both employer and insurer), and student health plans offered by religious colleges and universities, will be required to offer the objectionable coverage.

The mandate raises an unanswered question of how insurers, now forced to provide uncompensated services, will pay the cost.

It also seems clear that there is no exemption for Catholics or other individuals who work for secular employers, for individuals who own or operate businesses or for employers with moral but not religious objections to some of the mandated “services,” such as the providing of abortifacients. Last Friday, the administration assured religious leaders that these and other related questions will be worked out in the coming year.

Based on recent experience, the leadership of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has expressed caution and misgivings about the substance and sincerity of this offer for further dialogue.

If the offer for substantial dialogue materializes, you may be certain that the U.S. bishops and other religious leaders will ask the government to uphold important principles as the policy is refashioned:

–Respect religious liberty. No government has the right to intrude in the internal affairs of the Church, much less, to coerce the Church or its individual members to engage in or cooperate with immoral practices.

–Ensure that the Church, and not the government, will define its religious identity and ministry.

Be assured that we will continue to oppose the underlying policy of government mandate for the purchase or promotion of sterilization, abortifacients, and contraception.

The only complete solution is for HHS to rescind the mandate of morally unacceptable “services”.

The genius of the American system of government is found in its balance of powers.

When one branch of government, while attempting to provide for the “rights” for some, abridges religious liberty, tramples upon individual consciences or violates deeply held moral convictions, we have the guaranteed right to protest, to seek opportunity for dialogue, and to offer courses of remedy that are consonant with our moral and social teaching.

We also reserve the right to seek redress through the courts and through the legislative branch of the government.

We will, therefore, continue with no less vigor and with no less sense of urgency, our efforts to correct this problem created by the HHS mandate. In these efforts we will work with all branches of government—executive, judicial and legislative.

We renew our call for Congress to pass, and the president to sign, the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, and we ask our Catholic parishioners to write our members of the U.S. Senate and the House, seeking their support for this measure.

We ask all of our fellow Americans to join together in our effort to protect religious liberty, seek freedom of conscience for all citizens, and raise our collective voices in unity whenever the proverbial camel gets its nose too far under the tent.

The Power of Letter Writing

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.

British author Nick Bantock wrote, “Letter writing is an excellent way of slowing down this lunatic helter-skelter universe long enough to gather one’s thoughts.”

In an age of tweeting, texting and emailing, the art of letter writing is fast becoming an endangered species.

When I prepare a young couple for marriage, I give a difficult and sometimes daunting assignment. I ask the young man and woman to write each other a personal and heartfelt letter, following some surprising and basic guidelines. I ask that the couple write from the depths of the heart, and not share the content of the letter at this time with the future husband or wife. I also ask the couple to ponder deeply a number of questions while preparing to commit thoughts and feelings to print:

-What does your fiancé or fiancée mean to you?

-How did you meet?

-What are your hopes and dreams for the future?

-How would you describe your future spouse to a complete stranger?

-What qualities do you have in common?

-What new gifts has your future spouse drawn out of you?

-What place does Christ have in your relationship?

-What spiritual steps will you take to ensure that your marriage will endure the good times and bad times now veiled before your eyes?

-How will a sacramental understanding of marriage enrich your relationship?

-What are you doing to ensure that prayer is part of your daily lives, individually and as a couple?

-How will you actively engage yourselves in the life of the parish?

-How will ensure that your marriage continues for the rest of your life?

Upon receiving these beautifully written expressions of love and faith, I fold them into the wedding homily.

The couple’s words are always deep, meaningful and moving. Sometime they hear this profound expression of faith and affection from their loved one for the first time.

The Church’s theology of marriage is built upon the vision that the spouses “mutually confer upon each other the sacrament of matrimony by expressing their consent before the Church.” (CCC 1623)

This exercise of letter writing, coupled with sound catechesis, helps couples to prayerfully contemplate and personally embrace the Church’s vision that marriage is mutual, sacramental, faithful and lifelong.

It also aids couples early in wedded life to invite Christ to become the heart and soul of their household.

Following the birth of children, I make a similar request of new parents seeking baptism from the Church. I ask them to write a letter to their child, the contents of which I use in the body of the baptism homily. This practice, too, builds upon the Church’s insight that parents are the “nurturers of the life that God has entrusted to them.” (CCC 1251)

The sacrament of baptism is described as “the gateway to life in the spirit, and the door which gives access to the other sacraments.” (CCC 1213) This simple letter writing exercise helps parents to open the doors of the Church to their child.

In the parents’ letter to their little one, I ask them to consider:

-Giving gratitude to God for this precious gift of new life.

-Expressing their hopes and desires for the child in the ways of faith.

-Prayerfully probing the rich meaning of baptism as expressed in the Catholic Catechism and in the catechetical materials provided by the parish.

-What role their home parish will play in supporting their responsibility as the first teachers of the faith.

-Contemplating how they will live out the promises of baptism that they will make during the baptismal liturgy.

-Asking what role the godparents will have in the faith life of their child.

-Prayerfully pondering how they will introduce their child personally to Jesus Christ.

The sacrament of baptism frees us from original sin and incorporates us into the living Body of Christ. The parents’ preparation through prayer, catechesis and letter writing helps them to understand and celebrate their baby’s new life given through water and the Spirit.

Following the celebration of baptism, I tell the parents to seal their letter in an envelope and place it in the family Bible or baby book.

Then, years later, on their child’s day of confirmation, the parents invite their son or daughter to read the same baptism letter aloud, and listen to the powerful words their parents wrote so long ago. What a great way for the son or daughter to personally confirm and embrace the promises of baptism made by their parents years earlier.

The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council described the Catholic household as “the domestic Church in which the parents are the first heralds of faith.”

The exercise of letter writing at key sacramental moments helps a couple to create a firm spiritual foundation for one another and for their children.

The Book of Joshua says it well: “But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”


Why Priests are Happy

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.

Msgr. Stephen J. Rossetti is a leading authority on the Catholic priesthood in America. He is a gifted priest, an eminent psychologist and researcher, a man who understands the minds and hearts of priests. When he speaks, people listen.

Msgr. Rossetti has just published a groundbreaking study on the U.S. priesthood, a study drawn largely from 2009 research that gathered information from 2,482 priests in 23 dioceses across the country. The findings are supplemented by a 2004 research project, studying 1,242 priests from 16 dioceses.

The large-scale study focuses upon the psychological and spiritual health of Catholic priests. Using modern statistical analysis, sophisticated software and standardized psychological testing, Msgr. Rossetti compares this cohort of priests to normative samples drawn from the general population. His findings are strong, replicable and consistent.

In the words of national Catholic columnist John Allen, Msgr. Rossetti’s book helps clear away “the debris of myth and public prejudice” frequently associated with the priesthood in America, and helps the Church to focus on the very real challenges facing the priesthood today.

In short, the Rossetti study concludes that “priests, as a group, are very happy men. They like priesthood. They are committed to it. They find much satisfaction in their lives and ministries. In fact, the satisfaction rates of priests are among the highest of any way of life or vocation in the United States.”

Msgr. Rossetti’s findings present good news for Church and culture: “Priesthood consistently measures as perhaps the most fulfilling and satisfying vocation of any. Priests reported levels of happiness that are remarkably high and consistent across many studies … Nor are their lives unhealthy; they are much less burned-out, more satisfied, and less psychologically impaired than their lay counterparts.”

In Msgr. Rossetti’s words, “The happiness of priesthood ought to be made publicly known and kept a secret no longer.”

As he examines the elements in a priest’s life that are responsible for bringing him satisfaction and joy in his vocation, an overall theme emerges: The centrality of a priest’s spiritual life is the core and source of his inner peace, wellbeing and personal joy. A deep and personal sense of God’s love remains the bedrock and treasure of our priests’ lives, and explains many of the astounding findings contained in the Rossetti study.

As he reviewed the variables that correlated highly with priestly happiness and morale, several elements emerged.

-Being happy first and foremost comes from within. Happiness in priesthood is affected by what the priest brings to priesthood, not what is imposed upon him from the outside. This sense of inner peace transcends the climate and pressures of the day. Priesthood is a spiritual life. To be a happy priest necessarily includes having a strong relationship to God and nurturing that relationship daily with typical priestly practices. Clearly in first place is the joy of administering the sacraments and presiding over liturgy.

-A second important variable predicting priestly happiness is the priest’s variable view of celibacy. The Rossetti data demonstrate that how a priest comes to grips with his commitment to celibacy is critical to how happy he will be as a priest. This variable directly probes whether this deep integration of priestly celibacy has taken place in the priest’s life. Seventy-five percent of the survey participants agreed or strongly agreed that celibacy has been a personal grace, and 78.2 percent agreed or strongly agreed that “God has called me to live a celibate life.”

-A third predictor of happiness and morale is described under the heading of relationship to God. One cannot overstate the importance of a priest’s personal relationship with God. It is the strongest predictor of the first variable, inner peace. A priest simply will not be a happy priest unless he has a personal and direct relationship to God that is nourishing him. Msgr. Rossetti asks, “How can one be and function as a priest without such a relationship?”

-The fourth factor he examines is a priest’s relationship to his bishop. “Priestly spirituality recognizes the deep bond between bishop and priest,” he writes. “Much more than a secular boss, a bishop is spiritual father, brother, coworker, and friend; his priests are an extension of his own apostolic ministry. Therefore it is no wonder that priests are strongly affected by the relationship with their bishop.”

Msgr. Rossetti investigates a number of other factors affecting priests’ morale and psychological and spiritual health. They include such things as priests’ ability to support and relate to one another; the capacity for building close friendships within the priesthood and among the laity; the priest’s devotion to Mary; and the importance of participating in gatherings of priests who express support for one another—the annual Chrism Mass, retreats and convocations of priests. These support and enhance fraternal communion.

Msgr. Rossetti concludes his study by offering advice to seminary and formation personnel, priests and bishops. John Allen adds advice for the laity.


Advice to seminary and

formation personnel:

Work intensely with seminarians on their spiritual formation, fostering a direct, personal relationship with God. Train the seminarians and younger priests to see celibacy is a gift from God and to see it as a personal grace. Assist seminarians in their development of good friendships, and screen out seriously isolated men. Do not underestimate the impact of a dysfunctional childhood, and a background of childhood mental problems, on the future success and happiness of a priest. Screening prospective priesthood candidates for a history of sexual problems remains critical. Do not overlook obesity in a candidate, and ask what a priest’s obesity means.



Advice to the priests:

Give thanks to God for the vocation to the priesthood. Let people know about the joy of your priesthood. Give primacy to your relationship to God. Foster good friendships, and focus on the traditional elements of a priests’ spiritual life, including the sacrament of reconciliation, the daily Holy Hour, the Liturgy of the Hours, theological and spiritual reading, the annual retreat and filial devotion to Mary. Work on priestly unity in the entire presbyterate. Foster priestly support through support groups, social gatherings and opportunities for common prayer. Love and support the bishop. Be aware that the signs of burn out, depression and anxiety must be managed. Learn to deal with stress in healthy ways. Exercise and lose weight. Take your weekly day off, as well as an annual vacation.



Advice to bishops:

Affirm your priests often. Be encouraged that the majority of your priests love you, support you and obey you. Make supporting priests’ spiritual lives a priority. Understand that priests need help with their workloads. Priests need to know they will be dealt with fairly. Younger priests need solid mentoring and support. Continue to make healing resources readily available if a priest is considering leaving priesthood. Help him to assess his personal and spiritual life before considering departure. Have diocesan programs available to ensure that priests maintain a proper weight, exercise, eat healthfully, receive medical checkups regularly and receive proper time off.



Advice to laity:

In words he offers to the lay community, John Allen provides an insightful collusion to Msgr. Rossetti’s landmark study. “If I were to offer a recommendation to rank and file Catholics based on Rossetti’s data,” Allen writes, “it would boil down to this: The priests of this country obviously love serving you and ministering to you, because otherwise there’s no way to explain why they are basically happy, in the teeth of a culture which constantly tells them they’re not supposed to be. They love you. Try to love them back.”

I am personally grateful to Msgr. Stephen Rossetti for an outstanding and invaluable study, which will help all of us to understand, celebrate and tell others with insight and conviction why priests are happy.

A Beginner’s Prayer for All to Use

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.

During my visits with high school and college students, and not infrequently with adult groups, I am often asked a common question: “Can you teach us how to pray?”

I am always gratified by the request, which reflects the Church’s deepest conviction that the Holy Spirit is ever at work in our lives.

Only when we humbly acknowledge that “we do not know how to pray as we ought” (Rom 8:26) are we really ready to receive freely the gift of prayer.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church confirms the cherished belief that “the living and true God tirelessly calls each person to that mysterious encounter known as prayer” (Part 4, Chapter 1, 2567).

In De diversis questionibus, or Eighty-three Questions, St. Augustine puts into words a profound belief that it is Christ who seeks us first, placing our thirst for God into our hearts: “Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst with ours. God thirsts that we may thirst for him.”

The Church’s treasury of prayer is rich and varied—meditation, contemplative prayer, the Liturgy of the Hours, the Lectio Divina, various novenas, the rosary, Stations of the Cross, the Divine Mercy Chaplet and, of course, the Eucharist, which is the Church’s most perfect prayer.

When beginners ask for a simple way to pray, I offer a time-tested path: Remember the acronym P.A.C.T.S. Each letter introduces the beginner to a simple, effective formula for prayer that I learned over 30 years ago, and one that I continue to use each day.


P – Petition

Each week you will encounter people who ask for special prayers. The first letter of our acronym stands for “petition.” Gather all the names and remember the faces of people who have asked for particular prayers. Pray for them by name and by intention, asking God’s abundant blessings upon their lives. Ask Christ to fill their hearts with healing and grace. Entrust each of them to the maternal care of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who, in the words of St. Bernard, assured us that “never was it known that anyone who fled to her protection, implored her help or sought her intercession was left unaided.”

The prayers of petition deepen our spiritual communion with Christ and our prayerful union with others. In short, prayers of petition deepen our trust in the providence of God.


