Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, age 63, has served as head of the Diocese of Phoenix since 2003. He grew up on a farm on the Kansas- Nebraska border and attended small rural schools in Kansas. His father, a farmer, headed up a family of six that was devout in its practice of the Catholic faith, regularly praying the Rosary and morning and evening prayers. The family attended a mission parish in the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska.
From an early age, Olmsted believed he was called by God to serve as a priest. He was ordained for the Diocese of Lincoln in 1973, the same year, he notes, as “the horrific decision of Roe v. Wade.” He lived in Rome for 16 years, earning a master’s degree in theology and a doctorate in canon law. He then served for nine years in the Secretariat of State for the Holy See, while providing spiritual direction to seminarians at the Pontifical North American College.
He was ordained a bishop in 1999, and served as coadjutor bishop and then bishop of the Diocese of Wichita, Kansas, from 1999 to 2003. His next appointment was to the troubled Diocese of Phoenix. His predecessor, Bishop Thomas J. O’Brien, was investigated for charges of covering up sexual abuse by priests of the diocese and had agreed to cede authority over diocesan sexual abuse policy. Bishop O’Brien was also arrested in a hit-and-run accident that killed a 43-year-old man (O’Brien was later found guilty of leaving the scene of a fatal accident). Bishop O’Brien resigned as bishop in 2003.
Since coming to Phoenix seven years ago, Bishop Olmsted has been applauded by orthodox Catholics for his public stands in defense of the faith. Most recently, he publicly affirmed that Sr. Margaret McBride, an administrator at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix, had incurred automatic excommunication by helping a patient procure an abortion at the hospital. Bishop O’Brien recently spoke to CWR.
What challenges did you encounter when you first arrived in Phoenix?
Bishop Olmsted: One of our biggest problems is related to family life, which is a problem most everywhere. Our country is experiencing a breakdown
of the family. There are many broken homes with children growing up without a father present. Many, therefore, have confused notions as to what a man is and what a woman is; they do not appreciate motherhood and fatherhood. Many are confused about the great gift of marriage and God’s plan for the human race.
To meet this challenge in Phoenix, we created a strong marriage preparation program, which includes instruction in Natural Family Planning. We need this to ensure we have strong marriages.
The pro-life issue is also important, as is immigration. We also have had challenges related to our rapid growth as a diocese, as we’re one of the fastest-growing dioceses in the United States. Some are elderly, coming to Arizona to retire, others are immigrants, particularly Spanish-speaking. We’ve had to build new parishes and start new schools, as well as recruit priests and religious to staff them.
We also have challenges because of our diocese’s size, which is large land-wise. We have one county that is heavily populated—Maricopa County, in which Phoenix is located—and three counties that are rural. They have different populations and different needs. It’s a challenge to travel to the different parishes, and make them all feel united together. I just received an auxiliary bishop, Eduardo Alanis Nevares, who will be a great help to me in meeting our pastoral challenges. He is the first auxiliary bishop we’ve ever had in the diocese.
You offered spiritual direction to seminarians at the Pontifical North American College. Has there been an improvement in the formation of priests in our seminaries?
Bishop Olmsted: There has been great improvement in our seminaries in the past 10 to 20 years. We’ve enjoyed greater clarity of thought regarding the Church’s teaching on doctrine and morals. John Paul II offered many great documents in the 1990s, including the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the encyclicals Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”), Fides et Ratio (“Faith and Reason”), and Veritatis Splendor (“The Splendor of Truth”). These have been of great benefit explaining Catholic teaching and strengthening the faith everywhere, especially in seminaries.
We’ve also had a better understanding of the role of psychology in the seminary. There was a time when there was too much emphasis given to psychology, and not enough to the pastoral experience of priests on faculties in evaluating men preparing for the priesthood.
While there certainly is a need for psychological testing of candidates to ensure that they are mentally healthy, at the same time this is only one aspect, the human aspect, of priestly formation. There are four pillars of priestly formation: human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral. Spiritually, we need a deep appreciation of the importance of a rich liturgical life and a personal devotional life. Intellectually, we’ve been aided by the teachings of Pope John Paul II, which have been continued by Pope Benedict. Pastorally, we need to ensure that those preparing for the priesthood have generous hearts and feel called to serve and not be served.
Pope John Paul II has been an important influence in your life. You had the chance to work with him personally during your time in Rome. What kind of man was he?
Bishop Olmsted: Pope John Paul II is a great hero of mine. His teaching inspires me constantly. He was a man of great holiness. He was a man of tremendous gifts. He spoke many different languages. He had a great love for poetry and was a poet himself. He had a love for drama and was a playwright. The Holy Father had a great interest in marriage, which led to the promotion of the theology of the body.
How do you compare working in the Vatican to working in the United States?
Bishop Olmsted: It’s like Nazareth versus Jerusalem. The mystery of Jesus’ life in Nazareth for 30 years is much closer to Phoenix, while Rome is like the spiritual headquarters of Jerusalem.
In Rome, I worked with the Holy Father and looked outwards to the whole Church and world. I saw a Church that encompassed many countries, languages and cultures. I experienced the rich diversity of the Church. In Phoenix, I’m involved at a grass-roots level, working with the parishes.
How is the Diocese of Phoenix doing for vocations to the priesthood?
Bishop Olmsted: We wish we had more seminarians. We ordained three to the priesthood this year, three last year, and six the year before that. Our need for priests is much greater than the number we have. It takes longer to get vocations when you have so many people moving into a diocese. People need time to settle and build families.
I’m grateful for the seminarians we have. I just spent a day hiking with our seminarians in the mountains, encouraging them and being supportive of their vocations. These young men give me great hope, but vocations remain a huge challenge. We need to make sure we’re doing all we can to help these young men to hear God’s call.
