Helena Bishop George Leo Thomas, Ph.D., is transferring to the xenon-lit desert metropolis sometimes called Sin City. It's an interesting place to be for a priest, but one with 750,000 Catholic faithful who are in need of a new bishop after theirs reached retirement age earlier this year.
After 14 years in Helena, Thomas is receiving a major promotion. Las Vegas’ Catholic population is 15 times larger than the Helena diocese, even though it encompasses 12,000 fewer square miles of space.
“I got the call from the Nuncio a week ago,” Thomas said from a conference room on the Helena Cathedral’s campus. “I could tell no one because it was under papal seal.”
He was told to get down to Vegas for a press conference, for which he traveled incognito. “That was a strange feeling,” he said with a laugh.
The announcement was made earlier this week.
Thomas bounced on his feet as he talked. He returned from Las Vegas late Thursday night.
“It was touch-and-go there for a minute. I was the last person on the plane," he said.
But he was chipper, yet solemn as he considered leaving Helena.
With a master’s degree in theology and another in community health, along with a Ph.D. in history with a thesis focusing on the Catholic and Protestant missions in the Northwest, Thomas is an exceptionally well-read bishop with an eye for administration. He served as an auxiliary bishop in Seattle for years while he served that archdiocese before coming to Helena in 2004.
Thomas was born in Montana and raised in Butte, graduating from Carroll College in 1972 before going to St. Thomas Seminary in Bothell, Washington to become a priest.
“I have Big Sky in my blood,” Thomas said in a Friday press conference.
Thomas is intensely focused on social justice in the Church. During his time in Helena he faced the massive sex abuse scandal in a non-combative, mediation-centered style that he said started with putting pastoral care first.
“There were 300 plus individual cases, and if we had chosen to litigate it would have been three decades of litigation,” Thomas said.
That combative kind of conflict is what Thomas thinks the Church should avoid. Rather, he made a decision to focus on reconciliation and healing, something that Pope Francis himself has called the “medicine of mercy.”
Thomas has focused on that medicine in his teaching as well. In a letter to the Catholic community of Helena in October, he called on them to demand a compassionate solution to the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals that President Donald Trump rescinded earlier in 2017.
“I strongly urge our people to ask Congress to work with the Administration in creating a permanent and compassionate legislative solution to the DACA crisis. As people of faith, we say to the DACA youth – regardless of your immigration status – you are children of God and welcome in the Catholic Church. We support you, pray for you, and will walk with you as your advocate and friend in your time of need,” Thomas wrote. “You are not alone.”
That kind of call for compassion, along with the mission work that Thomas and the Diocese of Helena have engaged in during his time here, are important components to his transfer to Las Vegas. The Vatican has been looking for engaged, social justice-minded priests, bishops and Cardinals to promote to important places in the Church, like Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, who was installed as the Archbishop of Newark, New Jersey in January 2017.
Thomas sees Las Vegas in need of healing after the deadliest mass shooting in modern United States history in October 2017. In going to a community damaged by a wanton act of violence, Thomas said that the issues prompted by the shooting, the “neuralgic issue around gun control” and a dialogue being propelled by high school kids about mental health and high-powered rifles all need to be addressed with the medicine of mercy.
Thomas quoted St. Augustine of Hippo, the fourth century African bishop who famously converted to Christianity after years of bad behavior and became one of the most famous Christian writers and theologians of all time: “If you look deep into the eyes of any person, you’ll find something divine.”
A new administrator for the Diocese of Helena will be chosen within eight days of Thomas’ installation in Las Vegas on May 15. He plans to move to his new Diocese in early May and will continue to run Helena until the liturgy on May 15 that will place him as the new leader of Las Vegas.