A – Adoration

Our prayer of adoration helps us to place ourselves in the presence of God as Father and creator of all things, visible and invisible.

Our prayer of adoration helps us place the words of St. Thomas, spoken in Scripture, upon our own lips—“my Lord and my God.” Praise is the form of prayer that recognizes most immediately that God is God and we are beloved and adopted sons and daughters. The catechism states emphatically that “praise embraces the other forms of prayer and carries them toward Him who is its source and goal: the `one God, the Father, from whom all things are and for whom we exist…’” (I Cor 8:6)


C – Contrition

Our prayer of contrition humbly acknowledges our own imperfections and places before God “what we have done and what we have failed to do.” All of us are sinners and all of us are in need of God’s mercy.

The humble sinner understands the need for the healing touch of the Divine Physician and echoes the words of the man in Sacred Scripture who prayed, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Our prayer of contrition opens our heart to God’s mercy and grace, and allows us to seek that firm purpose to amend our lives and to live in ways more consonant with the mind of Christ and the standards of Gospel living.

T – Thanksgiving

This portion of our prayer formula provides us with the opportunity to thank God each day for so many things and people we take for granted: for the gift of life and health, for the gift of home, family, food, faith, friends, safety, warmth and the endless list of blessings that we share each day. The prayer of thanksgiving also raises that attitude of gratitude that prompts us to share with others “not just from our surplus but from our substance”—sharing with peoples both at home and abroad who are in greater need than ourselves. Our prayer of thanksgiving echoes the words of the Preface that “our prayer of praise adds nothing to your greatness, yet our desire to thank you is itself your gift.” This is a wonderful way to close our day and it beats counting sheep!


S – Silence

Prayer is cultivated and produces fruit in a prayerful atmosphere of silence.

Silence helps us to set aside the myriad distractions and preoccupations of the day, and helps God create in us a heart that prays. Silence opens the heart for, in the words of St. Teresa of Jesus, “a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us” (Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Vol. 1, 67).

“Be still and know that I am God.”

Silence helps us grasp the magnificent reality that God knows us by name and loves us with an everlasting love.


This simple prayer formula, our pact with Jesus, helps the beginner pray in a way that is practical and approachable. It complements all the other rich forms of prayer available to us, and deepens our communion with Jesus, from whom all good things come.

Diocese Responds to Child Abuse Allegations

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.

On Wednesday, Sept. 21, local reporters informed the Diocese of Helena that a press conference had taken place at a Helena hotel. The main focus of the conference was allegations of child abuse, said to have taken place decades ago and mostly at the historic mission school in St. Ignatius, Mont. The school was staffed by the Oregon Province of Jesuits and the Ursuline Sisters, a community of women religious.

The press conference and related materials were replete with inflammatory rhetoric and sweeping allegations presented by plaintiff lawyers with calculated intentions in mind: to try the case in the court of public opinion by a selective misrepresentation of facts; to raise up potential claimants; and to implicate the Diocese of Helena in new litigation. Subsequently, an amended complaint was filed, as well as a second lawsuit.

By way of background, it is important for the reader to note that:

  1. The allegations in question took place between 35 and 60 years ago.
  2. All Jesuit defendants listed in this suit are deceased, except for one presently in assisted living/nursing care.
  3. The amended complaint and the second lawsuit name deceased priests of the Diocese of Helena.
  4. The Oregon Province of Jesuits, based in Portland, Ore., already has paid $166 million to over 500 claimants from its schools and missions, including the majority of the claimants named in this complaint.

To be sure, the cases recently presented raise critical and complex legal matters to be addressed preliminarily, including issues of vicarious liability, diocesan responsibility for entirely separate religious organizations, statutes of limitations and Jesuit bankruptcy issues, among others, all of which will best be addressed by those with legal expertise. In making those determinations, however, no stone will be left unturned.

In their efforts to stir up public mistrust of the Diocese of Helena, the law firms involved raise pastoral and policy questions that I want to address directly from the perspective of the Diocese of Helena.

The beginning point is simple and uncomplicated: We view child abuse not only as a grave moral offense, but also as a crime to be investigated and prosecuted by law enforcement officials.

We heartily subcribe to the words of the late Pope John Paul II, who said that “there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young.” Period.

For the past decade, the Diocese of Helena has had in place aggressive policies and procedures aimed at addressing and preventing child abuse in our jurisdiction.

Our emphasis is on comprehensive education, screening, criminal background checks and training for all paid workers and volunteers, and on safe-environment training for the young. We have in place a reporting telephone number and a designated victim’s coordinator, all designed to protect our children and youth.

A review committee that regularly oversees the administration of these policies and programs consists of community representatives, including a deputy county attorney, a former highway patrol officer, mental health counselors, a social worker and parents.

Annually, an independent audit firm reviews the entire diocesan program. Our most recent audit, completed in early September, found the Diocese of Helena once again in compliance with the Dallas Charter and national safe-environment policies.

In taking responsibility for our own diocesan cases, our diocese has paid out over $9 million, over the past two decades, to victims of child abuse and their lawyers. When I was appointed here as bishop just seven years ago, the Diocese of Helena was on the brink of financial insolvency. The diocese still is in recovery mode.

As I have listened personally to survivors’ heart-wrenching stories, I have been saddened by their reports of shattered innocence, broken trust, and the spiritual and psychological toll that abuse takes on innocent victims at the hands of abusive church personnel.

Words cannot adequately express our sorrow or convey the depth of our apology.

On a global scale, the Catholic Church and certain segments of its leadership have been the object of well-deserved scorn and mistrust for the way individual instances of child abuse have been handled or, more accurately, mishandled.

While we cannot rewrite history, we can hope that our present-day efforts will prevent future generations from experiencing the same tragedies of yesteryear.

Our prayer is that Christ the Divine Physician will heal the wounds both in church and society that have been visited upon the young through the scourge of child abuse, and bring us all to a new and brighter day.

Desperation in East Africa

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.

A deadly combination of political instability, disease and malnutrition has placed nearly 12 million Somalis in the shadow of death.

Seldom in recent times has the world seen a humanitarian catastrophe on this scale.

Our Holy Father Pope Benedict, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Bishop Gerald Kicanas, the board chairman for Catholic Relief Services, have made urgent pleas for U.S. bishops to bring this humanitarian crisis to the attention of our people.

Catholic Relief Services is accustomed to working in complex and dangerous environs, but the Somali crisis is compounded by the absence of a cohesive government. The government of Somalia has teetered on political turmoil for the past two decades.

“The lack of security, and in some cases the outright prohibition of Western groups, has severely restricted the access of humanitarian organizations to Somalia,” writes CRS President Ken Hackett.

The failure of crops and the death of livestock, coupled with political instability, are sending thousands of Somalis in desperate search for help, pouring over the borders of Kenya and Ethiopia at a rate of several thousand each day. Sadly, the famine is sweeping a region presently controlled by al-Shabab, a radical group with ties to al-Qaida that for years has banned humanitarian agencies in the region.

While the lack of security means that CRS is not able to work directly in Somalia, the agency has joined a coalition of humanitarian organizations through a joint emergency operation plan already in place.

The goal of CRS and the onsite humanitarian organizations is to provide this refugee nation in crisis short-term, emergency relief in the form of water, food, life-saving medicines and shelter. Over time, they hope to offer already proven mitigation and development programs to the Somali people in need.

CRS also is working with Bishop Georgio Bertin in Djibouti. He is the apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Mogadishu, which covers the entire country of Somalia.

However, the scale of the crisis has overwhelmed these humanitarian organizations, and prompted the Holy Father and world bishops to make this urgent plea for help.

Unfortunately, the crisis is predicted to deepen over the next six months. It will take many more years for those who have faced this, and destitution, to recover and begin rebuilding their lives.

Bishop Kicanas writes, “CRS will be there for them.”

But not without your help. As bishop of Helena, I am asking you to prayerfully consider assisting the people of East Africa in their hour of desperation.

Donations can be sent to CRS, P.O. Box 17090, Baltimore MD 21203-7090, and marked “Africa Response.” To give online, go to the CRS website at

God bless and reward you for your kindness and generosity to our sisters and brothers in East Africa.

Six Hallmarks of Holy, Happy Priests

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.

A priestly ordination is one of the most important events in the life of a diocese. The days leading up to Father David Severson’s ordination on June 24, coupled with the jubilees of several of our seasoned priests, have provided a wonderful opportunity for me to reflect prayerfully and deeply on the vocation to priesthood. In doing so, I have identified six “essential elements” that I see in the lives of these holy, happy priests whom all of us have known over the years. Undoubtedly, you will add other qualities to fill out the list.

The beginning point is simple and uncomplicated. Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote emphatically: “The priest must be a man who knows Jesus intimately, who has encountered him and learned to love him. For this reason the priest must be above all else a man of prayer, a truly spiritual man. Without a strong spiritual substance he cannot long endure his ministry.”



The first quality I describe is drawn from the heart of the Second Vatican Council, a quality that every priest holds in common with all who are baptized in Jesus Christ, i.e., the universal call to holiness. The documents of the council are clear and compelling: “The Lord Jesus, the Divine Teacher…preached holiness of life to each and every one of His disciples” (LG 40a). Holiness of life is our common calling, the tie that binds together the entire Christian community. The universal call to holiness through baptism is the foundation of the Christian life.

In their desire for holiness, the people seek from their priests sound preaching and teaching. Scripture has it that “faith comes first through hearing” (Rom. 10:17). That is why the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council underscored the ministry of Word in clear and compelling terms, writing that “priests have as their primary duty the proclamation of the Gospel of God to all.”

The Word of God is so basic in the spiritual life that it is described in images of food and drink. In Dei Verbum, a major document of the Second Vatican Council, God’s Word is called “sustenance” and “food for the soul” and the “font of the spiritual life.” St. Ignatius of Antioch raises the ante even further, using eucharistic imagery to describe the Word of God when he writes, “I commend myself to the Gospel as to the flesh of Christ.”

Every priest must attend faithfully and carefully to this hallowed portion of his ministry, especially in the preparation of homilies, thus feeding the spirits of the people with substantial food, and applying the truth of the Gospel to the concrete circumstances of their lives.

Priests and deacons must not allow the ministry of the Word to be dulled by habit and routine, or blunted by the temptation to please or appease popular opinion, or to win adulation through clever word craft devoid of spiritual substance. Nor should they overlook the simple reality that the ministry of Word they proclaim is reflected first and foremost by the unspoken witness of their daily lives.

The second source of nourishment for those who seek holiness is found in the celebration of Eucharistic Liturgy. The Second Vatican Council describes Eucharist as “the heartbeat of the congregation” and the “source and summit” of the life of the Church.

All of the other sacraments and ministries of the Church are linked to the Eucharist and directed toward it. So too, celebration of the Eucharist also is source

and summit of the spiritual life of the priest. Priests have the unmerited privilege of celebrating Eucharistic Liturgy with and for the people, a privilege every priest describes as the high point and ultimate source of priestly spirituality and personal happiness.

Prayerful celebration of Eucharist transforms lives and hearts. In the parlance of Augustine, “we become what we receive.” Therefore, prayerful celebration of the Eucharist, and eucharistic adoration that prolongs and intensifies our communion with Christ, has the power to transform the heart and soul of every priest. Eucharistic Liturgy is the apex of priestly spirituality.

Priests are asked to ensure that the people they serve are invited into “full, active, conscious participation” in the liturgy.

Nor should they overlook those words which close every celebration of Mass—words of commission that send the people forth “to love and serve the Lord.” A variation of three simple words closes every eucharistic celebration—ita missa est, describing the nexus between liturgy and life. It is the responsibility of the baptized to make connections between Eucharist and service, liturgy and charity, worship and justice, love of God and love of neighbor, and to transform the world in the brilliant light of the Gospel.



In their pastoral ministry, priests quickly become acquainted with the many burdens that people carry. Sickness, financial setbacks, suffering and hardship are realities that will confront directly every parish priest. So too, they, like all believers, brush up against the cynicism, ridicule and disbelief that frequently permeate the culture in which we live. Gospel hope will sustain the priest and the people he is sent to serve.

A second hallmark of diocesan priesthood is the virtue of hope. St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans says it well: we know that “the world needs the hope that does not disappoint” (Rom 5:5). We know that this hope is Jesus Christ.

Blessed John Paul II wrote, “Hope in Jesus will fill your heart with compassion, prompting you to draw near to the pain of every suffering man and woman and to soothe their wounds, ever confident that every lost sheep will be found.” Every priest must be a witness to hope, drawing people to see in their lives the image of Christ who is our hope, and in whom all of God’s promises are fulfilled beyond our expectation.



A third hallmark of priestly ministry is the virtue of humility. We must be conscious of the words, proclaimed in the ordination Gospel, that “the greatest among you must serve all the rest.” The virtue of humility, exemplified in the life of our Blessed Mother, will allow us to become servant-leaders who have deep and tender compassion for the needy and toward those who suffer, with a preferential option for the poor.

Every priest will tell you that shortly after ordination he frequently hears words of praise and laudation, emanating from those who would soon make him king. People will tell the priest, “That was the best homily I ever heard” or, “That was the most wonderful marriage I ever witnessed” or, “You are the best teacher and preacher since St. Thomas Aquinas.”

The virtue of humility helps to temper the praise with gratitude and humility, but to allow the Messiah to be the Messiah. Humility is the spiritual soil for all the other virtues, and is a necessary component for a life of peace and happiness. In the final analysis, remember that we are mere servants of the Lord, and must earn our keep every day. We are only humble earthenware vessels containing this precious treasure, whose name is Jesus. Humility helps us to gain and maintain perspective in our lives and to give credit where credit is due.



The fourth hallmark I raise up for your consideration is the ministry of healing. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger once wrote, “The Church is founded upon forgiveness and the Church is by its nature the home of forgiveness.” That is why the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council insisted the Church “incessantly pursue the path of penance and renewal” (LG 8).

