Exit Interview: Joseph Pepe, Retiring bishop, Roman Catholic Diocese of Las Vegas
A plaque marking Bishop Joseph A. Pepe’s final resting place has been engraved with his birthdate of June 18, 1942-, and set near the front of the Guardian Angel Cathedral on the Strip. Early in his almost 17-year stewardship of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Las Vegas, Pepe decided he wanted to be buried here as a symbol against the transient nature of the city.
Having recently reached mandatory retirement age at 75, Pepe offered his resignation to Pope Francis, who appointed the Most Reverend George Leo Thomas of Montana as the new Bishop of Las Vegas. Thomas will be installed on May 15.
Pepe, a native of Philadelphia and not nearly ready for the “hole,” will become Bishop Emeritus and continue to serve on several boards, including the International Dominican Foundation, the Vatican Library and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. Pepe reflected on his time in Las Vegas.
What has surprised you about this city?
Everybody throughout the world looks at the Strip and thinks that’s it. Some bishops believe that my major job is to go through casinos pulling people away from slot machines, getting the dancing girls from the stage and saving their souls.
That was my first impression. But I leave knowing that our people are very active in the services of the church and also in the outreach of the church. That’s what struck me — you’d go to a parish, and it would have a sophisticated program to help people who were homeless or hungry.
I never saw this in Philadelphia. It was paper and glue in other dioceses. At St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, a woman who has been volunteering for more than 20 years filled a room as big as this (conference room) every week with all kinds of food, and it would all go on Thursdays to Catholic Charities. She’s now doing that at Holy Spirit.
Plus, the participation! My mother, who’s 96, cried when she (used to go) to her church (in Philadelphia). It has a 1,500-seat capacity, as big as the Shrine of the Most Holy Redeemer, and there, she sees about 200 people at their major Mass. Can you imagine what that looks like? It looks like three people are there. She would come here, and on Thanksgiving, St. John Neumann would be packed with people.
Young people recently led demonstrations against gun violence. What’s the intersection of Catholicism and political activism?
We’re a nonprofit, so you have to be careful about how you engage. It’s been a fallacy in American society to sidestep religious organizations to have a place in the political forum. Everybody has a voice. It’s wrong to say this one does not have a voice because it’s religious. You want to hear all the religions so that you have some idea of the diversity.
We should have a voice; you don’t have to accept it. Pope Francis has pushed this a lot in his encyclicals and the responsibility for us to do that — to have a voice, to explain (our) values.
Your time here was punctuated by 9/11 and the October 1 shooting. When horrific things happen and people may tend to lose hope, what’s your message?
First, recognize the power of evil in the world. It is so intrusive and so subtle that it makes us callous to certain things and puts in our community people who are probably very deprived and weakened.
We have games (and other entertainment) that are violent. I was looking at a television show, and this guy was mad. He throws lamps on the floor and pushes a bookcase over. We’re saying, “Boy, this is a great movie.” But it’s making us callous and insensitive, and making it more open to a person who has these sicknesses and saying, “You know, everybody does it, so I will objectivize it.”
It’s like a video game. That man (the October 1 shooter) felt that those bodies were nothing to him except something that has got scores on the top. That’s the dangerous thing. It’s very persuasive.
What can we do?
What we have to tell people is this: You have to be the sign in the world. You have to be the sign of people who have stability in your life, a sense of love and appreciation, a sense of gentleness and kindness — to bring that into your community and make it a reality.
That’s the thing you have to remember: People have deep within themselves a sense of God, and that’s what we have to bring out. We can’t answer the evil in the world by being flippant. The more that we put into our own human values and sense of dignity of other people, the more we’ll have a better world.
Pope Francis seems to have an appreciation for symbolic gestures that don’t change the church’s dogma but shift the tone. Is that his intent?
That is his intent. That is his gift. He gives a sense of an engagement of people that they can identify with. … Francis is building on those perceptions. …
He is putting in a very practical way the message of the traditions of the church. He’s making us stop and say, “We have to question what we look like and how we have to change that look so people will be attracted to it.”
What is the state of the diocese?
It’s in excellent shape as far as the people participating (going to church almost regularly). The number that the Holy See has is 605,000. When I came, I don’t think it was 400,000 yet. So it really grew. … There are a total of 800,000 Catholics here.
With only 77 active priests (about half on loan from other dioceses or semi-retired), how have you addressed the shortage?
That’s one of the big puzzles here. Because it’s such a transient community, it’s hard to get a legacy of stability. Compare it with Bishop Thomas, in a rural culture like Montana: He ordained 14 priests and has a larger number of candidates for priesthood. … What we’re trying to do here is build a true Catholic community that has stability and has a base in which we can get vocations. That was my strategic plan, and I don’t know how far we got.
You have made plans to be buried at Guardian Angel. Why?
I saw there was so much transience. It’s hard here because of the culture; it makes things unsettled. Most of the other bishops looked for another place as they went through here. This was a stepping-stone. I said, I’m not going to have that happen. In my second year, I said I wanted to be buried in this cathedral, so I got the permit to be buried. …
So now I have a hole, and that’s the next big thing that’s going to happen to me. Last night (March 27) was the last time I had the Chrism Mass (in which the Bishop blesses holy oils used in sacraments in diocesan parishes throughout the year). It was nice to think that this year, all the blessings received from the sacraments will have my blessing.