In Vespers, a bishop is remembered for his humanity

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz celebrated the Solemn Vespers service for the late Bishop Emeritus David B. Thompson at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist on Dec. 3.

Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone gave the opening remarks and Father Dennis Willey, pastor of Sacred Heart Church who was ordained by Bishop Thompson, delivered a homily.

Here is an excerpt:

Many years ago, when I was a transitional deacon assigned to the Cathedral during the summer, I made a mistake at the end of Sunday Mass. I spoke the words “The Mass is ended, go in peace” before Bishop Thompson had the chance to give his blessing. He politely corrected me and said something along the lines of “the Mass isn’t over until I say it is over.” He then instructed me to give the invitation for the people to bow down and pray for his blessing.

After his blessing he turned to me and said “Now you can say the Mass is ended.” I promptly announced “Now the Mass is ended.” As we began the procession out of the sanctuary to the gentle laughter of the congregation, he kindly placed his arm around my shoulder and whispered to me “Now you are a real deacon — you’ve made your first mistake — you were trying to be too perfect before.”

As we begin the formal celebrations of the Church tonight, celebrating the life of our dear brother, friend and bishop, we are reminded of his many qualities that made him so special to each of us in our own lives. How gracious, considerate, thoughtful and kind he was. How he was a wonderful priest, administrator, and bishop. How he empowered and encouraged others. How he was a man of faith who dedicated his life to the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. How he was a mentor and friend. How he loved sports and a beautiful day on the golf course with friends. How he loved his family — his birth family, the family of the Church, and his diocesan family; his priests and the people of the Diocese of Charleston.

All these qualities are easy to recall as Bishop Thompson was overflowing with them. We all have stories to share that illustrate each of them and I trust that we will generously share those stories tonight and tomorrow and for many years to come. The truth of the matter is that all these qualities — and our stories that illustrate them — show just how much Bishop Thompson loved being a priest and a bishop. He loved it so much that he made it look easy.

He did make it look easy — being a bishop. He was always gracious; always considerate, thoughtful, and kind. It was part of his character and rooted in his faith. He couldn’t be anything else. These things defined him and we all know it. We never thought of him as anything else because he seldom, if ever, gave us any reason not to.

But if we think it was easy — that is another matter. In my few short years as his Episcopal Master of Ceremonies and in the two years that I lived in the bishop’s residence, I had the privilege of being a silent witness to some of the challenges Bishop Thompson faced — as a bishop and in his personal life.

I believe, in truth, that I may have witnessed some of the most difficult times that he ever endured. I know that he was at times hurt, wounded, sorrowful, humbled, and in pain — emotional, spiritual and physical pain. I know that when he was at one of the lowest points in his life it was his faith, his family, and his friends who helped him recover.

Few probably knew of these difficulties — because he did make being a bishop look easy — but those who were closest to him knew — and he leaned upon us more heavily than we perhaps realized, and we were endeared to him always. I was fortunate to be among those because I lived with him — but there were many others (and they know who they are) whom he counted on for support — from his family, to priests and religious, to the faithful of the diocese. Many of you are here tonight— if not all.

I think this is why Bishop Thompson asked me to speak at this service. A humble reminder that the wonderful man that we all knew and loved as our bishop was still a man who needed us as much as we needed him. I believe ultimately that this is why he loved being a bishop — because the people of God made him a better person. It was this certainty that enabled Bishop Thompson to truly celebrate his ministry and trust the rest to God’s Grace.

As the 121st Psalm that we prayed this evening relates: (and by the way, parts of the first verse of this psalm are found in the Episcopal Blessing that Bishop Thompson was so fond of — that contain the words “Our help is in the name of the Lord”) the psalm gives assurances “He will not allow your foot to slip” and “The Lord will guard you from all evil; He will guard your soul”.

I suspect that Bishop Thompson was so fond of this blessing because he knew the entirety of the psalm from which it originated and he was comforted by its assurances as the bishop of Charleston.

He did so love being a bishop, but he knew the reality of it as well. He knew that it wasn’t about him. That it was about the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the victory that Christ has won for us over death.

In closing, I will share a story of a conversation I had with him when we were speaking of his time as the coadjutor bishop of Charleston. He spoke of his episcopacy in three phases — when he first arrived as coadjutor, while he was the ordinary, and after his retirement. He said this much more succinctly and eloquently than I can recall — but he said, essentially, “that everybody loves a new bishop, especially a coadjutor, because he isn’t fully in charge but brings hope. Then, when he becomes the ordinary, the love dims as he has to make difficult decisions that affect people and that are not always what people want. But when a bishop retires, well, then he has no real authority, so everyone loves a retired bishop!”

The truth of the matter is that Bishop Thompson loved being a bishop and especially a retired bishop, because, like all of us, he needed to be loved and he knew how blessed he was to be loved by the priests and people of the Diocese of Charleston — and so he loved us in return — and we will always remember him for his graciousness, his thoughtfulness, his consideration and his kindness.

In this is the victory given us through our Lord Jesus Christ — that we love one another as he has loved us.

Is it any wonder then that he “highly recommended” retirement to Pope Benedict XVI?

And yes, I am strengthened tonight knowing that his arm is still around my shoulder in kind and loving support.

May this good and faithful servant rest in peace!