The spiritual life of every priest must begin with the awareness that we, too, stand in need of the Lord’s tender mercy each and every day. The oft-quoted words of St. Gregory Nazianzus admonish us: “First be purified yourself and then purify others.…”

Conversion is the lifelong endeavor for every faithful Christian who seeks the help of the Divine Physician to heal all that diseases the soul and divides the human heart. The sacrament of reconciliation must hold a hallowed place in the heart of every Christian, including priest and bishop. In a world that thrives on anger, litigation, disruption and incivility, the Church must always introduce the mystery of mercy and reconciliation to all she meets. Church leaders must help others to embrace dialogue over diatribe and invitation over invective, inviting others to the face and font of mercy—Jesus Christ.


The fifth hallmark we examine is the necessity of tending to our own humanity. Every priest must strive to lead a balanced life amid the many demands placed upon his shoulders. He must be committed to living a harmonious life characterized by personal prayer and private study, by rest and recreation, by regular fraternity with brother priests and by strong relationships with friends and family. A life of faithful celibacy, freely and wholeheartedly embraced, allows him to live a life of joyful ministry with an undivided heart.

The sage advice of St. Charles Borromeo, himself an outstanding pastor, posed this difficult question to priests in his care: “Do you have the care of souls? Do not on this account neglect the care of yourself and do not give yourself to others in such a way that nothing remains for yourself. You must certainly keep in mind the souls for which you are a pastor, but do not forget yourself.”

Caring for one’s own health and wellbeing is therefore a grave responsibility that can be reached only by tending to the care of the soul and the cultivation of good health through rest, nourishment, study, exercise and a good night’s sleep.




We can’t overlook the sixth quality of the happy, holy priests we have known—a sense of humor, which serves as medicine for the soul and helps us attain and maintain a life of balance and perspective. “Humor is the side effect of living deeply,” wrote author Richard Heffern. In the words of Dr. Bernie Siegal, a retired physician who has authored books about wellbeing among the seriously ill, “he who laughs, lasts.”

Holiness, hope, humility, healing, humanity, and humor are but a few of the hallmarks of joyful priestly ministry, ministry that has enriched our lives through the example of holy, happy priests.

Congratulations Father David Severson, and special blessings and gratitude to all of our beloved priest jubilarians, who have led us closer to Him who is ever in our midst “as one who serves.”


This column was adapted from Bishop Thomas’ June 24 ordination homily.

Study Will Help in Planning Future Course for Protection of Youth

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.

The long-awaited John Jay College of Criminal Justice study titled “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010” has been released. The document, commissioned by the United States bishops, looks at the abuse crisis from a number of vantage points, revealing where we have succeeded and where we have failed.

Since 2002, the bishops have pledged to cooperate with civil authorities and work to develop proactive strategies for prevention of sexual abuse in the Church. Many within our dioceses have been involved in the work of keeping children safe and healing those who were harmed. We owe a great debt of gratitude to them for their continuing labors.

The John Jay study was commissioned in an effort to get the 30,000-foot view of the problem and see relevant patterns that might help us better understand what happened, why it happened and how we might best prevent abuse in the future.

During the press conference for the study’s release, Diane Knight, the chairperson of the National Review Board, said, “None of what is in this report should be interpreted as making excuses for the terrible abuse. There are no excuses.”

The findings in this nationwide study of the sexual abuse crisis will be important as we continue to build within the Church a culture of trust and standards that honor countrywide benchmarks for the prevention of child abuse.

As the John Jay study probes the questions around why the abuse happened and how we might more effectively prevent such tragedy in the future, some observations about the time of the greatest number of cases is helpful.

The study noted the highest rates of sexual abuse began around the 1960s and started declining precipitously by the 1980s. More than 90 percent of the known cases occurred before 1990. Even though victims still come forward, most often they are adults who carried the burden in silence for many years before bringing it to light.This trending matches our experience in the Diocese of Helena.

The study cites an increase in abusive behavior consistent with changing social standards in U.S. society and a relaxing of the moral code. This phenomenon, coupled with a seminary system that did not provide adequate human formation for future priests who would embrace lives of celibacy, became a perfect storm.

The John Jay study notes that “most abuse incidents occurred decades ago, at a time when the impact of victimization was not fully understood and research on sexual offenders was in early stages of development.”

The study shows a sharp decrease in the incidence of abuse by clergy in the 1980s as the Church began to adopt safe environment measures, specifically addressed the human formation issues in preparing candidates for the priesthood and was attentive to the new insights, about child abuse, from mental health professionals and law enforcement.

How does all this mesh with Diocese of Helena efforts to create truly safe environments for our young people to be nurtured in the faith, and to flourish? Since the days after the Dallas Charter, our foundation document for the formation of our response to the sexual abuse crisis, the Diocese of Helena has mandated training in understanding and prevention of child abuse for all priests, men and women religious, professionals and volunteers who interact with children. Background checks for people in these groups also are mandatory. We use the VIRTUS® program for this training.

The diocese has been vigilant in the screening of seminary candidates and has monitored the training of our seminarians to ensure that those who prepare our future priests include in their programs strong components of human formation and preparation for a life of celibacy.

Our Diocesan Review Board advises me in assessing any allegations of abuse of minors, reviews diocesan policies for dealing with abuse, sexual misconduct and sexual harassment, and offers advice on all aspects governed by these policies. The current Diocesan Review Board is a group with impressive credentials, wisdom and common sense. The members include representatives of law enforcement, one of them a lawyer in the office of the Missoula County attorney; a parent; a parish pastor; a psychologist; a canon lawyer; and representatives from social services. We are blessed to have within our diocese such resources available and willing to assist.

A more comprehensive listing of resources can be found under Resources/Safe Environment, on our diocesan website at

The vulnerability to abuse exists within any organization and vigilance must be our assurance. New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and says it well: “The study cautions against complacency. There is no room for fatigue or feeling that people have heard enough when it comes to efforts to protect children. The leadership of the bishops is needed now more than ever, particularly by encouraging and supporting those tasked with the responsibility of implementing the charter in our dioceses, parishes and schools.”

The only way to embrace the Pentecost moment for our future is to do the work to which the Lord calls us daily, to find and heal the broken, to make wise and prudent decisions in the environments we create and to be ever watchful and faithful for all that keeps those most vulnerable among us safe and thriving. This is our pledge and promise.

The entire John Jay report may be read on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops website at

Effects of Youth and Young Adult Ministry Abound

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas Ph.D.

An old adage says, “Praise the good when you see it!”

I would like to direct my praise and gratitude to our leaders, both paid and volunteer, for creating and cultivating such effective youth and young adult ministry in the Diocese of Helena.

In 2007, the Diocesan Pastoral Council raised up youth ministry as a major priority for our diocese. Hearing from parish leaders and parishioners everywhere, the council wrote that in our diocese there clearly was “a desire for opportunities for our young people to encounter Christ, to become disciples, to embrace and proclaim the faith the Church professes, deepening their faith and commitment.”

This dream has become a reality. The vision of the Diocesan Pastoral Council, the encouragement of pastors and parents, and the funding provided by the capital campaign, have helped to identify core leaders and create a dynamic youth ministry across the diocese.

Doug Tooke, Dan Bartleson and John Fencik have been catalytic in recruiting, forming and supporting deanery and parish leaders, and creating a pastoral plan for effective youth ministry. Evidence of their work is everywhere.

At confirmation liturgies, I regularly encounter young people actively engaged in the life of the Church, young people who have been the beneficiaries of the Diocesan Pastoral Council’s vision.

In local deaneries, exceptional young adult leaders such as Sean Courtney, Kelly Ruby, Dan Thies, David and Deidre Casey, Melanie Magee, Ashley Ellis, Joan Sewell, Patti Cassidy and a host of others have gathered large numbers of young people, deeply involved in parish life and social outreach.

Campus ministers report consistently that incoming freshmen already are engaged in the life of the Church, and are eager to invest their time and energy as peer ministers on their campuses. My dialogue evenings with students at Carroll College and Montana State University this past year provide ample evidence for the campus chaplains’ reports.

The Catholic Youth Convention is a model for other dioceses wishing to engage in young adult ministry. The convention experience is the culmination of our young people’s commitment to the Church, commitment being lived out daily at home and in the parish. The evening eucharistic liturgy at our cathedral witnesses the “full, active, conscious participation” of nearly 330 youth participants and 100 chaperones, a sight that must be pleasing to the Lord.

The Junior High Rally saw 383 participants this past season, and the newly developed Quest Middle School Leadership Program is gaining momentum.

The involvement of our Native American youth is a gift beyond measure, and their participation across the diocese provides an experience of the rich cultural heritage of the Church.

The Son Light celebration each autumn serves as an important resource for the work of Legendary Lodge as well as for the Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministry.

Reach Youth Ministry has moved to Helena, from Washington’s Diocese of Yakima, and in the years ahead will take on the responsibility for reaching out to adults ages 21 to 35.

Catholic Youth Rural Outreach, in the Kalispell Deanery, is welcoming the new leadership of Jake Harrison, and continues to gather young people for early morning Bible study, retreats and social events. CYRO, inspired by Msgr. Donald Shea’s constant pastoral presence, serves as a model for other regions in this local Church.

Legendary Lodge anticipates nearly 750 campers for the coming season. Our camp leaders are developing catechetical sessions with the hope that these formation efforts will complement the efforts of our parishes and Catholic schools in a systematic and intentional way.


The success of our youth and young adult ministry is a careful mixture of elements:

  1. We emphasize the primacy of prayer, especially the Eucharist, and the need for every child or youth to encounter Jesus Christ personally. Full, active, conscious participation in Sunday liturgy, and prayerful reading of the Word of God, are essential in these efforts.
  2. The formation of heart and mind go hand in hand. Our vision for youth ministry strongly emphasizes catechetical teaching. The youth are encouraged to “think with the Church” and to draw from its wellspring of teaching and tradition.
  3. Our vision for youth ministry underscores the importance of service-learning. Blessed Pope John Paul was clear and convincing when he said to young people that life will have meaning to the extent it becomes a gift to others.
  4. Our young people are challenged to become evangelizers themselves, primarily by the example of wholesome and holy lives. Always they must ask, “Who is not at the table and what must we do to invite others to know, love and serve the Lord?”
  5. Our youth leaders understand the importance and impact of peer leadership at every stage of youth and young adult ministry. Leadership formation is essential in this process.
  6. Youth and young adults are highly social, and youth ministry needs to include wholesome activities and events that will provide enjoyment and interaction with other Catholics.

Youth and young adult ministry is hard work. Therefore, I am grateful to diocesan and parish staff, as well as volunteers, who pour out their lives so generously for the sake of our young people.

The evidence is clear. Our investment in our young people is paying high dividends for Church and society. However, I hasten to add that it is never wise to rest on laurels.

Understanding the Priority of Marriage as a Sacrament

Most Revered George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.

Every spring, the pastors of the diocese encounter a sensitive pastoral challenge that frequently ends up on my desk.

Sometimes the issue is accompanied by a flood of emotions, expression of bitter disappointment, strident letters, tears and appeals for reconsideration.

One parent even suggested that the Church is in the business of alienating young adults through backward, hard-line policies. “You’d better get with the times before you drive away all of the young people from the Church,” one parent opined.

The issue is this: Can engaged couples celebrate their wedding at the family cabin, a hotel ballroom, a park lodge, the family farmhouse, a home chapel, a ski resort or the host of other splendid settings Montana offers?

The short answer is no.

In the Diocese of Helena, the proper venue for the celebration of marriage is the parish or mission church.

How did my predecessors, the Priests’ Council, pastoral leaders and I arrive at this policy? Why has it been reaffirmed several times in recent years? What is the rationale for this longstanding pastoral practice in the Diocese of Helena?


From Wedding to Marriage

In the Diocese of Helena, the priests, deacons and laity charged with the responsibility to prepare engaged couples focus first on quality preparation for marriage, and then on quality planning for the liturgical celebration of marriage. After all, the wedding is but for a day. Marriage is for life.

The months leading up to the wedding ceremony are intended to be a time for rich and prayerful preparation, an opportunity for “setting out into the deep.” These should be days for deep spiritual discernment, and a time for setting a firm foundation for the years to come.

Sound marriage preparation includes a rich theology of marriage, a time for building communication skills, addressing tensions and differences and an opportunity to think deeply about such matters as the raising of children, the management of money, conflict resolution, relations with in-laws, religion, chastity, natural family planning and the host of other issues that will emerge in married life.

It also is a time for those cohabitating prior to marriage to restore their lives to the standard of the Gospel, especially through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.



The Role of Faith

The new Catechism of the Catholic Church states definitively that “marriage presupposes and demands faith.” At the same time, the leaders of the Church are well aware that couples sometimes are influenced more by secular customs, bridal magazines, destination wedding programs and societal pressures than by the rich spiritual meaning of the sacrament. The months prior to the wedding ceremony can provide the couple with an opportunity to deepen their relationship with the Church and welcome Christ anew into their hearts. This reordering of priorities gives secondary attention to venue, attire, receptions, wedding cakes and the host of other items that so consume time and resources.

The late Lawrence Boadt, a Paulist scholar, said it well when he wrote that the Church “encourages couples to develop their relationship with Christ in order to turn difficulties into opportunities of loving concern and reject any indulgent self-love as the basis of their union.” We would fall short in our leadership responsibilities if we allowed this encounter with Christ and the Church to be eclipsed by lesser values.




The Role of Liturgy

As the time arrives to prepare for the wedding ceremony, the couple can discover the deep meaning of the wedding liturgy. The celebration of marriage between two Catholics normally takes place during Eucharistic Liturgy, emphasizing the deep connection of all the sacraments with the paschal mystery of Christ. In the Eucharist, Christ unites Himself with the Church, His beloved bride.

The celebration of marriage between a Catholic and a baptized non-Catholic usually follows a rite that does not include the Eucharistic Liturgy, in recognition of the traditions of the faith community of the non-Catholic. If the spouse is not baptized, the marriage ritual provides a specific rite acknowledging this reality.

