Retired Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Flanagan, 89, dies Oct. 9; remembered for character, personal qualities

UPDATE: A liturgy will be celebrated at St. Brigid Church at 6907 Kitchener Road in San Antonio on Wednesday, Oct. 16, at 10 a.m., with Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller, MSpS, as presider.

Funeral Mass will be held in Holy Trinity Church, Derrinturn, Carbury, County Kildare, where Bishop Flanagan was baptized, received First Communion, was confirmed, and celebrated his first Mass on June 11, 1956, following ordination to the priesthood.

Retired Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Flanagan, 89, remembered for a life of faithful priestly service in many ways to the people of the archdiocese, died October 9 in San Antonio following a long illness.

Retired Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Flanagan, 89, remembered for a life of faithful priestly service in many ways to the people of the archdiocese, died October 9 in San Antonio following a long illness. In recent years the bishop lived at the Padua Place residence for retired clergy. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller, MSpS, said, “On behalf of myself, Auxiliary Bishop Michael Boulette, Bishop Emeritus Michael Pfeifer, OMI, and Bishop Emeritus John Yanta, we offer our condolences to the family and countless friends of Bishop Tom Flanagan. He was a blessing for so many; and in his service in parishes and ministries he was a symbol of God’s grace.”

Auxiliary Bishop Michael Boulette stated, “Bishop Tom, as so many addressed him, was a gentle giant, a quiet saint. His ministry as priest and bishop in our archdiocese assisted so many with the grace of God which he lived and preached. His enthusiasm for the spirit of the Second Vatican Council permitted the rapid implementation of its principles in his parishes and later in the entire archdiocese. Bishop Tom was a much sought out spiritual director. He listened with the heart of Jesus and assisted with the process of discernment in the lives of countless seekers of God’s will. His welcome into the Kingdom of God will be swift. Well done good and faithful servant.”

Bishop Brendan Cahill of the Diocese of Victoria commented, “I always admired and respected Bishop Tom’s missionary zeal, his energy, and his good nature. His episcopal motto, ‘For Christ We Are Ambassadors,’ was the perfect description of him. In his life he was an ambassador of hope, and a true ambassador of Christ in many, many ways. I found him to be so positive, and that always stood out to me.”

Bishop Cahill, also of Irish background, noted too that Bishop Flanagan was extremely proud of his Irish heritage.

Thomas Joseph Flanagan was born on Oct. 23, 1930 in CarburyCounty Kildare, Ireland, the oldest of eight children of Patrick and Mary McNamara Flanagan. 

In an interview with Today’s Catholic in 2006, Flanagan shared that, “Those years growing up in Ireland were hard times,” he said, adding, “We all shared the times and the poverty. There was a great sense of faith. We got through it. The routine was work, school and activity in local sports.”

Home was a safe harbor. A close family life provided security. The church was a pillar.

“We prayed the rosary together each night. It provided a great sense of love and devotion at the center of our lives,” he recalled, adding that his devotion to the rosary remained.

His decision to answer God’s call to the priesthood was happily supported by his parents and family. There was the added support of the local community which, he said, continued throughout all his seminary years.

Following his early education in Derrinturn Boys National School and after attending Mungret College, a Jesuit high school, he studied at St. Patrick’s College, Thurles, County Tipperary, Ireland, and was ordained a priest by Archbishop Jeremiah Kinane on June 10, 1956 at the Cathedral of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Thurles for the Archdiocese of San Antonio.

“Here I am Lord.” That was Flanagan’s immediate response to minister in Texas in the 1950s when Archbishop Robert E. Lucey was visiting Ireland seeking priests to serve in the Lone Star State — mission territory and a world away from the Emerald Isle at that time.

               Bishop Flanagan later received his master of divinity degree from Oblate College of the Southwest in 1979. He also studied theology at the Pontifical North American College Seminary in Rome.

