July 28, 2017

Archbishop Thompson’s leadership in Evansville Diocese marked by collaboration and desire to help and serve others

Then-Bishop Charles C. Thompson of Evansville, Ind., center, leads intercessory prayer during the city of Evansville’s interfaith observance of the National Day of Prayer on May 4. Representatives of various faith traditions offered pray and reflection during the gathering at Trinity United Methodist Church in Evansville. Archbishop Thompson organized the yearly interfaith prayer service. (Message photo by Peewee Vasquez)

Then-Bishop Charles C. Thompson of Evansville, Ind., center, leads intercessory prayer during the city of Evansville’s interfaith observance of the National Day of Prayer on May 4. Representatives of various faith traditions offered pray and reflection during the gathering at Trinity United Methodist Church in Evansville. Archbishop Thompson organized the yearly interfaith prayer service. (Message photo by Peewee Vasquez)

By Sean Gallagher

Brenda Hopf is like many Catholics across central and southern Indiana.

She’s 57, has been married for 34 years, has two children and is a grandmother. She’s worked for 39 years on the shop floor of a furniture factory in Ferdinand, Ind., and is a member of Divine Mercy Parish in Dubois County in the Evansville, Ind., Diocese.

And like a growing number of Catholics, she has also experienced the merger of her former parish with another, and she knows the challenges and hardships that this can bring.

But unlike most Catholics who faithfully attend Sunday Mass in their parishes and live out their faith there and elsewhere throughout the rest of the week, Hopf has been a close witness to the pastoral leadership of her bishop.

From 2014-16, she and other diocesan leaders met monthly with Archbishop Charles C. Thompson, who was then the bishop of Evansville, to form a new mission statement and pastoral plan for the Church in southwestern Indiana.

“It was obvious to me that in his work, all begins with prayer, always asking for guidance from the Holy Spirit,” said Hopf of Archbishop Thompson. “He approaches his work in a very down-to-earth manner and is a very good listener.

“He strikes me as a person who wants to leave no stone unturned before he moves forward with any plan or makes any decisions. It is very obvious to me that his life is Christ-centered. Bishop Thompson’s approach to his work as a shepherd of the Church is inspirational in the fact he is such a good example of how we should all approach the work we do each day.”

In recent interviews with The Criterion, Hopf, two priests of the Evansville Diocese, its superintendent of Catholic schools and the mayor of Evansville all made observations from several perspectives about the new archbishop of Indianapolis.

A pastor to seminarians

Father Tyler Tenbarge was a junior at Bishop Simon Bruté College Seminary in Indianapolis when Archbishop Thompson was appointed bishop of Evansville in 2011.

He later received priestly formation at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad and was ordained a priest in 2016.

During his time in the seminary, Father Tenbarge saw Archbishop Thompson as a pastor for him and his fellow Evansville seminarians.

“During his seminary visits, Bishop Thompson made it clear that he was there for us, that he supported and prayed for us, and yet he also was firm in his desire that we were learning much in classes, praying regularly, and listening to our formation staff’s lead,” Father Tenbarge said. “It was clear that he wanted good, holy, capable priests, and it was also clear that he sincerely wanted to help us become good, holy, and capable.

“He was being a pastor to me, and I greatly appreciated his supportive presence and wise guidance then, and during my first year of priestly ministry this year.”

Father Tenbarge has tried to emulate in his own priestly life and ministry the humility and strategic leadership qualities Archbishop Thompson exhibits.

“His humility shows in his request for prayer at the close of nearly every public gathering, in his use of councils and advice from priests, deacons and lay faithful in making decisions, and in his presence,” Father Tenbarge said. “Archbishop Thompson does not choose the front of the stage, although he is quite capable of handling it.

“Concerning his leadership, Archbishop Thompson governed with foresight and with a clear plan. I think that’s why so many projects under his leadership have been so successful.”

Collaborative leadership

One of the most challenging projects that Archbishop Thompson took on was restructuring the parishes of his diocese. When a strategic planning process for the diocese began in 2013, there were 69 parishes in the Evansville Diocese. When it was completed in 2014, the number of faith communities stood at 46.

Although many parishes were merged in the process and its members had the opportunity to appeal the mergers to the Vatican, no such appeals were made across the entire diocese.

As Archbishop Thompson was approaching the time to make decisions about possible mergers, he visited each of the parishes that could be affected.

“The bishop was very compassionate as he listened to the heartaches of many who were sad to be losing their identity as a parish,” Hopf said. “For the most part, people were very respectful, but this certainly could not have been an easy task for him and had to be physically and emotionally draining, not to mention time-consuming to travel the diocese for these meetings at the parish level.