In all Catholic marriage ceremonies, the Liturgy of the Word serves as a foundation for Christian marriage, and the music selected is an opportunity for sung prayer and praise. Liturgy done well enriches not only the couple, but helps the entire assembly prayerfully participate in the action of the Liturgy. Many couples in attendance at a well-celebrated and prayed Marriage Liturgy find their own hearts and commitment renewed as the couple marrying exchange consent before Christ and the Church.

The spirit of the liturgical celebration continues in the reception, which can properly be held in the many beautiful settings described above.



Assuming their Place in the Church

Marriage has been described as a personal relationship with public significance. While it is true that the wedding ceremony itself often draws primarily family and intimate friends, it also is a public celebration for the entire Church. Marriage is a state of life within the Church and helps the married couple assume their rightful role as baptized members of the assembly. In due season, the Church will have a special responsibility to assist younger couples as parents in their new role as teachers of the faith committed to introducing their children to the life of the Church.




When an engaged couple approaches the priest or deacon requesting that their wedding be celebrated in a non-Church venue, I ask the priest or deacon to say no grace-fully, to open wide the doors of the Church and lead the engaged couple into a spirit-filled adventure that will deepen their own relationship with Christ and the whole Church. In short, I ask our clergy and lay leaders to put out the red carpet and help turn tears into joy.

I also challenge the engaged couple and their families to seek a deeper understanding of the special nature of the commitment they are making and the role of the Church witnessing that commitment in the sacred space of their parish or mission church.

I want you to know that we will begin a renewal of the quality and consistency of marriage preparation across the whole diocese, marked by the quality of preparation, and a deepened understanding of marriage that will help create a firm foundation that will last a lifetime.

Lent: An Opportunity to Evaluate Our Spiritual Wellbeing

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.

Many years ago, during my annual check-up, I asked my Seattle doctor a simple question. I did not intend to embarrass him, but that was the result of my innocent inquiry.

A long and awkward silence followed when I asked, “Doctor, how often do you receive a regular physical?” He responded, “I haven’t been to a doctor for years. I guess it’s time to do something about it.”

The season of Lent is a time to meet the Divine Physician. It is an opportunity to place ourselves before God in an effort to restore our souls to spiritual health and balance through the grace and healing that emanates from the heart of Christ.

In the words of the late Pope John Paul II, Lent is a time “to put everything back in its proper place. It is a time of truth, a time to examine ourselves seriously and honestly and simply. A time to look deep within and a time to look around us. A time to open our hearts to the light of the Gospel and to open our hands in a spirit of sharing and care.”

When we arrive at the doctor’s office, we routinely are handed a form on which we list our weight, height and age, and answer dozens of questions.

At the beginning of this holy season, I place before us a series of questions intended to help both you and me deepen the quality of our spiritual lives and to take steps to restore our spiritual wellbeing:

  • How are you spiritually, today, this moment?
  • Is your relationship with Jesus Christ strong and steady, or tentative and tepid?
  • Do your relationships with family, coworkers, neighbors and others reflect the fact that you love them as God loves you?
  • Are you actively cultivating the gift of chastity in your present state of life?
  • Are you cultivating a healthy interior life or simply getting by day by day?
  • Have you discovered that place deep within your heart where God speaks to you, in the words of St. Teresa of Avila, “with a spirit of affection and tenderness?”
  • Do you pray regularly, or are you the Lord’s stormy weather friend?
  • Have you discovered the power of the sacrament of Eucharist and the healing effects of frequent and fervent participation at liturgy?
  • Is full, active, conscious participation in Sunday Eucharist a non-negotiable for you and your family?
  • Have you abandoned your life into the hands of Providence and can you say with a sincere heart the prayer of St. Ignatius, “Take Lord, receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, my entire will … only your love and your grace, these are enough for me.”
  • Are you actively seeking to build up the Culture of Life, and attempting to transform present-day culture and society through the light of the Gospel?
  • Are you bearing the weight of the cross in your life gracefully or grudgingly?
  • Have you discovered the redemptive power of suffering that comes only by spending time at the foot of the cross?
  • Are you living a life of repentance and conversion, or stubbornly remaining in destructive habits of the heart?
  • Are you guarding against using the Lord’s name in vain and refraining from gossip, off-color humor and hurtful talk?
  • Is the sacrament of reconciliation a regular part of your spiritual life, where you personally meet the Divine Physician who restores wholeness and holiness through this sacred encounter?
  • Are you exercising forgiveness in your personal life, reconciling with those who have harmed you, and asking the forgiveness of those you have harmed?
  • Are you leading others to Christ and to the Church through the example of a holy life, or are you just one more anonymous Catholic?
  • Are you leading a life of thanksgiving, praising God for the gifts of family, friendship, home, health and the myriad things we take for granted?
  • Are you sharing with the poor and needy, and contributing to the good of the Church, not just from your surplus but from your very substance?
  • Are you spending quality time with members of your family, especially children and grandchildren?
  • Are you taking time to call or visit aging parents, lonely neighbors or homebound friends?
  • Are you leading a life of integrity in the management of your money, the preparation of income tax and the use of your employer’s time and resources?
  • Are you actively seeking ways to serve others in greater need than yourself?
  • Are you wasting time with idle pastimes, especially television and the Internet—time that could be used more productively through prayer, study and works of service?
  • Are you taking care of the temple of the body, eating well, getting ample sleep and daily exercise?
  • Are you aware of the words of the late Catholic social activist Dorothy Day, who wrote that Christ “made heaven hinge on the way we act toward him in disguise of commonplace, frail, ordinary humanity.”?
  • Are you aware of the prophetic question raised by the late Cardinal Nguyen van Thuan, “Have I let my heart grow cold with the passage of time?”
  • Do you understand the power of fasting and almsgiving, designed to help us acquire greater mastery over ourselves and therefore greater freedom to serve others?
  • Finally, are you aware of the words of the Rt. Rev. Arthur Lichtenberg, who counsels us: “Fast from judging others and feast on Christ living in them. Fast from words that pollute and feast on words that purify. Fast from worry and feast on trust. Fast from complaining and feast on appreciation. Fast from discouragement and feast on hope.”?

In a Lenten address by the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, he admonished us to allow that “Lent be for every Christian a renewed experience of God’s love given to us in Christ, a love that each day we must re-give to our neighbor, especially to the one who suffers most and is in need.”

May this holy season be a time of restored spiritual health, grace and reconciliation, a time to “leave the past in ashes and turn to God with all our hearts.”

The Death Penalty: A Radical Shift in Catholic Teaching

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.

Cardinal Avery Dulles was a renaissance man. A Jesuit priest, scholar, humble disciple and man of the Church, he was a wellspring of wisdom, theological acumen, uncommon insight and personal holiness. When he rose to speak on the floor of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the room fell silent.

Cardinal Dulles, who died in New York in 2008, took on some of the most complex issues of the day, “scrutinizing the signs of the times and interpreting them in light of the Gospel.”

The Lawrence G. McGinley Lecture Series, 1988-2007, represents his best thinking as he tackled tough topics through the lenses of theology and prayerful reflection. Cardinal Dulles’ presentation titled “The Death Penalty: A Right to Life Issue?” is emblematic of his complex and sophisticated analyses.

He opened his lecture with an attention-capturing sentence: “Among the major nations of the Western world, the United States is singular in still having the death penalty.”

Examining Biblical data, Catholic tradition and magisterial teaching, Cardinal Dulles offered deep analysis of the death penalty for the contemporary Catholic’s consideration.

He observed the startling reality that the Fathers of the Church were virtually unanimous in their support of capital punishment. Their vantage is supported by both Old Testament and New Testament teaching.

Ambrose, Augustine, Robert Bellarmine and Alphonsus Liguori, are among the figures of the Church who conclude that “the State has the authority to administer appropriate punishment to those judged guilty of crimes, and that punishment may, in serious cases, include the sentence of death.”

The thoughtful Catholic struggles with the seeming shift in Catholic teaching, and must ask the question: Why, in recent years, has the abolition movement gained so much momentum? Why has the Catholic magisterium become increasingly vocal in opposing the practice of capital punishment? Why have the Universal Church, in its revision of the Catechism, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, while not ruling out capital punishment altogether, radically shifted the Church’s approach to this highly charged topic?

“In our day,” Cardinal Dulles wrote, “a new recognition of the dignity and inalienable rights of the human person has dawned.” He quoted the respected Ital-ian Franciscan Gino Concetti as a premier spokesman of the right-to-life theology: “In light of the Word of God, and thus of faith, life—all human life—is sacred and untouchable no matter how heinous the crimes.… [The criminal] does not lose his fundamental right to life for it is primordial, inviolable and inalienable, and thus comes under the power of no one whatsoever.” Concetti’s thinking is founded on the scriptural understanding that every person is fashioned in God’s image, and has inherent worth and dignity. This dignity, writes moral theologian Kenneth Himes, “is neither conferred by society or state nor dependent on any achievement or claim we make for it. Therefore it is not ours to surrender nor can others take it away.”

Cardinal Dulles’ second philosophical consideration arguing against the death penalty is the abolitionist’s conviction that we have moved beyond the outmoded doctrine that the State has a divinely delegated power to kill. He references the “barbaric culture of violence and the absolutist theory of political power, both handed down from the ancient world” as the bases of that position.

In reaching his final conclusions, Cardinal Dulles raised four serious objections commonly embraced by opponents of the death penalty:

–There is a possibility that the convict may be innocent. Cardinal Dulles expressed concern that in recent years, some death row convicts were exonerated. Columbia Law School, for example, published a devastating report on the irreversible errors in capital sentences.

–The death penalty often has the effect of whetting an inordinate appetite for revenge, rather than satisfying a zeal for justice.

–Capital punishment may cheapen the value of life by fostering a casual attitude toward other evils such as abortion, suicide and euthanasia. Some hold that the death penalty is incompatible with the teaching of Jesus on forgiveness.

–Finally, Cardinal Dulles gave special consideration to the teaching of Pope John Paul II in “Evangelium Vitae,” when the pope declared that “as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, cases in which the execution of the offender would be absolutely necessary are very rare if not practically nonexistent.” (EV 56).

Pope John Paul II reiterated his stance during his January 1999 visit to St. Louis, when he appealed for a consensus to end the death penalty in the United States on the ground that it was “cruel and unnecessary.”

The U.S. bishops have further declared in their majority statement that “in the conditions of contemporary American society, the legitimate purposes of punishment do not justify the imposition of the death penalty.” In sum, the antidote to violence is not more violence. Furthermore, advances in public safety, including penal technology and the intensive management of prison populations, provide the means necessary to make the death penalty dated, obsolete and unnecessary.

Placing all of his arguments in the balance, Cardinal Dulles came to his conclusion: “The pope and the bishops, using their prudential judgment, have concluded that in contemporary society, at least in countries like our own, the death penalty ought not to be invoked because, on balance, it does more harm than good. I personally support this position as a responsible prudential judgment in the current situation.”

As citizens and their legislators in the State of Montana struggle to understand the grave moral dimensions of death penalty legislation, I hope they find Cardinal Dulles’ prayerful and scholarly analysis and authoritative Church teaching informative and, more importantly, transformative.

No Wiggle Room: Gospel Compels All Disciples to Practice Charity

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.

St. John Chrysostom was the archbishop of Constantinople and the most widely read of the Greek Fathers of the Church. A century after his death, he was given the name “Chrysostom,” the Greek for “golden mouth,” a name that characterized his great skill at writing and preaching.

As archbishop, he once offered a challenging and troubling image to the people in his care. He posited that on the Day of Judgment, as we stand before the throne of God, the poor we helped in this life will intercede for us and plead our cause for mercy.

St. John’s question causes us to ask ourselves, “Who will be there for you? Who will be there for me?”

Exactly five years ago on Christmas Day, Pope Benedict XVI issued his profound encyclical that he titled “Deus Caritas Est,” or “God is Love.”

The Holy Father proposed that God’s love is not a warm and passing sentiment, but a life-altering encounter with love made visible through the birth of Jesus Christ. That loving encounter changes human hearts, and allows each disciple who meets Jesus personally to see everything, no longer with human eyes, but as the Scripture has it, “with the eyes of the heart.”

The preface for the Mass of Reconciliation says it well: “Enemies begin to speak to one another, those who were estranged join hands in friendship, and nations seek the way of peace together … understanding puts an end to strife, hatred is quenched by mercy, and vengeance gives way to forgiveness.”

From the earliest centuries of the Church, the followers of Jesus Christ grew in their understanding that the Church has no other choice but to live and act in love, always with a preferential option for the poor. As time went by, the Church or-ganized her charity to meet the growing needs of the lowly and needy in the community.

In our own day, a wide array of ministries such as Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities, mission apostolates, hospital and prison ministry, local charities like Good Samaritan and St. Vincent de Paul and our own Guatemala Mission are born in the heart of the Church that practices the love of Jesus.

These ministries are, in the words of Pope Benedict, “as essential [to the Church] as the ministry of the Sacraments and the preaching of the Gospel.” (DCE 22).

In the same vein, a second understanding grew out of the heart of the Gospel. The Church has no other choice but to speak out on behalf of the poor and needy as their advocate and champion. Sometimes the Church’s message is unpopular, unwelcome and even countercultural, placing us against the powerful currents of secular society and culture.

The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council proclaimed “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the followers of Christ.”

Therefore, the Church, in her role as mother and protector, will raise her voice when her children are in danger or in need. The sanctity of human life, especially of the unborn or those who are at the end of their earthly journey, the cry of the widow and orphan, the needs of those who struggle with mental illness and those who are homebound or hospitalized, the plight of the migrant who longs for legal status or lawful immigration, even the prisoner on death row, along with victims of crime—these are the sons and daughters of the Church. The Gospel compels us to speak and act as their advocate and friend, and to continually raise up their needs and attend to their voices in Church, in society and in the halls of government.

The Church has a vested interest in building up a culture of life and love, and establishing a just social order, never remaining indifferent to the cry of the poor. There can be no throw-away people, no castoffs or disposable souls. No one is beyond the love of Christ or the gift of redemption that flows from the heart of Christ.