After his arrival in San Antonio in September 1956, then-Father Flanagan served as associate pastor in various South Texas parishes as associate pastor at St. Michael in Weimar, Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Ganado, and St. Peter Prince of the Apostles in San Antonio, until his appointment in 1969 as administrator, and later pastor, of St. Agnes Church in Edna.

               In 1972 he became pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in San Antonio, serving there until October 1985 and his appointment as pastor of St. Brigid Parish, also in San Antonio, for 13 years.

He was named a monsignor by the Holy Father on Nov. 29, 1989.

On Jan. 5, 1998, he was appointed auxiliary bishop for the archdiocese by Pope John Paul II. At the time he referred to then-Archbishop Patrick F. Flores as, “a great shepherd and a dear friend.” Flanagan was consecrated a bishop on Feb. 16 by Archbishop Flores at the San Antonio Municipal Auditorium. The principal consecrator was Archbishop Flores, and principal co-consecrators were Bishop Edmond Carmody of Tyler and Bishop John McCarthy of Austin.

In closing comments at the episcopal ordination, Bishop Flanagan said, “Thanks to my brother priests who have traveled and journeyed with me throughout the years – may we continue our journey together,” he said, also acknowledging his deceased parents and a deceased brother and priests with whom he studied at the seminary.

“The future before me is unknown, but beside me is a friend I have always known – God,” Bishop Flanagan said.

Auxiliary Bishop Patrick J. Zurek was also ordained to the episcopacy during the same ceremony.

               In addition to his parish posts, Bishop Flanagan had been a member of the Knights of Columbus since 1956, and served as chaplain of local and state units of the Knights, such as Faithful Friar of Assembly 2040. He was a spiritual adviser to the archdiocesan St. Vincent de Paul Society and archdiocesan liaison to charismatic prayer groups and director of the Center for Catholic Charismatic Renewal.
               Within the archdiocese, he was a member of the College of Consultors, member and chairman of the Archdiocesan Personnel Board, an Archdiocesan Consultor, on the Synod Commission, chairman of the Board of Assumption Seminary, director of Archdiocesan Cemeteries and director of the Priests Eucharistic Movement. 
               Also, he was a contributor to Today’s Catholic newspaper and Catholic Television of San Antonio.
               When Pope John Paul II visited San Antonio in 1987, then-Msgr. Flanagan was responsible for assigning credentials to the media, and in 1997, he was a member of the Steering Committee for the visit of the Billy Graham Crusade to the Alamodome.
               He also served as president of the San Antonio Community of Churches. Reverend Kenneth Thompson from the San Antonio Community of Churches said at Bishop Flanagan’s episcopal ordination, “As a builder of bridges, he does the actual building.”
               Despite his many years in the United States, Bishop Flanagan never forgot his Irish roots.
               Meeting in 1999 with participants in the Ulster Project, which brings Protestant and Catholic teens from Northern Ireland to the U.S. to break down barriers of religious intolerance, the bishop said, “For so long I have wanted to become involved in the Ulster Project because of its purpose in helping both Catholic and Protestant people to live peacefully and happily together in North Ireland.”
               During a party given for the Irish teens, Bishop Flanagan remarked that it was easier to pick out who was Irish and who was American than who was Catholic and who was Protestant.

Bishop Flanagan retired on Dec. 15, 2005, at the age of 75, when his resignation was accepted by Pope Benedict XVI. The resignation was announced in Washington that day by Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, apostolic nuncio to the United States, and in San Antonio by Archbishop José H. Gomez.

Bishops are required by canon law to turn in their resignation at age 75.

In his letter of acceptance, Archbishop Montalvo wrote, “I assure you of our remembrance in prayer at this special time of your life and appreciation for your years of Episcopal ministry in the church. May the Lord reward you abundantly and give you good health and strength for your future apostolic service.”

