It’s not hyperbole to say it. Philadelphia’s loss is definitely Toledo’s gain. Bishop Daniel E. Thomas, an affable and dedicated auxiliary bishop for Philadelphia, has been named Bishop of Toledo, Ohio where he will be installed on Oct 22.
When Bishop Thomas received his appointment as Bishop of Toledo by Pope Francis through the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the first order of business was setting a date for his actual installation, the date he will take formal possession of his new diocese. It is not something that can happen immediately, because various schedules have to be taken into consideration, not the least the busy schedule of Archbishop Vigano himself, who will formally install Bishop Thomas.
Of the several dates available, Oct. 22 most appealed to Toledo’s new ordinary. That date will be the first celebration of the Feast of St. John Paul II since his canonization as a saint.
It was Bishop Thomas’ privilege to serve as a young priest at the Holy See for 15 years during the pontificate of St. John Paul and “that was an extraordinary grace,” he said. “It had a profound effect on me and gave me a deeper appreciation for the profound work of the Holy Spirit in the Church. What I received in Rome was a great affection for the office of Peter and the Holy Father.”
(Read about the bishop’s favorite work of art and its providential link to the Toledo Diocese here.)
The bishop’s story begins back on June 11, 1959, when he was born in Manayunk to Francis P. Jr. and Anna M. (Weber) Thomas, both now deceased; he was preceded in birth by his brother Francis P. III. The family was Welsh and Irish on his father’s side and German in ancestry on his mother’s side — and solidly Catholic through and through.
“I’ve said many times my family was the domestic church,” Bishop Thomas remembers. “I was formed in the Gospel as a Christian and in my vocation in the family. All vocations begin in the family, whether priest, religious or lay. My mother and father taught me how to love, how to pray and how to forgive. It is to their credit. I’m sure Pope John Paul and Pope John XXIII would say the same about their families.”
This strong home-nurtured faith was further cultivated at Holy Family School where he spent eight happy years under the tutelage of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart, before venturing down to center city and Roman Catholic High, the oldest diocesan high school in the country. An excellent student with natural leadership skills, in his senior year it was his privilege to serve as the first president of Roman’s National Honor Society. One of his fellow honor society officers was Joe Bongard, who now as Father Joseph Bongard is beginning his second stint as Roman’s president.
The future bishop also played in the band, was editor of the yearbook The Purple and Gold and was valedictorian at his graduation, among other distinctions.
He really first thought about the priesthood when he was 7, but it was Father John Wilz who was moderator for the band and the National Honor Society at Roman who gave it a bit of a push.
“You would look great in basic black,” Father Wilz gently hinted.
“I made my decision as a senior at age 17,” Bishop Thomas said.
After leaving Roman he did opt for basic black by entering St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, as did his friend, Joe Bongard.
He was ordained by Cardinal John Krol at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul on May 18, 1985, and a most touching memory of his ordination day was Father Charles Gallen, his rector at Roman coming to his home. “He knelt in the street and asked for my first blessing,” Bishop Thomas said.
After ordination his first assignment was as parochial vicar at St. Joseph Parish in Aston, and he loved it. Truthfully, that is what he assumed his career would be, serving the people of God on the parish level first as a parochial vicar and eventually as a pastor.
He was truly shocked two years later when a letter came from Cardinal Krol. It was very brief and to the point, which was the cardinal’s style. “You have been assigned to graduate studies in Rome, the cardinal wrote. “You will study dogmatic theology and you will study at the Gregorian University.”
Off to Rome he went for studies at the Greg and residency at the North American College. “I never knew I was going to study in Rome,” he said. “It is a mission whatever the Lord decides for his church. You are going to be a missionary but you have no idea what it is going to be like. We are called to whatever the Lord wishes and then sent, just as the apostles were called and sent.”
In 1989 he received his S.T.L. in dogmatic theology and assumed he would be packing for the trip home, but there was another surprise. He was assigned to remain and work at the Congregation for Bishops, the congregation that is charged with assisting the pope in the selection of bishops around the world.
There was a second task to serve as an adjunct spiritual adviser to the students at the North American College.
Then-Archbishop Justin Rigali, who was his first superior at the congregation, reminded him that his ministry both at the office and at the seminary were equally pastoral — but directly so at the seminary.
“I thought that was a beautiful distinction,” Bishop Thomas said. “Of course working at the congregation is pastoral in a way, helping the Holy Father choose bishops. That is a pastoral reality. The charism of every bishop is really the charism of every baptized person.”
He took to the life of the Eternal City in a good way. It wasn’t long after he arrived there that a priest commented, “Many priests come to Rome and when they leave people say, ‘You’ve become Roman.’ You came as a Roman.”
“I think he meant by that, ‘You come from a local church that is faithful to the teachings of the Holy See, the teachings of the Lord and his Gospel,’” Bishop Thomas said.
In 2005, after 15 years at the Congregation for Bishops and by now a monsignor, he was called home by his former boss, by then Cardinal Justin Rigali, Archbishop of Philadelphia. He was given an assignment as pastor of Our Lady of the Assumption Parish in Strafford and he loved it.
“I was pastor of Our Lady of the Assumption for two years. I believe I was the only non-Italian pastor they ever had. I was the blip on the screen,” he said.