Finally, from the earliest days of the Church, we have understood that the Gospel compels every disciple to practice charity individually and personally. The ministry of charity is not optional.

The Church admonishes us to live on in God’s love and make connections between our belief and compassion, prayer and service, liturgy and justice, love of God and love of neighbor.

In our own day, the late Catholic social activist Dorothy Day said it well: “God made heaven hinge on the way we act toward him in his disguise of commonplace, frail, ordinary humanity.”

Each person must ask the question: What am I doing to extend the love of God into my home, workplace, classroom, neighborhood and community? Am I sharing, in the words of Pope John Paul II, not simply crumbs from the table, but from my very substance?

The words of St. John Chrysostom leave us with that chilling and challenging image. On the Day of Judgment, who will be there for me?

Servant-leadership of Christ is Model for Priests

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.

This is a day of celebration for all of us in the Diocese of Helena, a day to celebrate the mysterious work of the Lord in the lives of God’s Holy People, and in the life of our brother, Richard Anthony Kluk.

Richard was born on Feb. 12, 1953, the son of Polish-born parents, the late George and Helen Kluk. He was baptized in Lincoln, Ill., and attended Catholic grade school from 5th to 8th grade. In 1971, Richard graduated from Chicago’s Marist High School. He attended college both in Arizona and Illinois, earning his Bachelor of Science degree in biology from Loyola University in 1975. In the ensuing years, he received his Master of Science degree from DePaul University, focusing on computer science. He then plied his highly honed computer skills in the defense industry, until the Lord “tapped him on the shoulder,” and stirred deep within his heart a call to Catholic priesthood.

In the autumn of 2003, after brief associations with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Vincentians, Richard was welcomed into seminary studies for the Diocese of Helena. The bishop placed him in the formation program at Mount Angel Seminary, south of Portland, Ore. There he entered wholeheartedly into a program of formation—human, intellectual, spiritual and pastoral, and successfully completed his course of studies with a recommendation from the formation faculty that he be advanced to holy orders. I have accepted their recommendation and our brother is now ready to take this momentous step, for which he has prepared long and well.

Richard Kluk is described by his friends and colleagues as a caring and compassionate person, easygoing and affable, well-suited for the rhythm and rigor of parish life. He is described by many as a servant-leader who is humble and helpful, prayerful and service oriented, and ever-open to acquiring new pastoral skills to serve the people in the Diocese of Helena.

The preface of the Chrism Mass provides for us an expansive understanding of Catholic priesthood: “Christ gives the dignity of a royal priesthood to the people He has made His own.” In a word, all who are baptized are “consecrated to be a spiritual house and a holy priesthood, that through all their works as Christian people they may offer spiritual sacrifices.”

It is from the community of the baptized that God chooses men to share his sacred ministry by the laying on of hands. Again the words of the Second Vatican Council describe the ministerial priesthood of ordained ministers as those called “to form and govern the priestly people and to offer in their name the Eucharistic sacrifice to God in the person of Christ.”

Pope John Paul II regularly described this life-giving and symbiotic relationship between priest and people he is called to serve: “The priesthood is not an institution that exists alongside the laity or above it.” The priesthood… is “for the laity and precisely for this reason possesses a ministerial quality, that is to say one of service.”

Our brother Richard Kluk has chosen Luke’s Gospel for the ordination liturgy, which underscores the ministerial and service di-mensions of priesthood. That gospel responds to the argument among the disciples about which of them should be regarded as the greatest: “Let the greatest among you be as the youngest, and the leader as the servant, concluding with the example of Jesus himself—`I am among you as one who serves.’”

In his book titled “Called to Communion,” then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger set the groundwork for holiness and happiness in the life of every priest in every nation and in every era. “The essential foundation of priesthood is a deep personal bond with Jesus Christ. The priest must be a man who knows Jesus intimately, who has encountered him and learned to love Him. The priest must be above all else a man of prayer, a truly spiritual man.” The Holy Father concludes his commentary with this profound conclusion: “Without a strong spiritual substance [the priest] cannot long endure his ministry.”

Priestly spirituality is centered on the celebration of the Eucharist, which is called by the Fathers of the Council “the source and summit” of the life of the Church. It is through the Eucharist that Christ builds up the Church, nourishes it and remains present among the people, transforming their lives and ours, and furthering our common call to holiness each and every day.

None of us, Richard, is worthy of the great privilege to offer the Eucharistic sacrifice in the name of Christ and the Church, but this is the profound reality to which you are called.

Make St. Paul’s admonition to all of us your own, “rekindle daily the gift you have been given,” and ensure that your life is formed and reformed daily through a commitment to prayer and sacramental celebration.

Among the many responsibilities you will have as a priest, few are as important as the ministry of the Word, which also serves as a source of nourishment for yourself as well as for God’s people. I ask you to faithfully re-present the teachings and spiritual treasures of the Church to the people, but also let the same teachings form, re-form, and transform your life.

The people of God have been very clear in their desire for faith-filled and dynamic preaching. In his own inimitable way, Pope Benedict wisely counsels priests that “we should not allow ourselves to be guided by the little window of our personal cleverness, but by the great window that Christ has opened on the whole truth.” On this day of ordination, I ask you, Richard, always to remain a student of the Church, to think with the Church, and to open up for the people the Word of God as He speaks to us through the Sacred Scriptures.

Finally, the model of priestly life is found in the example of servant-leadership that Jesus Christ provided for the apostles and disciples of every age. The fourth Eucharistic Prayer states succinctly, “that we might live no longer for ourselves but for him.” The Holy Father has written that “the priest is not in the business of building himself an interesting or comfortable life, or setting up for himself a community of admirers or devotees, but is working for another and it is He who truly matters.” In the words of Scripture, “He must increase and I must decrease.”

It is this attitude of servant-leadership that will allow you to have a particular solicitude for the poor and humble. Jesuit Father Herwig Ars wrote: “People in need are in a special way a tabernacle in which God dwells in an eminent way.”

Dorothy Day wrote that “Christ made heaven hinge on the way we act toward Him in His disguise of commonplace, frail, ordinary humanity.”

It is easy, even tempting, for priests to seek the company of successful and affluent people in the parish. But every priest must have the heart to make room for everyone in the sanctuary of his soul, with special attention to the marginalized, the lowly and the poor. With the heart of the Good Shepherd, you must constantly ask, “Who is not at the table?” And like the Good Shepherd, seek out, invite, and embrace those who live in the shadows of Church and society.

Be present, Richard, at the bedsides of the dying, the jail and prison cell, the halls of the hospital and the homes of the homebound and elderly. Always have, in the words of Paul VI, “a preferential option for the poor,” making special connections between the altar and justice, liturgy and compassion, worship and service, or in scriptural terms, love of God and love of neighbor.

It is my hope, indeed our hope, that you, soon to be Father Richard Kluk, will live the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection in such a way that you will be a living reflection of His life and love, and the silent joy in your life will invite others to know Him, love Him, and serve Him.

On this holy day, Richard, I thank you for laying your life down in loving service to God’s holy people in the Diocese of Helena. May you always know that special joy that comes to those who know, love and serve the Master, Jesus Christ, who is ever-present among us “as one who serves.”



Bishop George Leo Thomas delivered this homily during the Dec. 10 ordination of Richard Anthony Kluk at the Cathedral of St. Helena.

2010_11 Do This in Memory of Me

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.

Each Sunday as we gather with the whole Church for Eucharist, we hear these words of Jesus: “Do this in memory of me.” Those words have echoed through the generations since they were first uttered at a simple table in the company of those who first walked with Christ on the night before he offered his life for the salvation of all.

We ourselves, with the whole Church in every part of this world, “from age to age” and “from generation to generation,” still gather at one table, the same table at which Jesus sat with his Apostles on the night before he died. There, at the table, the altar of sacrifice, the Church enters the mystery of Christ–his life, death and resurrection. The Church eats and drinks in his memory and we ourselves become the mystery, as St. Augustine so poignantly reminds us:

“You are the body of Christ, member for member.”(1 Cor 12.27) If you, therefore, are Christ’s body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving! You are saying ‘Amen’ to what you are; your response is a personal signature, affirming your faith.” St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (+430 CE)

Thus the Church can confidently pray that “…we who are nourished by his body and blood, may be filled with his Holy Spirit, and become one body, one spirit in Christ.” (Eucharistic Prayer III)

That “one body and one spirit in Christ” is sent forth to live in his memory for the sake of others, to do what we have discovered at the Lord’s table among those in the world who seek food and drink, a word of hope, a life valued and forgiveness assured.

Indeed, has ever another command been so followed or has any other vision been so inexhaustible? Has anyone found anything better to do than this?

Christ’s command, “Do this in memory of me,” evokes the vision and the truth of “full, conscious and active participation” called for by the very nature of a faithful gathering at His Table. Do this! Do all of this, Christ commands. Do!

What we do and hope to do in memory of Christ is our vocation begun in baptism.

The participation of the Christian people in the “doing” of that memory is both a right and duty by reason of baptism. To live that memory fully, consciously and actively invites again and again the need and the gift to reflect on the mystery, to remember what we must do, how we are to act and to whom we are being called.

As we prepare to welcome the Third Edition of the Roman Missal, we are provided with a unique and valued opportunity to engage in such reflection; to renew our sense of dedication to the memory of Christ, to engage in dialogue, prayer and action and reaffirm our Catholic sense of “The Holy Communion.”


The Historical Perspective

The Third Edition of the Roman Missal leads us to revisit the hope, vision and challenge of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. Almost 50 years ago, the Second Vat-ican Council embraced a vision rooted in the deep and rich tradition of the Church and set out on the irrevocable path of a restored and renewed vision of the liturgy in which the full, conscious and active participation of all is “the aim to be considered before all else.” (CSL No. 14) We have learned, grieved, celebrated, changed our heart, discovered anew the abiding presence of Christ in our life, Church, worship and world during these years.

The strong foundation we have received, the rich experience of our work of worship enables us to continue that vision with a renewed spirit and enflamed hope. The glow of that vision again sends us forth to “love and serve the Lord,” keenly and humbly aware that we are “walking in the footsteps of those who have gone before us,” who like us have hoped to live and act in the memory of Christ. And so we reflect on the mystery “in which we show forth the paschal sacrifice of Christ entrusted to us.”

Liturgical catechesis always begins and ends with the experience, the story, the thanksgiving, the memory, the communion and the mission. What have we done? What do we do? What must we yet do in memory of Christ, the one whose life, death and resurrection we have entered?


The work we’ve done

We began this work in the Diocese of Helena several years ago as we renewed the spirit of the Chrism Mass and set about the task of modeling the “full, conscious and active participation of the faithful,” which led from the Chrism liturgy to a “full, conscious and active participation” in the life and ministry of the Church throughout the diocese.

We have restored and revitalized our Diocesan Liturgical Commission, which helps shape the liturgical ministry and life of the diocese.

We have engaged in ongoing liturgical catechesis, not only in preparation for the Third Edition of the Roman Missal, but because to live and act in memory of Christ evokes the continual need for reflection and study on the nature of the liturgy.

We have invited nationally renowned liturgical scholars to assist in an ongoing study of the Liturgy: Father Paul Turner, Bishop Donald Trautman, Father Michael Driscoll, Dr. Bob Hurd and Father Jan Michael Joncas. Most recently we have hosted the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship and Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions National Workshop on the Implementation of the Third Edition of the Roman Missal.

Most significant is the effort, work, prayer, spirit and accomplishments of the people, priests, religious, deacons and leaders of the Diocese of Helena since the implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was inaugurated. The spirited ministry and vision of the faithful with a vibrant and enthusiastic willingness to engage in the “doing” of worship and the living of life in memory of Christ has been and continues to be a holy endeavor reflecting the sound foundation on which the Church in the Diocese of Helena has been and is being built.

The aim to be considered before all else, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy proclaims, is the full, conscious and active participation of the faithful which is called for by the very nature of the liturgy and is their right and duty by virtue of baptism. (CSL No. 14) It is that vision which has shaped the worship, life and ministry of our diocese these many years and it is on that foundation that we will continue to build and shape the Church in the Diocese of Helena.


the path ahead

The building is ongoing and the renewal of the liturgy is a living reality. As the parishes of the Diocese of Helena prepare to receive the revision of the Roman Missal, we are about to engage in a diocesan liturgical catechesis that we hope will lead to a deeper appreciation and awareness of the precious gift we have received in the liturgy of the Catholic Church. We have named this catechesis, “Do this in memory of me.”

During the year ahead, national liturgical scholars will again facilitate diocesan gatherings. We hope to engage every parishioner in conversation, dialogue, learning and reflection following the Sunday liturgy in the months ahead. Workshops will be provided in each deanery for parishioners, leaders, priests and pastoral musicians. We will reflect on the nature and meaning of the liturgy, discover the revisions in the Roman Missal and discern how the entire assembly can participate more fully, with a deeper awareness of the mystery entered, remembering that the active presence of all is the “primary and indispensible source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit.” (CSL No. 14)

The words, the vision, the command and desire of Christ continue to echo through our day and in each of our parishes, for it is an inexhaustible hope: “Do this in memory of me.”

The liturgy is the work of the entire Church. It is our work, our mission, our way of life. But we must always humbly remember that it is first of all God’s work for us and then only our human work in response to the divine gift!

Empowering the Young to Live as Disciples of Jesus

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.


When I arrived in the Diocese of Helena, just over six years ago, I made this earnest request of our priests and people: Join me in forming a pastoral plan to guide our diocese for the next five years. Assist me in establishing pastoral priorities, gathering necessary resources and mobilizing our people for our pilgrimage into the future.

Fourteen-hundred parishioners from our six geographic deaneries helped create a dynamic pastoral plan for the Diocese of Helena. The document, titled Come to the Light, is the product of dialogue, interaction and shared responsibility for the life of the diocese, which spans 52,000 square miles.

