U.S. Prelate Reflects on His 40-Year Vocation

Archbishop Thomas Gullickson is the nuncio to Switzerland and Lichtenstein.

Archbishop Thomas Gullickson
Archbishop Thomas Gullickson (photo: Wikipedia/Mnikh&Ipatiy Vashchyshyn, OSBM)

U.S. Archbishop Thomas Gullickson has found himself at the epicenter of numerous geopolitical moments in modern history and had a second “conversion” after being made a bishop and nuncio.

Following four years of theology at the Gregorian University in Rome, Archbishop Gullickson was ordained to the priesthood on June 27, 1976, by Bishop Lambert Hoch. He returned to Rome for a doctorate in canon law before entering the Church’s diplomatic service in 1985. He has served in Rwanda, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Jerusalem and Germany.

He was consecrated a bishop in 2004 and sent as papal nuncio to the Caribbean from 2004 to 2011. He was then moved to serve as nuncio to Ukraine in 2011. He now serves as nuncio to Switzerland and Lichtenstein, since September 2015.

Recently, Archbishop Gullickson was in London as the special guest of the Latin Mass Society, marking the 50th anniversary of the death of Evelyn Waugh, the English author, journalist, convert and defender of the traditional Latin Mass.

The South Dakota-born archbishop took time out of his schedule to speak with the Register.


It is said the child is the father of the man, so please tell me a bit about your family background and growing up.

I was born on Aug. 14, 1950, which was providential for several reasons. It was the eve of Our Lady’s assumption into heaven and the year Venerable Pope Pius XII infallibly declared the dogma of Mary’s assumption into heaven. Aug. 14 is also the feast of that great priest and martyr St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe — although at that time he wasn’t known, unlike today.

When my father met my mother, he decided to convert so he could marry this good Catholic girl he had met. I’m the eldest of eight children, and, back then, it was pretty normal to know families with 10 and 12 children at the elementary school I attended. In terms of our roots, it’s a real melting pot, including Norway, Ireland (both Protestant and Catholic) and Germany.

When I was 14 years old, I entered minor seminary, so I’m a “lifer.” The bishop had just opened a hall of residence next to the city Catholic high school, so boys from the country and small towns could come to the city and get a better education. It was very focused on good Catholic formation and Latin, as the bishop took Pope St. John XXIII’s apostolic constitution Veterum Sapientia on promoting the Latin language seriously. So we had four years of Latin, plus modern languages. About 20% of boys from minor seminary went on to major seminary.


You were 15 years old when Vatican II adjourned. Did the Council mean anything to you at the time?

I was in high school then, and the Council was very much on the minds of the priests who taught us. They tried to get across some of what they perceived, as outsiders to the process, as the more interesting things about the Council, including changes to the liturgy.

I lived as an altar boy through the three main stages of liturgical change. I served the pre-conciliar Mass that we have in the 1962 missal. Then, in the U.S., we had an intermediate version, which had parts in English and Latin, with some changes. Then came the new-rite Missal [the Mass of Paul VI] in 1970. There were things that puzzled me, but as a young boy, I didn’t appreciate what was going on.

I don’t remember embracing the changes with any particular enthusiasm, but at that age, you just go with the flow. I remember one day serving Mass at the cathedral, when, for the first time, there was this freestanding altar between the Communion rail and the high altar. It just appeared from nowhere, without explanation.

It was aquamarine- or turquoise-colored Formica, which I am sure no woman in the world would put on her kitchen countertops, yet we had it for an altar! It didn’t last long in the church. It was strange.


You were 18 when Blessed Pope Paul VI published The Regulation of Birth (Humanae Vitae). What are your recollections of that?

I was 18, graduating and preparing to go on to St. Mary’s College, in Winona, Minn., to begin philosophy. There was a measure of scandal. I couldn’t understand why so many would reject the Holy Father’s teaching. Ten years later, when I was a new priest, I attended a conference in the U.S. Midwest, and the main speaker — a lay theologian … openly confessed the wrongness of his rejection of the encyclical 10 years prior. He was convinced that the movement to reject Humanae Vitae was wrong. In all humility, and with great enthusiasm, he spoke of the wisdom and foresight of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical. That was not something you saw many priests or bishops doing back then.

The rejection of Humanae Vitae didn’t just open society and the Church up to contraception — it also lead to a general demoralization in Church life based on marriage and family.


Papal nuncios are seen as smooth operators, who speak with carefully prepared statements. You seem to break the mold. You have three blogs, use Twitter a lot, and you’re openly conservative in theology and support the extraordinary form of the Mass.

My development in this area, and I think it’s very valuable to say, comes from years of seeing things going on in the Church, the liturgical abuses, and asking myself, “How do we get out of this malaise?”

I found Pope Benedict XVI a major challenge, in his invitations to us when he spoke about liturgy, morality, the Church, secularism and understanding Vatican II. I had to ask myself, “Thomas, where do you stand on these issues?”

I had to think deeply about the assent of faith to the extraordinary magisterium and the creedal statements and the religious obedience to the ordinary magisterium and the Pope.

