Last fall Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix released Into the Breach: An Apostolic Exhortation to Catholic Men, inviting Catholic men to return to an active practice of their faith and re-assume their roles as fathers in society. Citing statistics from the Center for Applied Research into the Apostolate, Bishop Olmsted laments a steep decline in the practice of the Catholic faith—since 2000, 14 million Catholics have left the faith, parish religious education of children has dropped by 24 percent, Catholic school attendance has dropped by 19 percent, infant baptism has dropped by 28 percent, adult baptism has dropped by 31 percent, and sacramental Catholic marriages have dropped by 41%.
“This is a serious breach,” says Bishop Olmsted, “a gaping hole in Christ’s battle lines. … As our fathers, brothers, uncles, sons and friends fall away from the Church, they fall deeper and deeper into sin, breaking their bonds with God and leaving them vulnerable to the fires of Hell.”
Bishop Olmsted implores men to “step up and lovingly, patiently take up your God-given role as protector, provider, and spiritual leader of your home. A father’s role as spiritual head of the family must never be understood or undertaken as domination over others, but only as a loving leadership and a gentle guidance for those in your care.”
In addition to the publication of the exhortation, the Diocese of Phoenix will also be hosting its 2016 Catholic Men’s Conference on February 6. It will feature such well known men’s conference speakers as Chris Stefanick and Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers, who were asked to read Into the Breach and offer their thoughts about its contents. Mike Phelan, director of the diocese’s Marriage and Respect Life Office, explained, “Using Into the Breach, our plan this year is to talk about strategies to get into the breach.”
As the diocese was making preparations for its men’s conference, CWR spoke to Bishop Thomas Olmsted about his apostolic exhortation.
CWR: When did you start thinking about writing Into the Breach?
Bishop Thomas Olmsted: I had actually been thinking of writing something for quite some time. It arose out of conversations I’d been having with others about Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and his writings on feminine genius; we thought, “Why not talk about the masculine genius?” [laughing]
Pope John Paul gave us some great insight in his 1995 Letter to Women, including the problems with modern feminism. We thought there was a need for a discussion of masculinity as well. This is especially true in recent years, as men presented in the media are not building up the true sense of what it means to be a man.
So, a little more than a year ago, when a woman I respect was making a presentation on the feminine genius, she made a challenge: “Why has no bishop written on masculinity?” That led me to do some thinking, and talking with Catholic men for whom I have great respect about the creation of such a document.
CWR: What was the process of researching and writing Into the Breach?
Bishop Olmsted: In 2015, I invited 20 speakers to come to a mini-synod on the identity and mission of men. These included Dr. Paul Vitz (a psychologist), Jason Evert (chastity speaker), Mike Phelan (director of the Diocese of Phoenix’s Marriage and Respect Life Office), Father Paul Sullivan (vocations director for the Diocese of Phoenix) and Deacon John Scott (a retired army major general). They spent a day making presentations of five to ten minutes each, and we’d discuss the material that was presented. It was an intense day, and I received some good input for Into the Breach.
I had some writing assistance from Mike Phelan and Father Sullivan, both of whom work regularly with me.
CWR: What reaction have people had after reading Into the Breach?
Bishop Olmsted: It received a very energetic and positive response. I know some men’s groups were using it for material on which they could reflect; I know some seminary directors who shared it with their faculty and seminarians. Some of my fellow bishops handed it out to their priests to read. Overseas, we’ve had people volunteer to translate it into different European languages; one man in Australia recorded it and uploaded it onto YouTube.
On October 30, the day after we published it, we offered an open invitation to men to come to 6:15 am Mass at our Cathedral and then stay after for coffee to discuss it. We had 45 men show up who were most enthusiastic.
CWR: You have a major men’s conference coming up in Phoenix; your apostolic exhortation will be a key topic of discussion. What results do you hope to see?
Bishop Olmsted: We hope that men will go deeper into the document and put it into practice in their lives. This is our second such conference we’ve had this year; earlier in January, we had a men’s conference for younger men. It drew 200, which was very good since it was our first such conference for younger men.
CWR: You say that men and women are complementary, not competitors. How do you see this as being demonstrated or lived out in a healthy marriage?