Among the many priorities that surfaced, there was one that cut across all the geographic boundaries and economic strata. That priority is ministry to and formation of children, youth and young adults.

In our efforts to provide ministry for the young, we looked to successful programs in our diocese and beyond, programs that stand out in bold relief and successfully form the hearts and souls of the youth. We also turned to the 1997 document, published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called “Renewing the Vision – A Framework for Catholic Youth Ministry.”

We asked ourselves the same two important questions contained in the bishops’ document: “How do we empower young people to live as disciples of Jesus Christ in our world today? How do we draw young people to responsible participation in the life, mission and work of the Catholic community?”

I believe identifiable qualities and characteristics are present in dynamic youth ministry–10 hallmarks that I want to see in all of our ministries to the young across the diocese.


  1. Christ Centered. Youth ministry must always be Christ centered, and is created to help young people know, love and serve the Lord. Celebration of the Eucharist, prayerful reading of sacred Scripture and faithfulness to daily prayer serve as foundations for successful youth and young adult ministry.


  1. Inspired Leadership. Dr. Albert Schweitzer once opined, “In influencing others, example is not the main thing. It‘s the only thing.”


Behind every successful youth ministry is a strong pastor welcoming lay leadership, and supportive parents. Youth ministry will be successful to the extent that it is cultivated by caring adults.


  1. Community Centered. In my confirmation homily, I always tell young adults to walk their journey of faith in the company of other young Catholics. Support one another. Challenge one another. Pray for one another, and look out for dangers to the faith—complacency, laziness, isolation, stagnation, to name just a few.


  1. Connections. Youth ministry makes meaningful connections between worship and service, prayer and justice, liturgy and compassion, love of God and love of neighbor. Meaningful youth ministry involves the young in outreach, service learning and the liturgical ministries of the parish.


  1. Catholic Social and Moral Teaching. Both Catholic social and moral teaching transform the way we see and live, providing a compass for the young in difficult times. They help young people make decisions that are consonant with the Gospel and the mind of the Church. They help the youth see, no longer with human eyes, but “with the eyes of the heart.” In complex and challenging times, Catholic social and moral teaching provides a sure path in the labyrinth of life.


  1. The Call to Holiness. Parish youth ministry urges young people to constantly root out anything that is dis-easing the soul and separating them from the fullness of life with Christ. The Greek word metanoia captures the need for every Christian to continually die to self and convert our life to the ways of Christ. Both holiness and wholeness are goals for youth and young adult ministry.


  1. Relationship to the universal Church. Our diocese is physically isolated by high mountains, long distances and severe weather. With so much space between communities, it is easy to lose sight of the big picture. We are a universal Church. Our presence at World Youth Day, trips to Guatemala or other mission territories, interaction with our cherished Native American communities, the presence of international priests, our participation in Catholic Relief Services Rice Bowl and other international relief efforts help us to understand the Church as “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.”


  1. Content of the Faith. Youth ministry must be infused with theologically sound content. St. Thomas defines theology as “faith seeking understanding.” Our ministry to the young must support families in forming lifelong students of the Church who understand and live their faith and strive to “think with the Church.” This is especially important as young people enter adulthood and find their faith challenged at colleges and universities, in the marketplace and in the workplace.



  1. The Culture of Life and Love. The Church is obligated to help young people become catalysts in building up the culture of life and love, transforming society and culture in the light of the Gospel. This means embracing those who live and labor on the margins of society. It means having special love for the unborn, the dying, the voiceless and the poor. Effective youth ministry encourages young people to get involved and to consider dedicating their lives to professions and careers that help society address human misery’s underlying causes, which keep entire generations shackled in misery.


  1. Evangelization. Every youth program encourages young people to become evangelizers among their peers and with their families, including parents and siblings. In short, they are encouraged to share the Good News of the Gospel with others and invite them to “taste and see the goodness of the Lord.” In due season, some will be called to evangelization through vocations to priesthood and religious life, others through marriage and family ministry, still others to dedicated single life. But all of us have the responsibility to share the Good News.


Within our diocese, we have pastors, lay leaders, youth ministers, parents and volunteers who have taken seriously the challenge put forth by the Diocesan Pastoral Council in 2007. All of us are beneficiaries of the creativity, dynamism and excitement created through this common effort to form, inform and transform the souls of the young through the grace of the Gospel and the love of Christ.

In the coming months, we hope to begin a new pastoral outreach to young adults, ages 21 to 32.

Stay tuned!

We Welcome the Seekers!

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.

I frequently hear parents and grandparents lament that their young-adult daughters or sons no longer practice the Catholic faith. Their concern often is followed with the words, “We sent them to Catholic schools (or to religious education), but they have opted out of the Church.”

When I hear those concerns, I ask, “What are we as parents, parish and diocesan leaders doing to engage young adults in the life of the Church?” Are young adults even on our radar screen in the faith community? Have we made the Church a place of warmth and welcome for 18- to 35-year-olds? Following the Diocesan Pastoral Council process, diocesan leadership is taking on a new and exciting initiative to engage, in the life of the Church, this highly diverse group of young adults.

Our capital campaign has made it possible to expand our outreach to this wonderful, energetic and spiritually hungry group of Catholics.

Mr. Dan Bartleson, the regional director for Reach Youth Ministry, has accepted an invitation to collaborate with the Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministry in the Diocese of Helena. This collaboration will serve as a catalyst for young-adult ministry and as a resource for parish leadership to find new and innovative ways to open the doors of the Church to this generation of believers.

How will we proceed? Where do we begin in this exciting but massive undertaking?

As in the past, our process begins with active listening, prayerful discernment and meaningful engagement with those who will be the beneficiaries of this important ministry.

Young-adult ministry eschews the notion that “one size fits all.” Adults of the ages 21 to 35 are in very different developmental places. Each group has a particular set of needs.

Research published in a study titled “Connecting Young Adults to Catholic Parishes” indicates that 21- to 25-year-olds often are just getting settled in their first full-time jobs and are “least likely to be present in parish life.”

People in the second group, mid to late 20s, often still are single, still discerning a career or a vocation and frequently “boomeranging” between the parental home and independent living. They are actively seeking their place in life.

People in the third group, late 20s to mid 30s, frequently are starting families, establishing vocational roots and looking for ways to not only deepen their own faith, but also to hand it on to their children.

Church leadership must be aware of the differences within the young-adult community, but also understand what this wide array of young adults holds in common.

As Dan Bartleson and his prospective team of volunteers begin to examine ways to minister in and among the young-adult communities, I anticipate they will hear a number of common themes:


  • Each group will desire deeper communion with Jesus Christ, especially through the celebration of Word and sacrament. Each will express a need for greater understanding of their Catholic faith and tradition, an endeavor of both head and heart.


  • They will ask for greater opportunities for peer support in the practice of their faith. They will seek new opportunities to socialize with other believing Catholics. They will ask to explore service opportunities, especially among the poor, and will express a desire to give testimony about their faith to younger generations.


  • They will ask for theological formation in Catholic social and moral teaching, as they attempt to navigate the rough waters involved with faithful living.


  • They will desire retreat, pilgrimage and prayer opportunities, and they will desire to share their faith journey with other Catholics.


  • They will ask for dialogue with priests and Church leaders on the hot-button topics of the day.


  • They will undoubtedly seek opportunities to serve the wider faith community as future lay ecclesial ministers.


The Diocese of Helena is ready to take on this new and exciting adventure.

The August edition of The Montana Catholic will have a feature article on the collaboration, by the diocesan Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministry and Reach Youth Ministry, to provide particular ministry for our young adults.

Parents and grandparents, lift up your hearts! Catholicism stays in the blood and your young adults, even those away from the Church, are likely longing for deep spiritual meaning in their lives. In the months ahead, we will once more open our doors to welcome this blessed group of seekers, and invite them to come with us on a pilgrimage of faith.

Should I Make My Teenager Go To Mass?

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas, PH.D.


During my visits to parishes, parents of teenagers often ask the same question—“Bishop, should we require our teenagers to attend Sunday Mass?”

My answer is simple and emphatic. YES!!!

Let me explain. My approach to the parents’ question is drawn from conversations with my own siblings, all of whom have raised teenagers.

Parents want what is best for their children—good nutrition, regular medical and dental checkups, a solid education, adequate rest, the company of good friends.

My sister, Mary Ann, and her husband Walt had a simple rule in their household. Participation in Sunday Eucharist is an essential element of their family life. Mary Ann would say, “The day we decide that attendance at high school or going in for the six-month dental checkup is optional is the day we change our household rule for Sunday Liturgy. It is that important to us.”

Mary Ann’s approach was uncomplicated, understandable and non-negotiable.

From their earliest days, my nieces and nephews got the message from their folks that “we want the very best for your mind, your body and your soul.”

My observation is that the opposite also would have been true.

Making Mass optional gives the not-so-subtle message that “it’s not all that important to us. Soul care is somewhere down the list, below the annual checkups and required high school attendance. Take it or leave it; you decide.”

Parents may counter, “But if I require my child to attend Mass while he or she lives under my roof, won’t they simply stop going once they are off to college or the workplace?” Maybe, but I doubt it.

The Church describes the goal of Sunday celebration in beautiful and loving language.

Wrote Pope Benedict, “We need this Bread to face the fatigue and weariness of our journey. Sunday, the Lord’s Day, is a favorable opportunity to draw strength from Him, the Lord of Life.”

Pope Benedict wrote also, “The Sunday precept is not, therefore, an externally imposed duty, a burden on our shoulders. On the contrary, taking part in the Celebration … is a need for Christians, it is a joy; Christians can thus replenish the energy they need to continue on the journey we must make every week.” (p. 13, “Heart of the Christian Life”)

The late Pope John Paul II described the Liturgy as “the most priceless gift of the Church.”

Jesus is present when we gather in His name. He comes to us in the gift of Eucharist, which is the source and summit of the life of the Church. It is unimaginable that parents would not want to have communion with the Divine by inviting their children to feast on the Bread from Heaven.

As we help parents approach this question, I offer four simple and practical suggestions.

First, make all of Sunday holy. Let Sunday be a family time for prayer, re-creation, a day for quality time with each other, with a family meal becoming a highlight of the day and Eucharist the culmination.

Second, let parents and pastors invite young adults into “full, active, conscious participation” in the Liturgy. Open up roles of responsibility for young adults through ministries of Lector, altar server, greeter, choir member, usher, and for those already confirmed, Eucharistic ministry.

Third, Catholic schools, parish religious education programs and youth groups need to flow from and point to parish celebration of the Eucharist. This vital relationship reinforces the import and the impact of the Eucharist as source and summit of the life of the Church.

Fourth, make meaningful connections between Liturgy and life, understanding the unbreakable bond between worship and service, prayer and compassion, love of God and love of neighbor. In short, let parents and pastors teach our young people that Mass and mission are intertwined, and find opportunities for them to serve others in need.

Fifth, teach by example. Dr. Albert Schweitzer once opined that “example is not the main thing in influencing others—it’s the only thing.” Parents need to hold themselves to a high standard in order to teach their children well. Don’t let Sunday degenerate into a day for sleeping in, for letting hunting or fishing or other recreation take precedence over participation in Liturgy. The message given to the young, intentionally or otherwise, is this: “Lord, we have many priorities in our lives and You are not among them.”

For Christians, Sunday Eucharist, in the words of the Holy Father, is not a commandment but an inner necessity…Eucharist is a life-giving relationship that sustains us and gives direction and content to our lives.” Eucharist is our communion with Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life.

No question about it. Parents want what is best for their sons and daughters. Let soul care top the list.

Farewell, Father Sarsfield O Sullivan

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas Ph.D.

In the autumn of 2004, shortly after I returned to the Diocese of Helena, Father Tom Haffey hosted a welcome dinner at his rectory at St. Ann Parish in Butte. Seated around the table was a collection of venerable senior clergy, whose names and faces are known and revered by generations of Catholics. It took only moments for me to realize that I was in the presence of great men, and was soon to experience one of the most memorable evenings I have ever experienced in our Diocese.

In addition to Father Haffey and Father John Robertson were Msgr. Anthony Brown and Father Gregory Burke, along with Fathers Tom Fenloren, Ernie Burns, Jim McCarthy and, of course, the inimitable Sarsfield O Sullivan.

As the evening ensued, so did the conversation and laughter, the blarney and banter. It was a night of tall tales, anecdotes and guffaws, intermixed with large infusions of opinion and commentary about the state of the union, and the state of the Diocese. Around that table was a veritable cast of characters, to be sure, but also 300 years of pastoral experience, distilled wisdom and history, with Father Sarsfield O Sullivan presiding over the group as elder statesman and brother to all.

From that evening on, I bonded deeply with these wonderful men and was received by them with tenderness and care. For the past six years, I have savored special moments with each of them, men who have contributed so selflessly to the care of the people and the building up of the Body of Christ. The home at 410 N. Western Ave. in Butte, Father Sars’s residence, became a special destination each time I visited the city.

Think of it! This cadre of beloved priests served under six Bishops, ministered to tens of thousands of parishioners and witnessed dramatic change and upheaval within Church and society, all the while remaining faithful to the Lord and to the Church into the twilight of their lives, giving all of us an example and witness to follow.

John Patrick Sarsfield O Sullivan was born in Butte on Nov. 12, 1924. The decade into which he was born, and the years that followed, deeply influenced and formed this gifted and unique individual. In a single lifetime, he and his contemporaries witnessed a dramatic change that read more like fiction than fact.

The 1920s ushered in many developments in popular culture and society. The year 1924 saw the inaugural issues of Reader’s Digest, Time magazine and The New Yorker. The latter was Father Sars’s favorite, by far. Writers Eugene O’Neill, Hermann Melville and William Faulkner were in their heydays, and Robert Frost made his debut. In 1924, George Gershwin performed his own “Rhapsody in Blue” at the Aoelian Hall in New York City, and in the same decade, light opera became the rage in New York, touching the masses of people through 78 records and the windup gramophone. Popular and perennial songs, such as “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Yes Sir, That’s my Baby,” filled the evening airwaves on the wireless. These developments in popular culture affected Sarsfield O Sullivan deeply.

