Editor’s note: This spring was a season of milestones for Archbishop Thomas J. Rodi.
Not only did he celebrate his 40th anniversary as a priest on May 20, but Archbishop Rodi also celebrated the 10th anniversary of his installation as Archbishop of Mobile on June 6.
Archbishop Rodi recently reflected on his anniversaries and looked toward the future of the Archdiocese of Mobile in an interview with Rob Herbst, editor of “The Catholic Week.”
The following is an edited version of that interview.
Q: Tell me about your vocation story and how did God call you to the priesthood?
A: I had no thought of becoming a priest when I was in high school or college. In college I had decided to pursue a legal career. I had planned to be an attorney. After college I went to law school. I graduated and passed the bar. And at that time, I realized that there was something missing in my life.
I set a goal for myself to become an attorney and I had achieved that goal. And although there was a great sense of satisfaction in doing so, I didn’t feel the joy that I had anticipated and I realized something was missing. Up to that point I had asked myself the question “What do I want to do with my life?” But at that point, by the grace of God, I began to ask “God, what do you want me to do with my life?”
Both of those questions are very important and for whatever reason, I began thinking about being a priest. I cannot point to a moment or an event or a person that was the influence to me thinking about being a priest. It just came into my mind. The more I tried to ignore it, the more I kept thinking about it, until I finally decided I had to give it a try or I would not be at peace with myself.
In retrospect, I think I had drifted into being an attorney. It was an idea that I shared with people. They had encouraged me to do so, but I don’t know that I reflected deeply over whether this was what I wanted to do with my life. And I certainly didn’t reflect that this was what God wanted me to do with my life. My decision to go to seminary was a much more conscious and deliberate decision than my decision to go to law school. I did not think I would be a priest, but I knew I had to try the seminary or I would never be at peace. So I made a promise that I would stay one year in the seminary and then I just presumed that I would leave. But the longer I was in the seminary, the more I decided this was something I wanted to do with my life and what I felt God wanted me to do.
Q: How much support did you get from making the move to the seminary? Support from family members, friends, etc.?
A: My family only wanted what was good for me. They did not think I would stay in the seminary and so were not at first supportive of me wasting the time of going into the seminary rather than pursuing a legal career. However, my parents were very faith-filled people and I was very blessed to have them as my parents and there could not have been two prouder people the day I was ordained a priest.
The 1970s were a significant moment in the life of the Church. When I went into the seminary, many priests left the priesthood. Hundreds in this country. I think the total during that period of time was about 3,000 priests leaving the active ministry. In the Archdiocese of New Orleans, in the 18 months leading up to when I entered the seminary, a priest left the active ministry on the rate of one every six weeks. The seminary enrollment around the country was plummeting. Many of my friends asked me “Why are you going into the seminary since it appears everybody is leaving?”
So I did not experience a great deal of support. Conservatives felt that seminarians were “hippies” who would destroy the Church. And the liberals felt that seminarians were propping up something that needed to collapse. So there was not much support for guys to be seminarians. I was very blessed with the guys who were my classmates in the seminary. We have remained exceptionally close throughout the 40 years since we were ordained. And I think part of the strength of our friendship is that we could not get a considerable amount of support. We needed to support to each other.
Q: Let’s talk about your time in the Archdiocese of Mobile. Do you remember the phone call phone call you received 10 years ago?
The Nuncio, the Pope’s representative in the United States who lives in Washington, D.C., called me and told me that I had been appointed Archbishop of Mobile. And I told him that my answer to the Church will always be yes, but that I did not think it was a good idea.
In 2008, the Diocese of Biloxi was in a critical moment in its recovery from Hurricane Katrina. … I felt whoever at that moment would be bishop was needed to direct the recovery. I knew if I went to Mobile, it would be usually about a year before a new bishop would arrive and that would not be good for the diocese to be without a bishop for a year. The Nuncio thanked me for my comments and told me I would be the Archbishop of Mobile. That was the end of the conversation.
A half-hour later he called back and wanted to talk more. That always impressed me about the Nuncio. He’s a very important and very busy man. And after our conversation it would have been understandable if he had then gone about and taken care of his many other duties. But he thought about our conversation and he called back and we talked further and he said to me “Well then you will be bishop of both dioceses.”
I’m not sure that was what I was asking for. So for a year, I was bishop of both dioceses.
Q: What was that whole experience like for you?
A: It was very stressful. And it was only possible because of the wonderful people in both dioceses that helped make it work. But I carried two cellphones that first year.
One of the more interesting days was celebrating two Chrism Masses on the same day -11 (a.m.) in the Cathedral in Mobile and 5 (p.m.) in the Cathedral in Biloxi.
Q: When you look back and reflect on the 10 years in the Archdiocese of Mobile, what do you see as the major blessings that the archdiocese has received during that time?