Bishop Olmsted: In a healthy marriage, a wife is able to appreciate her femininity and the husband his masculinity. Pope Francis reminded us in the Synod of the Family that one must appreciate his/her body before he/she can have a significant encounter with the opposite sex.
God, our loving Creator, created two sexes. So, femininity and masculinity are linked to the design of God. You see this in a good marriage; each partner anticipates the other’s needs, and appreciates the other’s gifts. I’ve seen this in the marriage of my own parents, who have been married for 72 years. Their love is so beautiful, and their complementarity so evident.
CWR: What do you believe has caused so many marriages to break down in recent years?
Bishop Olmsted: There are a number of factors. Couples don’t have a good idea of what it is to be a man or a woman. The gender confusion we see has not been helpful. Couples have rejected the Church’s teaching regarding the gift of fertility.
CWR: You offer a weekly and monthly spiritual program for men. Talk about the importance of a good spirituality in the life of a man, and what will happen if we neglect it.
Bishop Olmsted: Let me refer to the first line of the Creed: I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible. If I don’t have a relationship with the Father, our lives will quickly get confused and off track.
Prayer is crucial. It gives us an awareness of God’s love for us, and his mercy for us. It helps us to understand that he has a plan for us, if we listen to him and trust him.
In modern society, there is a great deal of “noise,” which crushes our hearts and souls. Prayer gives us the opportunity to withdraw from this noise, and attain an intimacy with God.
I mention the saints in Into the Breach, because in my own personal life, I’ve always liked to read the biographies of saints. They inspire me, and influence the way I pray.
CWR: You criticize the model of manliness presented by James Bond, who’s been a cinema favorite for over 50 years. Why do you object to Bond?
Bishop Olmsted: It was Dr. Paul Vitz who brought this up. We started laughing when we thought of his name, Bond, as that’s exactly what he refuses to do: bond with anyone. He’s a character who promotes an individualistic culture, and doesn’t promote making a commitment to another person. It’s a false notion of freedom. What relationships does he have? Who has he given himself to sacramentally?
CWR: You touch on fasting as a tool men can use to overcome sins of impurity. For those less familiar with the role of penance in the spiritual life, what benefits does it offer?
Bishop Olmsted: It has many. First, it has a strong scriptural basis. Christ, for example, began his own public ministry by 40 days of fasting. In another place [Mark 2:19], Jesus was asked why is apostles didn’t fast, and Jesus said, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” But he added that the days would come when the bridegroom was taken away and then they’d fast.
Fasting and other types of penance give us a mastery over our instincts, a control of our passions. We live in a prosperous society that has provides us with so much…too much. Fasting can help us detach ourselves from these things and open ourselves to the Lord and draw us closer to his heart. It’s very counter-cultural, and very helpful to us in the spiritual life.
CWR: Fasting might be especially helpful to someone in a troubled marriage.
Bishop Olmsted: Absolutely. Fasting adds to our prayer, it makes it bodily. It gives our prayer greater intensity and adds a whole new dimension.
CWR: You touch on pornography use, which as the USCCB’s November statement Create in Me a Clean Heart notes, is quite widespread among men. Do you see it as a significant factor contributing to the crisis of men you describe in Into the Breach?
Bishop Olmsted: Yes. I hear confessions regularly, and I’ve seen that many men are struggling with pornography addictions. If someone gets into this kind of behavior, it is very addictive, like a drug. And, it eats out one’s own sense of self-worth, taking away a sense of joy.
As Scripture tells us [Matthew 5:8], “Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God.” When we don’t have this cleanness of heart, we become like Adam and Eve after the Fall: we want to go hide.
Pornography turns others into objects to be used, rather than persons to be loved and respected. It’s been doing a lot of damage to our men.
A virtue very much needed for our time—and any time—is chastity, which is living your sexuality according to your state of life. One of the tools to living chastely is the daily examination of conscience; I like to say that an unexamined life is not worth living. With God’s grace we can take a look at our lives, and see more clearly what we need to do to live chastely. He will give us the grace we need to build the habits to break free of addiction and live the way to which he calls us.