How do you see your role as a bishop?
Bishop Olmsted: I am a successor to the Apostles. I need to carry on the mission that Jesus left to them. A bishop has three primary roles: to teach, to sanctify, and to govern. I place the primary emphasis on teaching, because Jesus said “Go teach all nations.” But you don’t teach without being totally rooted to Christ in prayer and being one with him through the Eucharist. So the sanctifying role has to be closely linked to the teaching role.
The shepherding or governing role is also intimately united with the others. To fulfill it, I need a strong working relationship with my priests, who carry on day-to-day life in our parishes. I see my role with my brother priests as both father and brother.
Last year, you joined with many American bishops to object to President Obama’s invitation to speak at the University of Notre Dame. Why?
Bishop Olmsted: I agree with the statement put out by the American bishops a few years ago when we met in Colorado. It said that public officials who are opposed to key teachings of the Catholic Church should not be honored by the Church and not given a platform to speak. President Obama’s Notre Dame invitation was not a help to the Church’s evangelization efforts, but a hindrance. It creates confusion among Catholic higher institutions of learning about their identity and mission. So I expressed my disagreement to the president of Notre Dame.
You’ve also stated that Catholic public officials opposed to Church teaching should not receive Holy Communion.
Bishop Olmsted: Anyone who is not in a state of full communion with the Church should not be receiving Communion. That would include public officials who take positions in opposition to Church teaching involving intrinsic moral evils. The areas that most commonly come up are abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, and euthanasia.
How do you try to correct such a public official in your diocese?
Bishop Olmsted: I stay in communication with them, if possible, in a confidential setting. I begin with a dialogue, appealing to their consciences. I stress that Catholic moral teaching is not only to be applied in one’s private life, but in every aspect of one’s public responsibilities.
What do you think about Arizona’s new immigration law?
Bishop Olmsted: There’s a lot of fear and frustration that led to this law being passed. I don’t think it’s a good law. The immigration problem cannot be solved at the state level. I understand the frustration, but what we really need is a comprehensive reform at the federal level. Until that happens, frustration will continue to grow at the local level. The new law is not going to contribute to safer communities, but overshadows the dignity of the undocumented who live among us. We need to be a welcoming community and offer hospitality to all.
Can good Catholics disagree with you on this?
Bishop Olmsted: Yes. There are many factors that need to be taken into account. States do have a right to protect their citizens and have safe borders. These matters involve a prudential judgment, and there is certainly room for disagreement. But it’s significant that most of our bishops agree that the human dignity of every person, particularly those who are immigrants and strangers, is one that needs to be recognized by all Catholics.
What effect has the law had on Arizona?
Bishop Olmsted: Many in the Hispanic community are afraid and feel disrespected. It is seen as racial profiling, even if those who support the law don’t intend it that way. And it will be difficult to implement without there being instances of racial profiling.
Why did you allow the Tridentine Mass to be celebrated again after a 20-year absence in Phoenix?
Bishop Olmsted: First, Pope John Paul II requested that we make the old Latin Mass available to our people. Second, we had seven communities in Phoenix not in communion with the Church celebrating the Latin Mass. We had Catholics leaving the parishes and going to these other places. There was a pastoral need to make the Latin Mass available in our parishes to our people so they wouldn’t go elsewhere. Since we’ve made the Latin Mass available, more of our people have been returning to the parishes.
How has the recession affected your diocese?
Bishop Olmsted: The state of Arizona has been having a difficult time economically. Housing was hurt, which was one of our primary areas of employment. More houses have been built than we need; also, many have purchased houses that are beyond their means. It has adversely affected the state, and the Church as well. In our diocese, we’ve had to tighten our budgets in our parishes, charitable organizations, and our diocesan pastoral center. Economically, it is a difficult time.
Have there been any developments in your discussions with Sr. Margaret McBride?
Bishop Olmsted: There was a lot of reaction to my letting her know that she had incurred automatic excommunication. I’ve been in communication with her and the hospital to fully resolve the situation, but it has not yet been resolved. We’re working on it.
What areas of your diocese do you plan to focus on in the future?
Bishop Olmsted: Evangelization of our youth is an area of great concern for me and an area of special focus in the past few years. Last year, I released “Serving Truth in the University,” a pastoral letter setting guidelines for our ministry to our youth in our universities. I’ve concentrated a lot of personal time and effort to get those Newman Centers to be really effective in reaching out to students.
I’ve also appointed priest-chaplains to all of our Catholic high schools. I work with them closely to build up and strengthen our ministry to our Catholic schools.
Why have so many young people left the Church?
Bishop Olmsted: Our catechesis has been weak over the last 40 years. Many of the parents of our young people have had inadequate catechesis, so it is difficult for them to be first teachers of their children in the ways of the faith. Our schools must offer parents the help they need to fulfill their teaching role. We must meet the hunger for truth in the hearts of our young people.
When our young people receive the truth, their reaction is often positive. I’ve been pleased with the feedback I’ve been getting from the priests at our Catholic high schools. We’re seeing a greater number of young people coming to them to talk to them about vocations, whether married vocations or vocations to the priesthood or religious life. We’re seeing a stronger desire among our young people to be engaged in addressing issues in the life of society, such as pro-life concerns or missions to serve the poor in our cities.
When I participate in retreats with young people, I see a real hunger for the word of God. They want to know what love is, what it means to be a man or woman, and what the true meaning of freedom is. Fighting a secular culture is difficult, because there’s so much confusion out there. The false answers our young people receive don’t ring true, so there’s a real hunger and an openness that offers great possibilities for the Church.
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