A: The Holy Spirit is working powerfully in our archdiocese and in so many different ways. We have many blessings with our clergy, religious and laity who build up the Kingdom of God through our archdiocese. One of the blessings in being archbishop is being able to travel around and to see so many good things happening – things that most people will never be aware of that are happening. But many good things are happening in our archdiocese. … I keep up on mileage and in the past 10 years I have driven the equivalent of 18 times around the circumference of the Earth, and counting. It is good for the archbishop to be visible, because if not, people might feel that they are forgotten – which is not true. But they would get that impression and I hope that by traveling around the archdiocese I can let people know that no parish is forgotten.
Q: You are also very visible at our schools in the archdiocese. Talk about the importance of doing that.
A: When I arrived 10 years ago I made a promise that as long as I was archbishop and as long as God gave me the strength, I would visit every classroom in every elementary school every year and I would visit every theology class in every high school every year.
I have kept to that promise. I do not expect that the students remember anything I say in my visits, but I’m confident they will remember the visit. The fact that the archbishop came to their classroom and spoke with them every year will be a memory that will help tie them into the Church. I think my visits are important in creating a feeling among our young people that they’re members of the Church and hopefully they’ll carry this sense of belonging to the Church throughout their lives.
I’ve not only tried to be present in our Catholic schools, but in many ways present to the youth throughout the archdiocese. I spend the entire weekend at the Archdiocese Catholic Youth Conference, for example. I will go to some of the Search Retreats or retreats for young people that are conducted in Spanish.
When I arrived in the archdiocese in 2008, the Church throughout the United States and locally had gone through some traumatic years of scandals arising from misconduct with minors. It was my impression, not only in our archdiocese but throughout our country, that priests and other Church ministers were reluctant to minister to youth because of the fear of their ministry being misunderstood. I thought that the best service I could give was to visibly be present to the youth and to encourage youth ministry in our archdiocese. I think youth ministry in the past 10 years, particularly with teenagers, has seen a tremendous growth.
Q: When you go to events such as ACYC, does that give you hope that the future is bright for the Church in the Archdiocese of Mobile?
A: I’m very hopeful about the future of the Church. In many ways, I think we are living in a golden age of the Church. I see a laity increasingly energized and engaged in Church life. There is a hunger for Scripture among our people. There is an increasing sense that being a Catholic must affect one’s life. Society increasingly will not support people of faith. And so “Social Catholicism” is not a viable option for the future. By “Social Catholicism,” I mean one knows the teachings of the Church, but it doesn’t affect the way they live.
People of faith are going to have to be committed to living the faith. Society is not going to support them in our increasingly pluralistic and secular society. So I think we’re in a golden age despite all the challenges – and the challenges are real. I am not Pollyanna about this. Often I say that I am not optimistic about the immediate future, but I am hopeful. There is a difference there. On the cross, Jesus was not optimistic. But He was hopeful. He knew it was a time of suffering and passion, but He knew His Father was in charge. So He was not optimistic, but He was hopeful. The Church will go through this time of opposition and even suffering, but God is in charge. And so I remain hopeful and I think in the future, people will look back at this period of the Church and feel that it was a very, very important time for the Church.
Q: You touched on this a little bit in regard to youth ministry, but in general how has the archdiocese changed in the past 10 years?
A: Another area that has been very important has been to make our parishes welcoming to all people. In 2009 I wrote a letter to all the priests asking that ministry to our Hispanic brothers and sisters be parish-based. What I meant by that is that it was not sufficient merely to have a priest come in and celebrate Mass and then leave. The local parish leaders were to minister to the Hispanic Catholics and to let Hispanic Catholics know that this parish was their parish too. I’ve seen tremendous growth of a welcoming spirit throughout the archdiocese.
Q: What is the greatest challenge you face as archbishop?
A: I would say the number one challenge is of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. The challenges don’t change. I read about our first bishop, Bishop Portier, and the challenges that he had are the same challenges I have. Maybe slightly different, but they’re the same. How to share the faith on the American frontier where there were no supports to the faith – there weren’t churches or schools.
How do we share the faith today in a society that increasingly doesn’t support people of faith? Vocations. That’s a concern for us today.
Serving the poor. Same thing today.
How to pay for it all. Same thing today.
New immigrants were arriving who spoke a different language from the priests because the priests all spoke French. And the new immigrants from Ireland were speaking English. Same concern here today.
Sadly, the scandalous behavior of one or two priests. Same today. So the challenges remain the same as in 1825. But first and foremost is the salvation of souls. And that is, and always will be, the calling of the Church. The last words Jesus said to His disciples was “go out and teach all nations.” That has to remain the focus of all of us in the Church. The Church, clergy, religious and laity.
I think each one of us is called to evangelize, wherever we find ourselves in our homes, in our circles of friends, where we work, where we are. We are called to share the good news of Jesus Christ.
Q: What has you excited for the archdiocese in the coming years?
A: There are a number of things which I would like for us to accomplish together in the next six years that I have. … It will only be possible with all of us working together, and I’m looking forward to all of us in the archdiocese continuing to build the Kingdom of God in our midst.