It led me to move to a position which some would label more radically conservative than most. In terms of much of what the Church has to face, I think we will not begin to address these issues until we eliminate the liturgical abuses.


What do you mean by “abuses?”

They’re countless. I don’t know the situation in England, but gross stuff like giant puppets and dancing. These things have no place in the liturgy. Beyond that, there is a general tone of casualness, almost ingrained in the ordinary form of Mass, which leads to disrespect for the sacred mysteries.


Do you mean receiving holy Communion in the hand and laypeople distributing the Eucharist?

Yes and no, because these practices around holy Communion have been officially permitted. Episcopal conferences were allowed to petition Rome for permission to do it. In this sense, something permitted by the legitimate authority is not an abuse.

I think it was a false development, based on a sort of historicism. I would say it was unfortunate, that it was a mistake.

Communion in the hand falls short of the idea of being fed, to use a colloquial phrase. Prior to the Council, it was unthinkable that anyone other than the priest would handle the sacred chalice. We’ve lost that awe — the rite has been banalized in many ways.


Do you celebrate the extraordinary form of the Mass?

Because of difficulties with my eyes, I can’t read the Mass cards needed for the Mass and haven’t had the time to try and memorize the prayers so that I can offer the Mass without having to rely on the altar cards. I need the time and serenity to do that. I want to, and I’m supportive, of course.


What have been some of the challenges and highpoints of your time in the diplomatic service?

I was in Rwanda from 1985 to 1987, so just before the genocide. Even then there were signs things would go bad. I remember people talking about the massacres in Burundi and an old White Father missionary, who said to me, “Thomas, you think that’s bad. Just wait until you see what happens here.” There were many cases of discrimination and signs of unrest in the population even then. Tutsis, like our porter in the nunciature, could not even obtain a driving license.


How were you affected by the genocide?

Unfortunately, I wasn’t made for Africa. I got malaria straight away! My superiors moved me to Austria after a couple of years.

I personally knew four bishops who were executed in the Rwandan genocide. And a good friend of mine, the secretary to the bishops’ conference, disappeared, and I never heard from him again. I presume he was killed.

Another tragedy is that something like half of the population was made up of young people and used by unscrupulous adults to turn them into child soldiers and executors of the killing. It’s a crime against the next generation: Most of those who did the killing were children and young people spurred on with propaganda through the radio.


What were the experiences of your other placements?

A real high point was working in Prague in 1990, when it was still Czechoslovakia, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the communist empire. We reopened the nunciature, which had been closed for 40 years. It was a privilege to meet people who had lived and suffered for the faith under Nazism and communist rule.

I was serving under the recently deceased Cardinal [Giovanni] Coppa. He was trying to encourage priests, religious and laity to write down their testimonies, as witnesses and confessors of the faith. However, it was hard, as these people had doubly suffered — and perhaps more in the second wave of persecution at being betrayed by their own people, by those who went along with the communist ideology. They didn’t want to talk. I was also involved with handling issues around the many clandestine ordinations and consecrations, working out who had been validly ordained and who could serve.

My time in Ukraine was exceptional. I was trying to be a source of encouragement to a young Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church that was just coming out of the catacombs, helping them where I could to determine their rights under canon law, especially with regard to choosing bishops.

Now I’m back in Western Europe, serving as nuncio in Switzerland and Lichtenstein, facing the challenges of a very secularized Western Europe and the internecine conflicts within the Church.


As someone with a wide and unique set of experiences, what was your message to members of the Latin Mass Society?

I was asked to speak about the persecution of Christians today. I spoke of martyrdom as the high point in the Christian vocation. We don’t seek it out, but it’s the apex, the perfect identification with Our Lord. It belongs to our vocation; it’s part of us, so we shouldn’t be surprised if it comes. Nonetheless, we embrace it with a measure of fear and trembling. My message was that we need to sober up rather than toughen up. I don’t think things are much better than they were any time in the past.


So it’s something that might happen in the future, not now?

No, also now. One of the great challenges in the U.S., for example, is not a bloody one. It is the undermining of Catholic health care, by [the government] refusing to respect the conscience of Catholics and right-thinking people on abortion and euthanasia. We see it also in Belgium: that a nursing home is being taken to court for refusing to permit euthanasia.

In America, I think we’ll have to find new ways of being Catholic, not being able to do the great things we once did in education and health care. It’s getting worse with each passing day.


Where is persecution coming from?

Ultimately, as Pope Benedict said, it’s the tyranny of relativism, a secular mentality. It’s a post-Enlightenment thing that deforms and denies objective truth. It’s the denial of the kingship of Jesus Christ and truth as it must come from God in Christ. Evelyn Waugh, writing in 1930 after his conversion, was already lamenting the decline of Europe, as he saw the moral and religious foundations being denied and replaced.

Some people harp on about the need to be tolerant of others. Tolerance is not a virtue, yet people play this card up to the hilt. I’m sorry, but my love for others is much more sublime than tolerance. My love demands that I sometimes have to protest or admonish and insist on objective truths and the teaching of Jesus Christ.

Register correspondent Daniel Blackman writes from London.

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