Busy as a bishop: Thomas Wenski deals with earthly issues and heavenly matters in Central Florida

As he begins his fourth year with the Catholic Diocese of Orlando, one thing is certain about Bishop Thomas Wenski: He is a man on many missions.

And he is eager to let the world know about them all.


Whether greeting protesting migrant workers during a downtown march, or speaking on behalf of the

U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

on world affairs, or holding a series of "listening sessions" with parishioners, the energetic Wenski, 55, seems to connect with most everyone he meets.

"He loves being with people," says Rey Malave, volunteer coordinator of the diocese's Hispanic youth and young adult ministry. "He understands them. He's very caring."

Malave echoes others who have observed the Catholic leader's high-octane ways when he says Wenski is on the way up -- and could one day become an archbishop "or even higher."

For now, however, most of Wenski's traveling is done behind the wheel of a late-model black Mercury Marquis as he darts from place to place in his nine-county diocese, often listening to country music or the church's Spanish-language station along the way.


At the San Pedro Center on a recent morning, he is running a little late, but as he notes with a chuckle, "The bishop is never late." He moves quickly into a small room off the chapel to don his vestments for the Mass at the retreat in south

Seminole County


A few minutes later, he jokes with the audience and then deftly segues into an inspirational homily about the trials of a priest -- and the importance of grace.


Leading the way

Wenski's style is in marked contrast to his low-key predecessor, Bishop Norbert Dorsey, who retired in 2004 at the age of 74. But he does not apologize for his pace, his prominence or his profile in the community, which includes numerous columns submitted to the Sentinel's editorial pages.

He thinks most people in the diocese are receptive to his approach.

"I raise the profile of the Catholic Church in Central Florida," he says. "Not everyone agrees with me, but that's not the point."

A staunch opponent of abortion and a defender of traditional marriage, Wenski has not been reluctant to defend the


line on various issues, even if they may be unpopular in Central Florida. These range from opposition to the

Iraq war

and to capital punishment, to support for immigrant rights.

"He'll lead with his chin out in those areas," says the Rev. Paul Henry of St. John Vianney Catholic Church in south Orlando.

Wenski explains his mission this way:

"I have to teach. I don't speak for you. I'm the bishop. I speak to you, and to other people of good faith. I'm not a congressman."

His activist approach was evident several months ago when thousands of people angry about proposed immigration legislation took to the streets of Orlando. As the marchers passed the corner of Robinson Street and Magnolia Avenue, Wenski came out of the chancery to greet them.

For about an hour he gave the thumbs-up sign, waved, shook hands, hugged marchers and spoke to them in English and Spanish.

At least one woman paused to kiss his ring.

Up the ladder

Born in

West Palm Beach

in 1951, the son of a Polish immigrant house painter and a Polish-American homemaker, Wenski was raised in

Lake Worth

, attending Catholic schools from primary grades to seminary in South Florida. He holds two master's degrees, one in sociology from

Fordham University

. Ordained in 1976, Wenski devoted much of his ministry to the poor, particularly Haitian and Cuban immigrants, including three months as a missionary and later as director of Catholic Charities.

In 1997,

Pope John Paul II

named him auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Miami. Although appointed a bishop at the relatively young age of 47, Wenski notes that he did not fit the profile of someone tracking to become bishop -- studying in Rome, working in the chancery.

As a parish priest and a charity worker, Wenski insists, "I was just a worker bee."

At the age of 50, also young by Catholic hierarchical standards, Wenski was elected as chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' committee on migration -- serving as the chief spokesman on refugees and asylum from 2001-2004. In 2004, fellow bishops elected him chairman of the conference's International Policy Committee, a position he will hold until 2007.

In recent months, Wenski's position with the Conference of Bishops has meant speaking out on such issues as war in the Middle East and the prospects for a post-Castro


, quietly (but legally) slipping in and out of Havana from time to time.

In Cuba, he says, "our hope is for a soft landing," easing the way to democracy on the island much as the Catholic Church did in Poland. "The church will certainly play a role. The church is not waiting for a transition."

The lives of victims on both sides of the Middle East war are due equal dignity, he says.

His ultimate goal, he says, is "to touch people of goodwill," since all the church has is moral suasion.

"We don't have an army or a police force," he says.

A spirited intellect

Wenski spent his first year in Orlando as bishop co-adjutor -- Dorsey's designated successor -- and immediately began visiting individual parishes to get to know some of the 400,000 Catholics he would lead. After Dorsey's departure, Wenski launched a 19-month diocesan synod, a period of self-study that concluded last week. The process included 12 "listening sessions" around the diocese, meetings where Wenski did nothing but listen to members and take notes.

"It's been a rich learning process for me," he says of the synod, which involved more than 1,000 people.