“He knew people were grieving their loss, yet he also knew he had no choice but to move forward with the plan.”

Father Bernard Etienne, vicar general for the Evansville Diocese under Archbishop Thompson, echoed Hopf’s experience of his leadership in the Church in southwestern Indiana, saying it was “energetic and collaborative.”

“He seeks broad counsel in major decisions and listens attentively to a wide variety of people,” said Father Etienne, a brother of Archbishop Paul D. Etienne of Anchorage, Alaska, who is a former priest of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. “He seems to welcome and encourage interaction at the parish level when making decisions about the direction of the diocese.”

Father Eienne noted that Archbishop Thompson said he took this close approach to ministry in the Evansville Diocese from his earliest days, even though he had little experience there prior to his appointment.

“He quickly revealed himself to be a man deeply invested in the life of our parishes and presbyterate,” said Father Etienne. “He was very accessible to us priests, engaged in activities in the community and all types of venues. From dinner at summer socials to larger community events, he could be found mixing with the people.”

‘Quest to help others’

The close collaboration that Archbishop Thompson exercised in leading the Evansville Diocese extended to the broader community in southwestern Indiana, according to Evansville mayor Lloyd Winnecke, who praised the outgoing Evansville bishop for organizing a yearly interfaith prayer service.

“This is an important event for our community, as it is [ordinarily] held on the city’s riverfront at the site of the Four Freedoms Monument, one of Evansville’s most iconic landmarks,” said Winnecke, who is Catholic. “The fact that every faith community in the city participates is a testament to Archbishop Thompson’s … view of acceptance, peace and harmony.”

The subjects of Winnecke’s periodic meetings with Archbishop Thompson were varied, ranging from growth of parishes to the Indiana bishops’ pastoral letter on poverty in the state.

“More often than not, our one-on-one discussions centered on community response to issues of social justice,” Winnecke said. “We’ve enjoyed many conversations on issues of social justice, and how, as a broad community of believers, we can work together toward thoughtful, caring solutions.

“Listening to his thought process [and] what motivates him in his quest to help others makes me particularly proud that Archbishop Thompson has led the Evansville Diocese. It is apparent that he is a man deeply committed to improving not just the spiritual life of our residents, but also advancing and uplifting every facet of life for our city’s most vulnerable.”

Dr. Daryl Hagan, superintendent of schools for the Evansville Diocese, saw Archbishop Thompson reach out to serve the Hispanic community, a growing part of the Church of southwestern Indiana.

“Under his leadership, we expanded the Latino population in our schools from a handful of students when he arrived,” said Hagan, “to now serving over 300 students in our 26 Catholic schools.”

‘A work of the Holy Spirit’

When he heard that Archbishop Thompson had been appointed to lead the Church in central and southern Indiana, Winnecke was proud that “my friend the bishop will soon become my friend the archbishop.”

“He’s impressive,” Winnecke said. “He’s led our diocese through an interesting period of transition, making difficult decisions after much fact-finding and discernment. He’s led with humility, grace and a keen sense of wanting to help others. That’s how he’s led here, and I’m confident that’s how he will lead as the archbishop.”

Father Etienne said he expected his outgoing shepherd would eventually be called on to lead a larger diocese.

“I just hadn’t expected it this soon,” he said. “Archbishop Thompson will be greatly missed by the people of the Diocese of Evansville. However, his many gifts will be a blessing to the archdiocese. He certainly has the capabilities to embrace the expanded responsibilities that await him.”

Father Tenbarge said the appointment of Archbishop Thompson was “a clear work of the Holy Spirit.”

“I have no doubt this is where Christ is calling, and I am glad we were given such a great shepherd for the past six years,” he said. “You can expect authentic humility, a pastor with a seemingly tireless work ethic and a really smart leader.”

Hopf had mixed feelings when she heard that her bishop was leaving, excited to know that the shepherd with which she had worked was being given greater responsibilities, but also sad that he would no longer lead the Church in southwestern Indiana.

“He will work hard to guide the archdiocese in the missionary work of the Church,” Hopf said. “Although the archdiocese is much larger than the Diocese of Evansville, I believe he will do his best to get out among the people as much as time will allow.

“They can count on the fact that he will take everything to prayer before making any decisions. When he makes decisions, he will be firm and not look back because of his approach of seeking out knowledgeable people for the task at hand, praying about it and then leading with ‘Christ the Cornerstone’ as his base.” †

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