On June 8, 2006 Pope Benedict XVI appointed him auxiliary bishop of Philadelphia and titular bishop of Bardstown. Most titular sees are in long-forgotten cities in the Middle East or Africa; Bardstown happens to be in Kentucky and the diocese was created in 1808 at the same time the Philadelphia Diocese was established. By 1841 when it was apparent Louisville would be a larger city, the see was transferred, but at least Bishop Thomas has been able to visit his titular see a number of times, something that would be impossible for most bishops.
Bishops by tradition have a coat of arms and a motto, which usually tell something about their personality. Bishop Thomas’ escutcheon shows two lions rearing. They recall his birth name Daniel and the prophet Daniel, who was thrown into a den of lions for his steadfast faith but survived. The fact that it is two lions hints at his surname Thomas, because Thomas the Apostle is believed to have been a twin.
Now that he is bishop of Toledo, his personal arms will be on the left side of the escutcheon, with the arms of the diocese on the right; a castle representing the symbol of Toledo, Spain, but on a blue and red background representing America.
He will keep the episcopal motto he chose in 2006. It more directly suggests the Apostle Thomas, “Dominus Meus et Deus Meus” (My Lord and My God). “These are the words of St. Thomas after he placed his fingers in the wounds of Christ, they are his resurrection confession,” Bishop Thomas said. “They are a very powerful prayer and I have used them every year on retreat. When I was ordained a priest these were the words I chose to put on my paten and chalice. Since then they have been in my prayers. To believe Jesus was raised from the dead is the most profound belief we have.”
After his ordination as bishop by Cardinal Rigali on July 26, 2006 he took up his duties as an auxiliary bishop for the archdiocese and was given oversight of parishes in Montgomery County and Northwest Philadelphia. He was also assigned curial duties with oversight of the Media Affairs Department including the Office for Communications, Catholic Philly.com, the former Catholic Standard & Times as well as the Office for Clergy including the Department of Permanent Deacons and the Office for the Diocesan Priesthood. Along with this of course was a confirmation schedule for about 50 parishes a year.
This was an innovation for Philadelphia put in place by Cardinal Rigali. Prior archbishops had to a greater or lesser extent given their auxiliaries curial responsibilities and maybe a parish, but not regional oversight of parishes.
Bishop Thomas quickly learned that many people think of bishops in terms of past generations, not in the real world of the 21st century.
“Some people have the idea of bishops the way they were maybe in the 1930s,” he said. “I remember well at one confirmation a little girl came up and tugged on the pastor’s vestment. ‘I want to meet the bishop’s driver,’ she said. When he asked why, she told him, ‘I want to see the limousine.’
“The pastor laughed and pointed to me and said, ‘He’s the driver and he drives a Volkswagen.’”
On the adult level, one evening Bishop Thomas was in a supermarket doing a bit of shopping when a man stopped and asked, “Bishop, what are you doing here?”
Bishop Thomas said he was shopping, and the man just repeated the question “what are you doing here?” A bit exasperated, Bishop Thomas said, “I’m grocery shopping, what are you doing here?”
Of course, not everyone is totally impressed by bishops, or at least not by auxiliary bishops.
Once at a confirmation when Bishop Thomas asked the children if anyone knew what an auxiliary bishop was, one young man volunteered, “He’s the guy that comes when the bishop can’t come.”
For his part Bishop Thomas knows that eight years of service as an auxiliary bishop in a diocese the size of Philadelphia prepared him well to be the ordinary of a diocese himself.
“Even though we are auxiliary bishops, we are regional bishops as well for the archbishop,” he said. “I had 75 parishes entrusted to my care, that’s like a small diocese. This is certainly training for anybody named an ordinary. The life of the church is so vibrant and sometimes complicated. I think the work of the auxiliary bishops does prepare us.”
Reflecting on the past eight years as an auxiliary bishop in Philadelphia, Bishop Thomas said, “Given the great challenges we faced in every way, I hope and pray that they prepared me in every way to be the ordinary of a diocese; not just the negative challenges, but the positive challenges as well. In a diocese this large the life of the church is so vibrant and sometimes complicated, but always extraordinary.”
To do the work of a bishop effectively there are three things needed, he believes. “First be centered in daily prayer before the Lord. Second, be focused on what you are doing; the purpose of doing it is often for the salvation of souls. Then hopefully be happy in doing it, be one with the people. Pope Francis said the priests ‘should be shepherds who have the smell of their sheep.’”
It’s been a good learning curve, first under Cardinal Rigali and then under Archbishop Chaput. “I learned different aspects of governance from both,” he said.
Now, as he goes forth to minister in his own diocese, he said he is “very excited to be named by Pope Francis. When you are asked to be shepherd of a diocese, first and foremost you are asked to be responsible for the souls of the people in your care. I’m unworthy of it, I know my weaknesses and flaws, but I also trust in the grace and mercy of the Lord.”
On his first day, Aug. 26, meeting his flock, Bishop Thomas certainly planned to hit the ground running. He started with a 9 a.m. news conference in his new diocese, followed by an interview with his new diocesan newspaper.
Then, not necessarily in order, were plans for a visit to the staff in the diocesan center, a visit to Central Catholic High School, a visit to the infirm and aged priests, serving lunch and eating with the poor at Helping Hands Outreach, a stop at the cloistered Visitation Sisters Monastery and dinner with the Diocesan Consulters at what will be his new residence. Pope Francis would be proud.