From 1924 to 2010, the world went from telegraph to Twitter, from the dirigible to the intercontinental ballistic missile, from crank telephone to instant communication, from Model T to SUV, from rural roads to superhighways, from an average lifespan of 58 years to a present-day lifespan of nearly 80 and counting. This same generation lived at a time when radio was king, and 2.5 million families listened nightly to Groucho Marx, Fibber Magee and Molly, and “The Shadow Knows.” In sports, the Notre Dame football team dominated the gridiron under leadership of the famous Knute Rockne.

The people of this generation witnessed major advances in medicine, science, and technology. They heard new words, among them Google, Yahoo, CT, MRI, iPod, iPad and e-mail.

In 1924, Sarsfield was born into a post-World War I society of relative peace. But in the span of a single lifetime, people witnessed a second great war; scarring conflicts in Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East; and genocide in Europe, Africa and Southeast Asia. In that 80-year period, they saw conventional weaponry morph into the terrifying nightmare of nuclear arms and lawless terrorism.

Seated around that dining table in Butte was a generation of priests who presided over parishes during the social upheaval of the 1960s, the kaleidoscope of Haight-Ashbury, the drug culture and the assassinations of JFK, RFK and MLK.

On their watch, the priests seated around that table helped people embrace a high drama and renewal of the Second Vatican Council and its effects on liturgy, religious life, parish governance and the expanding role of the laity. So, too, they helped the ordinary parishioner connect worship and social justice as Catholic Social Teaching emerged as another powerful priority of the Second Vatican Council.

Father Sarsfield’s was a generation that witnessed high drama and change beyond measure, yet was able to retain its moorings by the strong anchors of family, faith and values that stood the test of time.

In Butte, Montana, Josephine and Sean O Sullivan gave their children a deep reverence for family, a reverence that endured to the end. Sarsfield spoke of his beloved brother Eamonn DeValera and his sister Veronica with affection and tenderness, and always referred to them in the present tense. Given his parents’ deep love of the Catholic faith, it was little surprise that the two brothers were called to priesthood, with Eamonn ordained on June 3, 1944, and Sarsfield on May 19, 1951. Most of the Helena clergy humorously opined that Vernie should have been named a monsignor, given her deep affiliation with the diocese and her bonds with the Helena clergy.

For all who knew him, Sarsfield was a Renaissance man: intellectually nimble, a lifelong student of Irish history and ecclesiology, a poet, scholar, bibliophile and historian. He was a docent in his own household, which was a veritable treasure of diocesan history. He was a humorist and conversationalist in his own right, occasionally spicing his conversation with irreverent innuendo and that characteristic twinkle in his eye.

He was a man uncommonly cultured and refined, equally at home with the president of Ireland or the ordinary parishioner.

The vicissitudes of the Church were anchored by his deep conviction that Christ is “the same, yesterday, today and forever.” The celebration of Holy Mass was the center of his spirituality, augmented by the prayerful recitation of the Divine Office and an abiding devotion to Mary, Mother of God.

Those who lived outside of Butte quickly recognized Sarsfield O Sullivan as booster extraordinaire for the “Holy City” of Butte, Montana. He should have been on the payroll for the Chamber of Commerce!


With the death of John Patrick Sarsfield O Sullivan on April 24, Butte lost a living legend and our local color is one step closer to monochrome. Yet we will speak of Sarsfield O Sullivan for years in the present tense, as a beloved father, a cherished brother and friend who enriched and enlivened Church and community through the force of his faith, intellect and charming personality.

At the conclusion of every visit I made to Sarsfield’s home, he would ask for my blessing, and then thank me with the words, “I love you.”

As we bid this fine man a fond farewell, we return his words of affection from the bottom of our hearts: We love you, Father Sarsfield O Sullivan. Godspeed until we meet again.

An accounting of Our Pastoral Planning Process

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas Ph.D.

The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council strongly encouraged diocesan Bishops to convene a Diocesan Pastoral Council of clergy, religious, and laity. Their charge—to investigate and consider matters relating to pastoral activity and to formulate practical conclusions. The composition of the Council should truly reflect the make-up of the individual diocese.

In 2005, I convened our own Diocesan Pastoral Council with the goal of creating a pastoral plan to help guide the diocese, select pastoral priorities and apportion fiscal and human resources over the next five years.

I cautioned the Diocesan Pastoral Council that our endeavors together were not designed to overshadow the activity of true reform; that is, our common call to holiness, the primacy of prayer, the centrality of Eucharist and the need for full conscious and active participation of the laity as we together further the mission of the Church.

At the same time, pastoral planning, I told them, is indispensible as we move forward in the preaching of the Gospel, the celebration of the Sacraments, outreach to the poor and the evangelization of culture and society in this portion of the Lord’s vineyard.

Fourteen hundred people participated in the listening sessions across the diocese. The process was positive, productive and ambitious. Thanks to the careful guidance of Sister Rita McGinnis, SCL, men, women and young people from across the Diocese were provided ample opportunity to voice their concerns and identify pastoral needs and issues that eventually would become part of our pastoral plan. On Feb. 2, 2007, I promulgated our pastoral plan, Come to the Light. It has guided our efforts since then.

The late Archbishop Thomas J. Murphy, former Bishop of Great Falls-Billings and Archbishop of Seattle, was wont to say that “we can’t do every good thing,” but what we opt to do, we will do well, with vigor and intentionality.

I wish to provide you with a brief progress report on the work of the Diocesan Pastoral Council and the priorities we selected together, most of which are works in progress.

Youth and Young Adult Ministry

Across the diocese and in every parish, pastors and laity alike asked for assistance in creating and supporting dynamic youth and young adult ministry. Their common concerns underscore the high premium we place on the young people in the Diocese of Helena.

In response to that concern, the diocese hired Doug Tooke, a remarkable, energetic, visionary leader in youth and young adult ministry.

For the past four years, Doug has served as an inspiration and catalyst for the youth of the diocese and as a resource for our pastors and youth ministers. His work has built upon the legacy of the past, and energized the Catholic Youth Coalition, the Junior High Rally, World Youth Day, parish-based youth activity, Bible study, prayer groups, dialogue evenings with the Bishop and other efforts across the Diocese. In every way, Doug and the young people who advise him have helped transform and raise up youth and young adult ministry in every deanery.


Guatemala Mission

The Guatemala Mission, founded in 1963, is a response to the clarion call of the Second Vatican Council for Dioceses to share clergy and resources with mission peoples in need. The intrepid Father Jim Hazelton has faithfully served the Guatemalan people since the mid-1960s. He has created nearly 50 mission communities across the rural countryside of northwest Guatemala, and on his watch the Clinica Maxeña and La Asunción School have been created.

The Guatemala Mission is an endeavor in transition. The Diocesan Pastoral Council has strongly recognized the value of the Guatemala commitment to the Diocese of Helena, which helps raise up for our own parishioners the universal nature of the Church. Our mission people, for over four decades, have inspired and strengthened the faith of everyone who has visited this remarkable mission complex.

Together with the Guatemala bishops and Father Hazelton, we are looking for ways to ensure stability and continuity into the future. Our school is educating 550 students, our clinic treats 15,000 to 20, 000 patients annually and the parish of Santo Tomas and its related missions reach thousands of parishioners scattered through the Guatemala countryside.

The DPC has correctly underscored the import and impact of this amazing undertaking and has selected the Guatemala Mission as a life-giving commitment for the Diocese of Helena now and into the future. I have assigned the Guatemala Mission effort as a major part of Mark Frei’s job description, and he has enthusiastically responded to the challenge of this life-giving and complex mission endeavor.


Living Stones

How will we provide quality pastoral care for the 57 parishes and 39 missions in the Diocese of Helena, spread across 52,000 square miles? The Living Stones project is under way across the diocese and is designed to ask hard questions and ensure the equitable distribution of priests to serve our people. Like the DPC process itself, the Living Stones project taps meaningfully into the thoughts, concerns and advice of the local parish, and eventually will result in recommendations born at the local level. This project has been built and implemented by Sister Rita McGinnis in the Office of Pastoral Planning Services.

A keystone of the Living Stones project is a commitment to Vocations Awareness—the recruitment, formation and retention of candidates for the priesthood. Another component is the substantial formation of lay leaders, and the possible realignment of parish structures. In the final analysis, it is the responsibility of the Bishop to select and apply recommendations that come from this comprehensive planning process.

In 2008, a new group of men, accompanied by their wives, began training toward eventual ordination as permanent deacons. Chancellor Father John Robertson is directing the deacon candidates’ formation.


Formation and Education

The Diocesan Pastoral Council members heard the call of parishioners across the diocese for opportunities in faith formation and education. The presence of John Fencik has been a great blessing for us, as John builds upon the firm foundation created by Jim Tucker Sr., who, among other responsibilities, was instrumental in shaping and expanding the vision of the Program of Formation for Lay Ministry over the past 13 years.

John’s work emphasizes the need for the systematic formation of the laity, who are involved in many areas of parochial lay ministry, including catechesis of the young in our communities. In recent months, he has provided adult faith formation opportunities across the diocese, to meet and supplement parish needs .

John’s responsibility includes exploring opportunities for distance learning through technology, and consultation with the Office of the Academic Dean and the Theology Department at Carroll College as a means of providing faith formation for our people. He also is working in concert with Doug Tooke to provide the future vision for youth and young adults, including Legendary Lodge, campus ministry and diocesan and deanery events.


from Age to Age Campaign

Five years ago, the Diocese of Helena was facing fiscal insolvency and required the infusion of borrowed capital to meet our basic obligations. This fiscal crisis, which I have written about in the past, was the result of a number of antecedents, including sexual abuse settlements, an unfavorable market and the transition of bishops during the past decade. A capital campaign was needed desperately, but I felt that we must first set a firm foundation and create a strong pastoral plan if the capital campaign was to be successful.

In 2008 we initiated the from Age to Age campaign with a $12.6 million goal. To date we have received $11 million in cash and pledges, and the redemption rate has remained steady at over 95 percent. I am deeply indebted to the people of the Diocese of Helena for their generosity and the ongoing support of the diocese as reflected in their commitment of time, talent and treasure.


Good Stewardship

The DPC also called for a strengthening of our diocesan financial infrastructures with greater attention to diocesan development efforts, greater reliance on technology, timely audits, fiscal transparency and support of the Foundation for the Diocese of Helena. All of these efforts, wrote the Diocesan Pastoral Council, must be undergirded by a strong theology of stewardship. In 2009, the Presbyteral Council/College of Consultors recommended renaming the old Diocesan Offertory Program (DOP) the Annual Catholic Appeal (ACA). The Diocese is blessed by the committed presence and competence of Pete McNamee, Glenda Seipp, Beth Yeakel and all those who support the various components of Financial Services, Stewardship Services and the Foundation for the Diocese of Helena.


In this high-tech era, the DPC recommended an outside evaluation of our communication efforts so that the diocese is better suited to communicate with our people and various publics across the vast diocesan terrain. Internet, intranet, the diocesan newspaper, the chancery monthly mailing, Twitter and Facebook are but a few of the methods that we presently use.

The findings of the communication audit, facilitated by Gallatin Public Affairs, indicated that the diocese is effectively communicating with our various constituents. The consultant also offered a number of practical suggestions to strengthen our initiatives. In the past few months, we’ve seen the new design of The Montana Catholic newspaper, as well as the redesigned and renovated diocesan Web site Renée St. Martin Wizeman and her staff are highly competent and more familiar than their bishop with the various communication technologies.

I am deeply grateful to Renée, Susan Gallagher, Brooke Tierney and Eric Connolly for helping guide the diocese into the technological age.


OnGoing Commitments

A major undertaking in the future is the DPC’s selection of the New Evangelization as another ambitious project targeted for 2011-12. The late Pope John Paul II underscored the importance of every Catholic becoming an effective instrument of evangelization within his or her own circle of influence. So many Catholics have become separated from the Church for a wide variety of reasons. Other people have never heard the Word of God or encountered the person of Jesus Christ. The New Evangelization is a way to revitalize the local Church, inviting Catholics to come home and others to experience for the first time the Sacramental life of the Church.

At the same time, the New Evangelization process requires a firm foundation, if it is to be carried out effectively. The Diocesan Presbyteral Council will be the particular venue for the New Evangelization project to be planned and executed systematically and effectively over the next several years.

Other ongoing projects include Native American Ministry, to ensure that the Diocese is exploring new and creative ways to celebrate and enliven our appreciation of the Native American peoples, the first to invite the Word of God in the Northwest. Effective Native American Ministry has been well under way for years, most recently through the Jesuit presence among the Salish and Kootenai and through the newest arrivals to Native American Ministry, Sisters Margaret Hilary, OP, and Mary Stauder, OP. The Blackfeet receive the tender pastoral care of Father Ed Kohler, and De La Salle Blackfeet School recently was established under guidance of the De La Salle Christian Brothers.

Another commitment that we will embrace in the future is more effective presence and outreach to the various forms of Rural Ministry in this vast region of western Montana. I have asked Mark Frei from Diocesan Pastoral Services to serve as the catalyst for these conversations and to build upon some highly effective rural pastoral projects already under way in such communities as Valier, Power, West Yellowstone, Drummond and Philipsburg, to name a few.



On March 27, 2010, the Diocesan Pastoral Council held its final meeting and reviewed the extraordinary initiatives under way as a result of commitment to the people in the Diocese of Helena. I expressed to Council members, in your name, our profound gratitude for all they have accomplished in so short a time.

While I describe the initiatives of the Diocesan Pastoral Council as “works in progress,” we already are looking to the calling forth of a new pastoral council to create another five-year plan to carry us into the future at the conclusion of this planning period in 2012. Council efforts are testimony to our Diocesan commitment to the value of collaborative ministry among clergy, religious and laity working to further the mission and ministry of the Church we love so deeply.

CRS Reaches Out to Help God’s People in Need

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas Ph.D.