A fit, thick-set man with blue eyes, the bishop is in constant motion, even when he's not tending to his flock. Mornings, he walks his Norwegian elkhound, Clifford, around Lake Davis, near his home. On a recent vacation, he participated in a four-day walking and riding pilgrimage in



New Jersey

. When he has some free time in Central Florida, Wenski likes to don a helmet, boots and leathers, and ride his black Honda Shadow 1100 in rural


with his longtime friend and riding buddy, attorney Tom Equels.

"It could be 110 degrees, and he'll have his safety gear on," says Equels, who practices law in






. "He's a good, safe rider."

The pair met 25 years ago in Miami, while providing legal and spiritual assistance to Haitian refugees in federal custody. Equels, a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, helped Wenski get his private pilot's license. Wenski led the lawyer and his family to the Catholic faith.

"I have watched him evolve," Equels says. "He was always a spiritual man. He sets an incredible example. He has made a part of his life a constant process of study. We have the most fascinating conversations. He's become quite the intellectual over the years."

Intellectual to the point that Wenski's cell phone asks for messages in four languages, including Polish. Often heard speaking Spanish and Haitian Creole, he also made an effort to speak Tagalog, a language of the Philippines, at a pre-Christmas service last year at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in

Winter Park



But the bishop also has a mischievous streak. That was illustrated earlier this month during the International Knights of Columbus convention in Orlando. At the end of a solemn procession of church leaders, all dressed in colorful vestments, Wenski ducked out of line and with a wink, whispered to a reporter: "The Protestants have nothing like this."


A look to the future

So far, Wenski's reviews as Orlando bishop, both here and from a distance, have been good.

"I think he's a man who's not afraid to lead, and to proclaim a prophetic vision -- even when he knows it will meet resistance," says Joan Davison, a member of St. Mary Magdalen Catholic Church in

Altamonte Springs


"From an ecumenical point of view he has been excellent," says the Rev. Patrick Caverly of Annunciation Catholic Church in Longwood. "He believes that we are essentially all doing the work of God together, very much along the lines of Pope John Paul II. His relationship with the clergy is superb. He has the ability to make decisions rapidly. He does not keep you waiting for an answer."

"He has the heart of an apostle, the heart of a missionary," says Archbishop John Favalora of Miami, noting the success of the Central Florida synod and Wenski's travels throughout the diocese.

"He's tireless in his efforts," Favalora adds. "That energy is what has marked his term thus far as bishop of the diocese."

If Wenski is a bishop on the go, some are wondering what his ultimate destination will be.

Being named as a spokesman on international affairs "certainly suggests he has caught the eye of his fellow bishops," says John Allen, the Vatican-based, senior correspondent for the influential National Catholic Reporter weekly newspaper.

"His comfort level with the media is extremely high. People who hold the job typically emerge as leaders of the American conference. He'll go somewhere -- that would be the normal trajectory here. It would not be a surprise to anyone for him to end up with one of those archdiocesan sees at some point."

The Rev. Thomas Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at

Georgetown University

, agrees.

"He's a hard worker, willing to serve on committees," says Reese. "A lot of the bishops just don't want to do that. He has a willingness to do that, and not just as a token member of the committee. That comes to the attention of the leaders of the conference. He's serious, prudent, and is articulate."

Some local observers wonder about his earthy sense of humor and his sometimes brusque, rough-hewn manner, and suggest that he never encountered a microphone he didn't like. But they also concede that five or 10 years of seasoning -- here and on the national stage -- are likely to sand down the sharp edges of his personality and add sufficient polish.

Could there be a cardinal's red hat in Wenski's future?

"Could be," says Reese, noting that Wenski is untainted by the clergy sex-abuse scandals that have brought down some older bishops. "He's already been recognized by other bishops and given such a prominent role in the bishops' conference. I think it's certainly possible."

Wenski dismisses the notion that Orlando is a steppingstone.

"Orlando is not as backwoods a place as some people think it is," he says. "This is a major U.S. diocese. I'm very happy here. I have to do what the Lord asks me to do here. I'm not looking to go any other place. This is as far north as I want to be."

Happily for the diocese, Wenski's challenges are unlike those found in the Rust Belt, where his brother bishops face dramatically declining numbers that are forcing churches to close and parishes to consolidate.

"We're growing very fast, but we can't be lulled into a sense of complacency because our churches are full," he says, thanks in equal parts to an expanding economy, immigration from Latin America and retirees from the North. Catholics in Central Florida are "not as kind to me if I take too long to open a place."

And his vision for the future?

"The vision is to respond to the growth that has already taken place, to preach the Gospel and to inspire Catholics to recognize their baptismal call to holiness. If we recognize that and we strive for that, then everything else is in perspective," referring to the clergy sex scandals of recent years.

"You evaluate your commitment to your daily life in a way that helps you to grow in your commitment and your relationship with the Lord," he says. "If you recognize the call to holiness, you're not going to settle for mediocrity, or an ethical minimalism, or just a sentimental religiosity."