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Meet the U.S.’s newest archbishop and leader of the Church in Las Vegas

Bishop George Leo Thomas. / Diocese of Helena.

Rome Newsroom, Jun 28, 2023 / 12:48 pm (CNA).

“God, is this right?” Archbishop George Leo Thomas prayed when he was first appointed to lead the Church in Las Vegas in 2018.

He was moving to the deserts of southern Nevada after 14 years in Montana’s Rocky Mountains and almost 30 years in Seattle. 

“I’ve gone from rain to snow to sun,” Thomas quipped to CNA over dinner in Rome on Sunday.

One of only two people the then-bishop knew in his new diocese at the time, his cousin, reassured him that while “everyone knows Vegas, fewer people know Las Vegas.”

Thomas has now had five years to get acquainted with Las Vegas, and what the rapidly-expanding diocese has taught him, he said, is that the faithfulness of “Sin City’s” Catholics is in part a “reaction to the carnality of the ‘Strip.’”

“As St. Paul said: ‘Where sin is present, grace abounds.’”

A new archdiocese

Thomas, head of one of the youngest and fastest-growing dioceses in the U.S., was made an archbishop last month when Pope Francis elevated Las Vegas to a metropolitan archdiocese, creating a new ecclesiastical province.

As a new metropolitan archbishop, Thomas will receive the pallium, a white woolen vestment adorned with six black silk crosses, from the pope at a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Thursday, June 29, where approximately 60 Las Vegas Catholics and other family members and pilgrims will be in attendance.

Archbishop George Leo Thomas celebrates Mass for a priesthood ordination in the Archdiocese of Las Vegas. Credit: Archdiocese of Las Vegas

Almost 30 other metropolitan archbishops appointed in the past year will also participate in the annual Mass for the solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul. Thomas is the only new metropolitan from the U.S.

After receiving the blessed pallium from Francis, Thomas will be invested in Guardian Angel Cathedral on Oct. 2.

From the mountains to the desert

The 73-year-old Thomas, who as bishop of Helena ordained the real-life subject of Mark Wahlberg’s 2022 film “Father Stu,” also spent most of his childhood and adolescence in Montana.

He said his world has expanded a lot since he was growing up, when it was a treat to go just 10 miles down the road from Anaconda to the hot spring pools of Fairmont to swim.

Despite his Montana upbringing, where cattle ranches cover 63% of the state’s land area, Thomas quit eating beef and pork in 1988. He said he felt good after following a no red meat diet during a visit to Asia, so he decided to keep it up.

This particular attribute of the bishop was a bit difficult for the priests of Helena, he joked.

Thomas also has a close-knit family, which extends to great nieces and nephews.

One of his four sisters even moved to Las Vegas to be with him. Chris Zimmer and her husband, Bruce, live nearby Thomas’ residence so Zimmer can keep house and cook for her brother.

The archbishop said the Virgin Mary heard his prayer to have family close by.

Exponential growth

The Archdiocese of Las Vegas serves over 620,000 Catholics and “hundreds of thousands of tourists,” according to the cathedral’s website.  

There are probably an additional 200,000 Catholics who are undocumented immigrants, Thomas pointed out.

He said the archdiocese has been experiencing exponential growth for a while — fueled in part by the area’s growing job market, people in search of a better cost of living, and immigration.

The Las Vegas Archdiocese now has 58 language groups and many parishes are bursting at the seams.

Thomas said the archdiocese is renovating at least four buildings right now and he is preparing to open a new parish this summer. He has also purchased eight acres of land to build another parish.

Some parishes, he boasted, will have 35 baptisms on a single weekend.

But this growth comes with a lot of challenges, too. One of these is a shortage of priests, especially Spanish-speaking priests.

Though the archdiocese receives help from missionary priests, including eight from Nigeria, Las Vegas has just 34 priests to minister to more than 800,000 Catholics (plus tourists and business travelers).

One sign of hope in this area is an increase in diocesan seminarians. When Thomas arrived in 2018, there were only four, while now the archdiocese has 12. Thomas ordained one new priest in 2023.

Lay leadership and collegiality 

Thomas and his auxiliary bishop, Gregory Gordon, said the secret to Las Vegas’ thriving faith community, in their opinion, is the empowerment of the laity and the relationship between the laypeople and their priests.

There is also a strong emphasis on collegiality and commissioning, and on families being a part of the life of the Church at the parish level.

Gordon added that “parishes are places of welcome” where people are invited to share their gifts.

“The spirit of Vatican II is alive and well” in Las Vegas, the archbishop said.

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