Sunday, February 22, 2009

Thomas Welsh (1921-2009)

The Most Reverend Thomas Welsh, founding Bishop of the Diocese of Arlington, passed away last Thursday, following a brief illness. He was 87.

Welsh was an auxiliary bishop in Philadelphia in 1974 when the Diocese of Richmond, then comprising the whole of Virginia, ceded its twenty-one northern counties at the behest of the Holy See, to form the new Diocese of Arlington. At its beginning, the new jurisdiction had 136,000 Catholics in 49 parishes and seven missions. Thirty-five years later, the Diocese of Arlington now has more than 410,000 Catholics, 68 parishes and seven missions. The resolve to sustain such dramatic growth as a local church, can be traced to the legacy set by Bishop Welsh.

He was a shepherd of what might be termed "conservative" theology, at a time when it was even more out of fashion than today. He was also a man of steady self-discipline in personal habits and comportment. For all this, Welsh was one who did not take himself all that seriously. This was evident in his habit of greeting a cheering audience with a tip of his scarlet zucchetto (a skullcap worn by prelates, similar to a Jewish yarmulke).

His role as a shepherd was another matter. Shortly after the ruling of Roe v Wade, and in the early years of the March for Life, Bishop Welsh paid a visit to a local congressman, an ostensibly Catholic man with a boldly pro-choice legislative record. After listening to the legislator's rationale of being "personally opposed but..." and so on, Welsh looked him right in the eye and said, "You make me sick!" The congressman exclaimed that he had never been spoken to that way by a bishop before. (With any luck, and with the continuing voting record of the party in question, it won't be the last time.)

At a time of great confusion in the Church, Welsh set his "eyes on the prize," making considerable inroads in welcoming communities of Women religious in the diocese, both of active and contemplative ways of life. He recognized the proper role of the lay apostolate, and encouraged societies dedicated to their activity. In addition, Welsh and his "old school" leadership in the presbyterate set the stage for theological discipline amongst the clerical ranks. This inspired a record growth in vocations, particularly in the 1990s, and still characterizes priestly life in the diocese to this day.

Welsh left Arlington in 1983, when the Holy See installed him as Bishop of Allentown, Pennsylvania, which included the little town of Weatherly, where he was born and raised. He retired in 1997, and remained in the Allentown area until his death.

The Arlington Catholic Herald, the diocesan newspaper which he also founded, has published a fitting tribute.

Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei. Amen.

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