November 3, 2017

Vocations Supplement

‘God’s got me here for a reason’: Unexpected death leads Archbishop Thompson on journey of ‘almost endless opportunities’

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson, center, elevates the Eucharist during an Oct. 10 Mass at SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis. Deacon Robert Beyke, left, assists at the Mass. Msgr. William F. Stumpf, right, concelebrates. Jeanne Chandler, second from left, cantor at the Mass, looks on. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson, center, elevates the Eucharist during an Oct. 10 Mass at SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis. Deacon Robert Beyke, left, assists at the Mass. Msgr. William F. Stumpf, right, concelebrates. Jeanne Chandler, second from left, cantor at the Mass, looks on. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Sean Gallagher

It was a turning point on his path to his vocation. An event that has made a difference in his life ever since.

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson looks back on the unexpected death in the early 1980s of a cousin, only a year older than himself at the time, as the decisive moment that led him to become a seminarian.

A college sophomore at the time, Archbishop Thompson had thought about the priesthood ever since his childhood. But it was this life-changing incident that spurred him into action.

“That triggered me to get off the fence,” Archbishop Thompson recalled. “It was at that point that I thought, ‘How long do I just sit around and wait? Life is short.’ Up until that point, life was forever. It was a moment where I learned that life isn’t as long as I think it is.”

(Related: Archbishop offers advice on discerning, promoting vocations)

In a recent interview with The Criterion, Archbishop Thompson reflected on this turning point and the many other steps he has taken in his journey into life and ministry as a priest and now a bishop.

‘An ocean of Catholicism’

The first steps that Archbishop Thompson took on his vocational journey were guided by his parents, Coleman and Joyce Thompson.

Their personalities and the way they lived out the faith complemented each other during Archbishop Thompson’s childhood, helping him to grow in the faith from an early age.

“It was the combination of my parents that had a great influence on my vocation,” he said.

His father, he said, showed him how to apply his faith in service more through his example than by his words, such as when he would work on the cars of his friends and loved ones.

“He would never take money when he did someone’s brakes,” Archbishop Thompson remembered. “He would say, ‘You do something for someone else.’ My dad taught me about doing for others and doing not to be paid.

“I think about how we teach kids in confirmation to do service hours. I was being taught service hours before I knew what was going on.”

His mother helped him learn about the faith, serving for a period as a volunteer catechist in their parish.

“My mom knew the faith,” Archbishop Thompson said. “She was about forming the mind and knowing the teachings of the Church. Dad was one who showed how you emotionally live it. But they did it together.”

They also did it with lots of other people—a large extended family who shared his faith in a rural central Kentucky community that was also largely Catholic.

“There was a culture of Catholicism, of living the Catholic faith, that was I was engaged in,” Archbishop Thompson recalled. “It’s like a fish. A fish doesn’t know it’s in the ocean. You know? I was in an ocean of Catholicism, and didn’t know what I was in. It was just my world.”

Priests in such a Catholic ocean were intriguing to Archbishop Thompson. As a child, he also saw them “somewhat on pedestals,” and as “guys that were a breed all of their own.”

Becoming a seminarian

His views on the priesthood started to change when he was about 12 and another cousin of his became a seminarian. He is Father Dale Cieslik, a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville.

“That really triggered in me that it’s not somebody else that can do this,” Archbishop Thompson said. “Anybody can do this.”

Around the same time that his cousin became a seminarian, Archbishop Thompson and his family moved to Louisville. He soon became a student at a high school that was marked by violence.

“When all the violence and crazy stuff was going on, I recall thinking to myself, ‘How does my life speak to this violence, to this mistreatment of each other? How can my life speak to that?’ ” Archbishop Thompson recalled. “It was a time from that social justice perspective where I thought about the priesthood.”

A few years later, after his cousin a year older than him had died, Archbishop Thompson finally focused his thoughts on God’s call in his life. He talked about this with his cousin Father Cieslik, who was a transitional deacon at the time.

After graduating from Bellarmine in 1983, he became a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Louisville, receiving his priestly formation at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in

St. Meinrad.

Looking back on his four years at the southern Indiana seminary, Archbishop Thompson remembers learning so much about the faith that he had never known.

But his experience of priestly formation was much more than taking classes. He’s grateful for the way in which his time as a seminarian deepened his “appreciation of prayer as the center of our lives, of listening to the word of God, reflecting on it and applying it to our lives, being shaped and molded by the liturgy.”

‘God’s got me here for a reason’

Archbishop Thompson was ordained a priest for the Louisville Archdiocese on May 30, 1987.

Entering into parish ministry, he soon learned that the formation he received in seminary continued after ordination. He had to make adjustments in his life.

For example, instead of living with a whole community of men in priestly formation around his own age, he now lived with one other priest who was much older than him. Later, he lived on his own.

“One of the things that you have to get used to is living alone, the solitude,” Archbishop Thompson said.

He also had to change his time for personal prayer. In the seminary, he would do that in the evening. In parishes, that time was filled with many meetings each night.

“That took a little struggle for me to give that up,” Archbishop Thompson said. “I had to switch it around, and mornings became my time for prayer. All of my entire priesthood since, morning has usually been my best time for prayer. I get up early to make sure I get that prayer in and sometimes exercise in.”

And while prayer in the seminary naturally was focused much on himself and discerning God’s call in his life, prayer in parishes took on a wider scope.

“You’re not just praying for yourself,” Archbishop Thompson reflected. “You’re praying for all of these things that you’re carrying with you, the people and the issues, the hopes and dreams that you’re carrying with you. They’re in that prayer with you.”

Over the course of his 30 years of ordained life and ministry, Archbishop Thompson has been called to serve in a wide variety of contexts: parishes, high schools, canon law and diocesan administration.

“One of the things that’s fascinating about being a priest is that I don’t know of another way of life … in which you have such a diverse array of ways to live out your vocation,” he said. “There are almost endless opportunities of different ways you can be a priest.”

Those different ways that he’s lived out have helped him grow in ways he never would have expected.

“Each one of the particular roles I’ve had—as vicar judicial, vicar general or bishop or high school chaplain or pastor—brought forth gifts that, had I not been in that position, I would have never known was within me to do,” Archbishop Thompson said. “I would have never dreamed I had the capability to be an archbishop.

“And I’m not convinced yet. But I trust that God’s got me here for a reason.” †

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