July 28, 2017

New archbishop ‘understands needs’ of Hispanic community

Then-Bishop Charles C. Thompson elevates the Eucharist during a special Latino Day of Mercy Mass on Aug. 6, 2016, at St. Benedict Cathedral in Evansville, Ind., to celebrate the Holy Year of Mercy. (Photo courtesy The Message)

Then-Bishop Charles C. Thompson elevates the Eucharist during a special Latino Day of Mercy Mass on Aug. 6, 2016, at St. Benedict Cathedral in Evansville, Ind., to celebrate the Holy Year of Mercy. (Photo courtesy The Message)

By Natalie Hoefer

When Sharon Burns speaks of Archbishop Charles C. Thompson’s dedication to Hispanic ministry, she does so with strength and conviction. As director of Hispanic ministry and director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Evansville, Ind., she had a front-seat view of his dedication to serving the Latino community.

“He genuinely cares for the people and has grown to understand their needs, and he wants to proactively address them,” says Burns.

According to a story in Evansville’s diocesan newspaper, The Message, welcoming then-Bishop Thompson as their new shepherd in 2011, he had already identified Hispanic ministry as a priority for the southwestern Indiana diocese.

“He realized from data that we had a growing population throughout the diocese,” says Burns. “He wanted to help them not only in faith formation, but [also] in their ability to participate and navigate fully in the community. He understood that some have needs that are more community-based—for example, that immigration legal services is important to have. That started in his tenure” through Catholic Charities, she says.

As a seminarian, Archbishop Thompson chose to spend one summer learning Spanish in the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas, along the Mexico border. So when he came to the Evansville Diocese, he was able to celebrate Mass and other sacraments in Spanish.

But Burns describes Archbishop Thompson as one who likes to relate to people, and his limited Spanish-speaking skills prevented him from conversing in the language.

So for more than a year, he met for lunch almost weekly with one of her Spanish-speaking employees in Catholic Charities to converse in Spanish in order to improve his skills.

“To carve out a lunch almost every week and meet with a staff member—that’s quite a commitment,” she says. “I tried, and I couldn’t do it.”

Within the last three years, he also spent a month participating in an intensive Spanish language program at the Mexican American Catholic College in San Antonio, Texas.

Such commitment to improve his ability to converse in Spanish is indicative of another common trait of the archbishop, says Burns: “He reaches out to get what he needs to serve God better and do a better job.”

To serve the Hispanic community better, then-Bishop Thompson reached out in another way—he reached out in search of Latino seminarians to be ordained in the Evansville Diocese.

Now a priest, then-seminarian Homero Rodriguez, a native of Mexico, was contacted by a friend who was in priestly formation for the Evansville Diocese. The friend commented that the diocese had priests who spoke Spanish, but no Latino priests, and that Bishop Thompson was looking for Hispanic men to serve in the diocese.

“I thought about it for quite a few months,” says Father Rodriguez. “It kind of stuck in my head.”

He came to the diocese “just kind of like checking out whether I liked the diocese or city, just basically to have an experience of the language and Church,” Father Rodriguez admits.

When he finally met with then-Bishop Thompson, “I didn’t know he was studying Spanish,” the priest says. “We had a very pleasant conversation. Every time he could, he spoke Spanish to me. It was just enjoyable. Because of him, I decided to stay.”

And thanks to then-Bishop Thompson, two more Latino seminarians will be ordained for the diocese next summer, says Father Rodriguez, who was ordained last December.

“I see this as one of his most significant efforts,” says Burns. Bringing in the Latino seminarians “has been positively received by all of the community,” not just the Hispanics, she notes.

Speaking for the Catholic Hispanic community of the Evansville Diocese, Father Rodriguez admits they are sad to see their bishop go.

“People are definitely going to miss him,” he says. “We had a farewell Mass for him. I saw people from the Hispanic community who came from almost an hour away just to say goodbye to him. That speaks volumes of not only his personality, but his leadership in the diocese.

“Part of our prayers is that we get a man of his conviction, his love for the Hispanic community, somebody who is willing to listen.”

When it comes to Archbishop Thompson’s efforts for the Hispanic community, Burns says, “There’s no doubt in my mind it’s for a love of Jesus Christ. His love for Jesus motivates everything he does.

“His sights are clearly set on the kingdom of God, not just for himself but for all people.” †

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