In announcing the retirement, Archbishop Gomez recognized the many ministries and organizations that had benefited from the service of Bishop Flanagan. Bishop Flanagan for a time continued in his role as director of the Office of Priests at the request of Archbishop Gomez.

“On behalf of the people of the Archdiocese of San Antonio, I thank you for all that you have done in Jesus’ name, and all you will continue to do as a model of faith and love,” said Archbishop Gomez. “I pray for the continued intercession in your ministry of Mary of Knock, the patroness of Ireland and Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas, as you continue your journey of what we hope will be many blessed tomorrows.”

               Until his retirement, Bishop Flanagan was one of 33 active U.S. bishops who were born abroad.
               In remarks at his retirement press conference at the archdiocesan Pastoral Center in late 2005, the bishop said he thanked God for his almost 50 years as a priest and the opportunity and blessing shown to him. “I have never looked back. I’ve never had any regrets. I’ve been happy to serve,” he said. He also expressed his gratitude to Archbishop Gomez, Archbishop Flores, Bishop Zurek, retired Auxiliary Bishop Bernard Popp and his brother priests.
               Bishop Flanagan shared his desire to continue as a bishop to whatever degree he can, citing recent health concerns which have slowed his work pace. “I thank God for the blessing and privilege to have served as an auxiliary bishop for the past eight years,” he said. “I ask for your prayers as I pray for each one of you. I look forward to many years of health and happiness.”
               Just a few months following his retirement Bishop Flanagan marked the 50th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood with two celebrations in June 2006 at two of the parishes where he served in ministry.

Archbishop Gomez presided and gave the homily at the Mass of Thanksgiving at St. Vincent de Paul Church on June 7, and Bishop Flanagan was later joined by Bishop Pfeifer of the Diocese of San Angelo at a Mass of Thanksgiving held at St. Brigid Church on June 11, which also featured matachine dancers.

Attendees at the celebration at St. Vincent de Paul included Archbishop Emeritus Flores, Bishop Zurek, Bishop Yanta of the Diocese of Amarillo, Bishop Carmody of the Diocese of Corpus Christi, and other clergy from the San Antonio area.

Nine members of Bishop Flanagan’s family traveled from Ireland and elsewhere to be with him for his celebrations. He also was joined by one of his high school classmates from Ireland, Father Michael Killeen, a priest in the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

In his closing remarks at St. Vincent de Paul, Bishop Flanagan offered his gratitude to a myriad of people in attendance at the liturgy, such as his brother bishops, his family from Ireland and those taking part in the Mass. However, he saved special words of praise for his fellow clerics.

“I thank my brother priests. I thank those that have traveled these 50 years with me, and those that have joined along the way,” he said. “I thank God and the Blessed Mother Mary. I thank you and give praise to God at this happy moment.”

Bishop Flanagan was formally invested as an Honorary Oblate of Mary Immaculate by Father General Wilhelm Steckling, OMI, during a Mass at Oblate’s Immaculate Conception Chapel in Sept. 11, 2009. The school had honored the bishop as a distinguished alumnus in 2008.

“It is said that our founder, St. Eugene de Mazenod, had a heart as big as the world. We present Bishop Tom Flanagan, a compassionate, big-hearted, loving priest of God, whom we honor as a son of St. Eugene and a brother in Oblate community life,” said Father Warren Brown, OMI, in presenting the recommendation to Father Steckling.

“Bishop Flanagan has demonstrated a commitment to the Oblate charism — ministry to the poor, the sick and the homeless; endless dedication to preaching, and teaching the Word of God; and outreach to our non-Catholic brothers and sisters,” said Father Brown. He also cited the bishop’s devotion to Mary, the Mother of God, his membership in the Oblate Madonna Residence community since becoming a bishop and his commitment to apostolic community life as a basis for mission to the needs of God’s people.

“Many Oblates have been anointed and ordained by his priestly hands. He has celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for many Oblates and has become a friend, brother, confessor and fellow minister of the Gospel,” Father Brown said.

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