Thomas Wenski: Archbishop Easy Rider

Thomas Wenski is not your average man of the cloth. The recently installed archbishop of Miami drives a Harley-Davidson, enjoys an evening Scotch, pilots airplanes to deliver Mass in Kreyol, and listens to Rush Limbaugh on the radio.

Nor is he one to shy away from controversy. In early November, six months after Pope Benedict XVI named him archbishop, Wenski visited Cuba to open the first seminary since the revolution. After a celebratory event, Cuban President Raúl Castro sauntered up with a film crew in tow and criticized the archbishop for calling Communism "hopeless." Later, when Wenski tried to meet with political dissidents in Havana, his phone calls were intercepted by a Cuban security official who growled, "Meddling foreigners aren't welcome here."

But the challenges in Cuba don't compare to those in Miami. Entrusted with revitalizing South Florida's Catholic churches, hit hard by the recession, Wenski has already made bold moves. This past September, he relocated more than 35 priests in what he calls "a fresh start" for the archdiocese. His office also recently sued the City of Miami for $139 million after a new zoning law allegedly reduced the value of church property.

Archbishop Thomas Wenski
C. Stiles
Archbishop Thomas Wenski

Wenski is a workaholic. He writes newspaper op-eds in his Miami Shores office, often delivers Mass in three counties in the same day, and travels nonstop. "When he became archbishop, he told us priests: 'I will not ask you to do more than I do myself,'" longtime friend Father Federico Capdepón says. "But it's very difficult to follow him when he works so hard."

Raised in Lake Worth to Polish-American parents, Wenski in third grade decided to become a priest. In seminary, he saw Miami turning into Little Havana and learned Spanish. Before long, friends were calling him "el cubanazo": "the big Cuban." As a young priest, Wenski once again saw an influx of needy immigrants — this time Haitians — and threw himself into the challenge. He traveled to the tiny Haitian town of Ducis to study Kreyol. And when he returned, he helped found the now-thriving Little Haiti church Notre Dame d'Haiti. On his 60th birthday this past October, 7,000 people packed into the church to sing him "Happy Birthday" in Kreyol.

Unfortunately for the archbishop, not all of the archdiocese's 1 million Catholics are as energetic as Haitian-Americans. Instead, Wenski says, he faces a growing ambivalence from people who treat religion as background noise. "Sometimes when you live as if God didn't matter, you start thinking that you can make up the instructions as you go along, without consulting the maker. If we are going to be truly happy, we have to look at the user manual," he says, pointing to a Bible on his bookshelf.

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