Most Reverend David Thompson, Bishop Emeritus of the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina.
“He always sought success for others!” Thus spoke Msgr. James Carter in the funeral homily for Charleston, South Carolina’s Bishop-emeritus David B. Thompson on December 4. A tear was in my eye as I became aware of losing a dear friend, mentor, and true father figure.
The week before his death, Bishop Dave with pride in his voice called to congratulate me on my election as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. It had always been so with him – ever since I got to know and love him in 1976. In a sense, even more than a friend, he was like a father to me. (My dad died in 1977.)
After I returned from the funeral, I received a package that contained Bishop Thompson’s Christmas gift to me – a book with a neatly done card. Then the calls came from so many others, all who had received a personal gift and all amazed that he had done his Christmas shopping before his death. Did I say that Bishop Thompson had turned 90 last May 29? Such energy and love – all for Christ and others! He always sought success for those he encountered.
Over a span of almost 40 years, I came to admire and appreciate Bishop Thompson. Like most good friends, the depth of his love and character was revealed over time. In 1976 when I was assigned to be a resident at the Cathedral Rectory in Allentown where he was pastor, I already knew of his great reputation as a true gentleman and a fine priest administrator.
What I was to discover over the next 12 years was his ability to always see Jesus Christ and to respect the person: Jesus Christ as the person to follow in his life and the person in front of him at the moment as the most important person in his life. Bishop Dave had that knack of giving full attention to those with whom he was talking. At many meals at the rectory table, I learned from him much more about being a pastor and helping to collaborate with and support those with whom I work than I would learn from anyone else. He always sought success for others!
Bishop Thompson was the master of the 3-point homily and was a man of humility, faithfulness, and fun. He was truly humble and never dwelled on himself but on others. The great Christian writer C.S. Lewis spoke of heaven as that time in which the joy we feel from our earthly successes in life will actually be experienced as exhilaration when others find success. Bishop Dave had that knack, and I was the beneficiary of this little “taste of heaven” here on earth. He always sought success for others!
An icon of faithfulness, Bishop Thompson loved being a priest and in his last two decades, a bishop. For him it was all about being faithful to his calling to Christ and His church and placing his gifts at the service of Christ. Pope Francis speaks of attracting people to Christ and then accompanying them on their journey. I learned this in no small way from the steady witness of Bishop Dave. He made me want to be faithful and enthusiastic with every priestly act, from preparing my homilies to celebrating the Holy Eucharist to being present to the person in front of me at the time.
Finally, he was fun. Dinners at the Cathedral were a delight. At the time there were three associate pastors, and so dinner would often involve five or six of us. Saturday evening dinner after Mass with confessions was great. We fondly called it “Saturday Night Live,” since at the festive meal no one was safe from the good fun that was present. I made sure never to miss the weekly SNL gathering at the rectory.
Perhaps the best place I got to know Bishop David Thompson was on the golf course. On any given round, each of us would remember those fine shots that were part of our game and overlook the ones that went in the woods or water. I learned from Bishop Thompson the ability to relax and to enjoy the company of others. Even after becoming a bishop, my routine for the first years in Knoxville was an annual trip to South Carolina and Bishop Thompson’s visit to Tennessee. We played golf, shared meals, and most of all, shared friendship. A few years ago he came to Louisville, and we played golf with friends at the hilly “My Old Kentucky Home” course in Bardstown. Afterwards when I asked him how he liked it, the then-86 year old duffer replied: “Rome was built on seven hills. Bardstown has 18!” He was great fun.
Advent is that season in which we welcome the Lord Jesus more deeply into our lives so that we might be prepared for his glorious final coming. Bishop Thompson has helped me to celebrate Advent well this year and, I pray, his memory will stay alive for many Advents to come. May my dear friend (and father) rest in peace!