In 2008, only one U.S. Catholic in 10 knew about the international mission of Catholic Relief Services. The devastating earthquake in Haiti may change all that.

In an unprecedented outpouring of care and generosity, U.S. Catholics contributed nearly $40 million to the suffering people in Haiti. Nearly $300,000 came from the people of the Diocese of Helena. More importantly, CRS provided a conduit for ordinary Catholics in America to express prayerful solidarity with our brothers and sisters in their hour of need.

In Haiti, a nation where infrastructure and delivery systems were impaired or nonexistent before the earthquake, the tasks ahead will be daunting. Catholic Relief Services is no stranger to hardship.

CRS is the premier relief agency of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and a remarkable vehicle for U.S. Catholics to make a difference in the lives of the overseas poor.

CRS was founded in 1943 to assist World War II refugees fleeing war-torn Europe. Until the 1950s, the agency was known as War Relief Services.

During the past five decades the mission expanded into Africa, Asia and Latin America. Today, CRS is present across the globe, wherever human need is most pressing. CRS is recognized by peer agencies as a premier first responder in nations impacted by earthquakes, floods, typhoons, civil unrest and mass migration. The worldwide staff of 5,000 is extremely skilled in providing disaster relief, health care, resettlement, emergency housing and expertise in a wide array of other fields.

While the emergency-response efforts of CRS are now known more widely, the organization’s development programs are equally notable. CRS helps impoverished people become self-sufficient through programs in food security, agriculture, peace building, microfinance, education, health care and sanitation.

Various international organizations estimate that between 800 million and 1 billion persons lack adequate access to food. Thus, the fundamental human right of food security remains a key issue for CRS.

It facilitates food security through a twofold program, seeking to alleviate immediate hunger and to change conditions that lead to persistent hunger.

The first objective is met through emergency food distribution, primarily to victims of natural disasters and to refugees, and through safety-net programs for food distribution to vulnerable populations, including children, the elderly and the mentally ill.

The second objective involves medium- and long-term approaches. The medium-term approach advances agricultural development, microfinance and health programming to bolster food security. In the long term, CRS seeks to change conditions that lead to persistent hunger. Education, natural-resource management, peace building, advocacy and human rights work are pathways for this change.

Through agricultural efforts, CRS works to improve the immediate wellbeing of the poorest farming and rural communities in 34 countries across the world. Strengthening local agencies and their ability to guide development for the people they serve are the long-term goals.

CRS’ peace building work includes efforts to identify and address underlying causes of conflict, and emphasizes the power of dialogue and local decision making. The agency’s approaches range from proactive human rights education and microfinance programs, to providing peace education for children in refugee camps and helping to rebuild homes and economies in areas recovering from violence.

CRS’ microfinance activities are rooted in Catholic social teaching. The program serves the very poor, especially women and persons in remote rural communities, with particular emphasis on the self-employed poor who lack access to formal credit or savings services.

In striving to meet education needs, CRS has supported and implemented programs through which students receive meals at school. Helping to meet short- and long-term education, nutrition, and food security objectives has been the goal since 1958.

Recently, the agency has expanded its efforts to improve the quality of education, girls’ access to education, support for teachers, health/hygiene education and services for students. Also expanded were efforts to improve school infrastructure, and to increase parental and community involvement in schools.

CRS provides health care for vulnerable groups—especially those in underserved or unserved communities—through health facility infrastructure, health worker training, medical treatments and prevention work. Health programs focus on child survival, maternal and child health, improved sanitation, access to clean water and HIV-AIDS education. In response to the HIV-AIDS pandemic, CRS offers AIDS programs in 62 countries across Africa and regions of Asia and Latin America.

CRS is motivated by the deep and abiding conviction that every person is made in the image of God, a fact that gives every person inherent dignity and worth. CRS is an expert in humanity, and forms the hearts of its workers first and foremost in the school of the heart.

Pope Benedict, in his Encyclical Deus Caritas Est, captured in few words the essence of Catholic Relief Services as “the programme of Jesus—a heart which sees.” This heart sees where love is needed, and acts accordingly.

The mission of CRS is a grace-filled means for ordinary Catholics to love and live in solidarity with brothers and sisters in need.

The people of CRS clearly embody a way of making present, here and now, the love described so compellingly by the Holy Father in Deus Caritas Est.

U.S. Catholics can be proud of the work of CRS, and can have confidence in supporting its mission and ministry.


For more information, please visit Catholic Relief Services’ Web site at

Bishop George Leo Thomas serves on the Catholic Relief Services Board of Directors.

Our Guatemala Mission Shows the Abundant Fruits of Living Mission

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.

I have just completed my third pastoral visit to our Mission in Guatemala. I, and the seven individuals who joined me on this journey, have returned to our diocese, inspired once again by the faith and goodness of the Guatemalan people.

While bishop of Helena, Bishop Raymond G. Hunthausen courageously took up the challenge of the Second Vatican Council, which urged bishops to be generous in sharing their clergy and resources with the mission territories of the world, and to “give ear to the voice of the multitudes crying ‘help us.’” (Acts 16:9)

The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council sketched a blueprint for this missionary activity, and challenged dioceses to marshal their forces in bringing this plan to life.

The mission plan of the Second Vatican Council is beautiful and compelling. It describes a Church that embraces all peoples and ardently desires to share with them the Gospel of Jesus Christ, source of light and life.

Our Mission at Santo Tomas la Union, with its many outposts in the mountains of northwestern Guatemala, is a living reflection of the vision of the Second Vatican Council.

Father Jim Hazelton and a cadre of priests, religious and laity have carried the vision of the Second Vatican Council up to the present day, but not without a high risk to personal safety and wellbeing.

For 45 years, the Mission staff and rural populations in Guatemala have faced personal danger, resulting from periodic waves of civil unrest, drug trafficking, graft and corruption, violent assault, disease, poverty and inadequate police protection. These stark realities have exacted high tolls upon those who live and labor in the Guatemalan countryside. At the same time, the spirit of the Guatemalan people and our missionaries remains indomitable, as we witness the slow but certain transformation taking place in the hearts of the people.

Father Hazelton, now in his eighth decade, remains driven by his zeal for the Gospel and passion for his parishioners. The heart of his missionary activity is centered upon the preaching of the Word and the celebration of the Sacraments, “whose center and summit is the Most Holy Eucharist.” (AG 9)

As Father Hazelton celebrates Eucharist among the Guatemalan peoples, his heart overflows with joy and his face expresses a dazzling awareness that Jesus Himself is present in Word and Sacrament.

This truly remarkable priest has also trained and formed bands of lay catechists who live and labor in the mountain villages and outposts of Guatemala, teaching new generations in the Way of Jesus Christ and the Church.

The Second Vatican Council’s mission blueprint underscored the importance of Catholic schools as “an outstanding means for forming and developing Christian youth … and elevating the level of human dignity and preparing the way for living conditions which are more humane.” (AG 12)

Our relatively young school, La Asun-ción, is providing unprecedented opportunity for children and young people, some 500 in number, many of whom would otherwise be relegated to a life of poverty and need. The education they receive is opening new doors into the future, especially for the young women who often lack the opportunities accorded boys in Guatemala. We are especially proud of Carroll College graduate Alex Woelkers. In addition to teaching English, he is serving as house father for the 28 male boarding students at La Asunción.

The Clinica Maxeña is the embodiment of the Second Vatican Council’s challenge to extend Christian charity to all “without distinction of race, social condition or religion.” The Council Fathers, aware of the devastating effects of malnutrition and disease, urged parishioners of the first world to offer aid and technology to those fettered by poverty, famine and disease.

Registered nurse Sheila McShane and a staff of 20 mostly indigenous clinic workers have continued the visionary work of Sister Mary Waddell, BVM, offering skilled medical care and education to nearly 15,000 patients each year.

Behind the scenes, Sister Anna Priester, BVM, has developed a weavings program and micro-finance structure for women and families previously unable to support themselves. Their beautiful weavings reflect the women’s proud Mayan heritage, and help restore their dignity, emancipate them from the bonds of poverty and place them on the road to self-sufficiency.

The Second Vatican Council described the Church and its missionaries as selfless individuals looking for “neither gain nor gratitude.” Rather, they are described as individuals “prompted by the Holy Spirit to walk the same road which Christ walked: a road of poverty and obedience, of service and self sacrifice …” (AG 5)

The Mission staff of Santo Tomas is the very embodiment of the Council’s vision to spread the faith and promote the saving work of Jesus Christ.

Our pastoral plan, Come to the Light, prompts the people of the Diocese of Helena to rediscover, celebrate and support the work of our Guatemala Mission, while finding new and innovative ways to carry this life-giving work into the future. To be sure, the challenges we face will be great, but we are driven by the conviction that “nothing is impossible with God.”

During my recent visit, both Bishop Pablo Vizcaíno Prado, bishop of Suchitepéquez-Retalhuleu, and Bishop Gonzalo de Villa y Vásquez, bishop of Sololá-Chimaltenango, expressed their profound gratitude to the parishioners of the Diocese of Helena and to those who directly serve in their Guatemalan dioceses.

We are working closely with the local bishops to ensure that our mission efforts are consonant with their vision, and meeting the pastoral and social needs of their people.

Together, we are remaining vigilant over the need to prepare indigenous leadership to eventually assume responsibility for the spiritual, educational and medical needs of the Mission communities in ways that are realistic, responsible and systematic.

Those who accompanied me on this recent mission journey, Msgr. Kevin O’Neill, Father Tom Haffey, Mark Frei (Mission director), Jeremy Beck and Rick Hyland (Missoula Catholic schools principals), Moe Wosepka (Montana Catholic Conference executive director) and Martin Kidston (Helena Independent Record writer), were deeply enriched by the powerful and abiding faith of our Guatemalan sisters and brothers, and inspired by their joy and goodness.

Undoubtedly the richness of this journey will take months for all of us to process.

Taking Time, Giving Time

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.

Author and educator Henry Van Dyke once opined, “Time is too slow for those who wait, too swift for those who grieve, too short for those who rejoice, but for those who love, time is eternity.” Zall’s Second Law is less poetic on the subject of time – “How long a minute is depends on which side of the bathroom door you’re on.”

Time is a precious gift. Poet Carl Sandburg described time as “the coin of your life…the only coin you have and only you can determine how it will be spent.”

Author Denis Waitley wisely observed that “time is an equal-opportunity employer. Each human being has exactly the same number of hours and minutes every day. Rich people can’t buy more hours, scientists can’t invent new minutes and you can’t save time to spend it on another day.” Clearly, the gift of time is given to each person by God to be used wisely and well.

At the dawn of this New Year, we do well to ask ourselves prayerfully, “How am I spending my time?”

In the early weeks of the New Year, I offer you these reflections on time, so that together we will spend the coin of our lives wisely.

  1. Give each other the gift that keeps on giving. Parents, grandparents and families, quality time spent with kids, grandkids and family members will pay dividends for the rest of your lives.

Are you aware of the health benefits that come to a family that shares quality time together? A Columbia University study advised parents to make a weekly meal sacrosanct. Research shows that the blessings of this investment are irrefutable for the family that dines together. This time together for conversation, levity, discussion and sharing translates into fewer social problems for families with teenagers.

Teenagers, take time with your parents and family members for conversation by taking off the headphones, turning off the iPod, leaving your cell phone in your room and spending a twitter-free hour with those who love you.

Families, make time for family prayer. Parents, teach your children to pray, and include in their instruction the rosary, novenas, Stations of the Cross and spontaneous prayers directed to the needs of your family, your parish and the wider community.

Plan to take an annual vacation as a family, if at all possible. It need not be an expensive or lengthy sojourn, but rather a simple time of re-creation.

Husbands and wives, take time for each other. Set aside an evening a month for a special date with your loved one. This time together will also be a blessing for your children, and help you rediscover the precious qualities that first attracted you to your spouse.

Consider new ways to expand the horizons of your mind by spending less time in front of the television or computer screen. Read a good book, listen to music, take in a good movie. In the words of self-help author Stephen Covey, “sharpen the sword” of your intellect.

  1. Spend quality time with the Lord. Remember the sage words of Pope Benedict XVI who wrote, “Remember time spent with the Lord is never time wasted.” Let Jesus speak to you in Scripture and in prayer. Open and close your day with words of gratitude, contrition, petition and praise. Turn to Jesus in times of sorrow, fear and joy. Draw closer to Jesus in the Eucharist, called by the late Pope John Paul II “the Church’s most priceless gift.” St. Theresa of Avila called contemplative prayer “a close sharing between friends. It means taking time frequently to be alone with Him whom we know loves us.”

Become a life-long student of the Church, discovering the treasury of our traditions, and sacred writings, including the Lives of the Saints.

This year, take time to make a good confession, and resolve to set aside whatever is dis-easing your soul and robbing your heart of peace.

Prayer is best cultivated in quality time and commitment to the person of Jesus. Is your present prayer life saying silently, “I have many priorities in my life, Lord, and you are not among them”? Let this New Year be the year when your prayer life took a turn for the better.

  1. Make time for others. Give part of your time to others in greater need than yourself. St. Francis of Assisi wrote that Christians hold that “in giving we receive, and in dying we are born to eternal life.”

In this New Year, volunteer a portion of your time to a worthy cause. Visit a nursing home, call an elderly parent or shop on behalf of a homebound neighbor.

Listen to the forceful counsel of author H. Jackson Brown, who wrote, “Don’t say you don’t have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day as were given to Helen Keller, Louie Pasteur, Michelangelo, Mother Theresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson and Albert Einstein.”

Giving of ourselves to others with careless abandon and generosity is a third way to invest the gift of time wisely and well.

There is a certain urgency in deciding how we will use this gift of time that comes from heaven above. Without thoughtful and intentional decision-making, we are left vulnerable to wasting time and wiling away our days.

The late John F. Kennedy related this brief story about the great Marshal Lyautey of France. Lyautey once asked his gardener to plant a tree. The gardener objected that the tree was slow growing and would not reach maturity for 100 years. To which Lyautey replied, “In that case, there is no time to lose; plant it this afternoon!”