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IgnatiusInsight.com Interview with Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix, Arizona | Valerie
Schmalz | August 30, 2005
Reverend Thomas J. Olmsted began making headlines in Arizona almost
as soon as he was installed as bishop of the Phoenix diocese on December
20, 2003, replacing Bishop Thomas OBrien who resigned
after being arrested and later convicted for leaving the scene of a fatal accident.
In April 2004 Bishop Olmsted ordered nine priests and one religious brother
remove their names from a document written and promulgated by an activist
organization for homosexual clergy, No Longer Silent: Clergy for Justice.
That document, the "Phoenix
Declaration", states, "Homosexuality is not a sickness, not
a choice, and not a sin. We affirm that GLBT persons are distinctive, holy,
and precious gifts to all who struggle to become the family of God."
Other controversies followed, including the case of Rev. John Cunningham,
a priest accused of attempting to concelebrate Mass with a non-Catholic clergyman. As required
by Church law, Bishop Olmsted sent the case to the Congregation for the
Doctrine of the Faith. Rev. Cunningham, who was one of the nine priests
who signed the Phoenix Declaration, was fired as pastor at St. Mary Magdalene
Most recently, on August 5, 2005, the Arizona Republic, the states
largest newspaper, gave Bishop Olmsted front
page play for barring public officials, specifically the states
governor, from speaking in Church venues if they advocated positions contrary
to Church teaching, particularly on abortion and other life issues, and
gay rights. A week later the newspaper chastised the bishop in an editorial
Right is Freedoms Loss."
So who is this bishop who has gained so much attention in such a short time?
Bishop Olmsted, 58, was raised on a family farm in Kansas with two brothers
and three sisters. He attended a one-room grade school and a small rural
high school, attending Catholic school for the first time when he entered
Prior to his arrival in Phoenix he served as Bishop of Wichita, Kansas,
after being ordained Coadjutor Bishop on April 20, 1999. Before serving
in Wichita, he served as the Rector/President of the Pontifical College
Josephinum, a Catholic seminary in Columbus, Ohio. Since 1974, he has been
a member of the Jesus Caritas fraternity of priests, and thus has been deeply
influenced by the witness and wisdom of Charles
de Foucauld and by the prayers and encouragement of many brother priests.
For sixteen years, Bishop Olmsted lived in Rome, Italy where he obtained
a Master of Arts in Theology, a Doctorate in Canon Law, and worked more
than nine years in the Secretariat of State of the Holy See. During his
nine years serving in the Holy See, he resided at the Pontifical North American
College and assisted seminarians with spiritual direction. He speaks and
writes both Italian and Spanish.
Valerie Schmalz of IgnatiusInsight.com recently spoke with Bishop Olmsted.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What are your primary duties as a bishop? What do you
see as the toughest and easiest parts of your ministry?
Bishop Olmsted: My duty as a bishop is pretty much what the church
asks me to be. Those duties are usually broken into the three categories
of teaching, sanctifying, and governing. All three of those are ones I try
to do and keep in mind when I review my ministry on a regular basis, whether
it be in spiritual direction or a day of prayer. I think that the sanctifying
category is the one that was the easiest to get accustomed to as a bishop
because as a priest youre already celebrating sacraments, and the
Eucharist is the center of each day so that wasnt a big adjustment.
But the higher profile in terms of teaching and governing would have to
be the bigger challenges.
IgnatiusInsight.com: You live in a rectory attached to the Cathedral and
with a number of other priests rather than living in the bishops house.
Can you tell me about that?
Bishop Olmsted: Well, its just that that seems to work out
best. The bishops residence is still being occupied by Bishop OBrien
and when I arrived it was not an easy time for him; it was a very difficult
time for him and it seemed best to have him just continue to live there
and that still seems to be the best. I enjoy living in the rectory with
other priests. I find that its very supportive of me, just on the
human and spiritual level. We pray Morning Prayer together every day. I
take the 6:15 Mass at the Cathedral every day if I dont have another
Mass. I have meals together with them at the same time. I have my own room
there, so I can close the door and get my work done so it works
out very well. Its just sort of what works practically.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Since youve arrived in Phoenix there have been
a lot of changes. What do you now see as your role overall as bishop?
Bishop Olmsted: My first duty as a bishop is to be, as far as possible,
united with Christ. So fidelity to Him each hour of every day is my biggest
priority and I think thats a big challenge! Thats by far and
away my most important duty to constantly try to nourish my close
union with Him. I would say that its out of that and just trying
to daily go about the duties of teaching, sanctifying, and governing that
I have dealt with the issues that have come up. Now when I see issues that
come up, and there obviously are a number that come up every day, I will
consult with my closest advisors about that: my two vicars general, my vicar
for priests, my judicial vicar, and my presbyterial council of priests.
Those are the people and bodies I would consult with. And usually after
some time of getting good input and then my own prayerful reflection I decide
which issues need to be attended to first.
IgnatiusInsight.com: You were recently chided by the Arizona Republic
in an editorial titled "Bishops Right is Freedoms Loss"
for a policy (actually stated in December 2004) that does not allow politicians
(including Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano) who dissent from the Catholic
Church on abortion and gay rights to speak at Catholic parishes and other
Catholic venues. Are those the only issues? What principles did you use,
what was your rationale on that?
Bishop Olmsted: First of all, I was very surprised by the front page
headline in the Arizona Republic because I had done this eight months
earlier and had actually just put into my own words what the American bishops
had decided in June 2004, when we were gathered in Denver for our biannual
meeting. And that was to say we pledged we would not allow those who disagreed
with the most central teachings of our faith to receive awards, honors,
or to have a platform in our Catholic institutions. That was what I was
trying to do to explain the position of all the American bishops
and then just ask our own priests, parishes, and Catholic institutions to
abide by it. I didnt spell out any specific issues in my letter to
priests the headline was one that they made up. And in the discussion
among the bishops the primary thrust of the discussion in Denver in June
2004 was primarily on the questions of abortion and euthanasiathe
IgnatiusInsight.com: But is gay marriage also an issue that would qualify?
Bishop Olmsted: Various moral issues have different moral weight.
Some of them are always intrinsically wrong; abortion and euthanasia are
always wrong. Theres no time that those things are true. There is
never a time when sexual activity outside of marriage is correct either.
So those would be issues that we would have real consideration for. I think
that at the present time in the Church we must have a great concern about
married life and the importance of the family.
IgnatiusInsight.com: When there was so much discussion about presidential
candidate John Kerrys support of abortion rights, some of the bishops
said they would not give him Holy Communion. But you said that it was the
responsibility of the person, if he was not in communion with the Church,
to not be receiving Communion, but that you would not refuse him Communion.
Is that right?
Bishop Olmsted: No, the last part isnt right. It is true that
it is the primary responsibility for anyone presenting himself for Communion.
As you might imagine, when a priest, or a deacon, or a bishop is giving
out Communion, they almost dont even notice who is coming up for Communion.
So the responsibility, 99.99 percent of the time, has to be with the people
coming forward. Which means that we have a very serious obligation to instruct
our people well about the great gift of the Eucharist and about the way
that we must be prepared objectively to receive Communion worthily.
And I think we need to do more teaching in that regard, so I wrote an article
on the subject. Usually, if there is someone we know would be in a category
of not receiving Communion and they do seem to be persisting in coming forward
to receive Communion, we should try to seek a way to talk to them. One on
one, if possible, so that theres a chance for conversion of heart
and, at least, to provide an explanation of the Churchs teaching why
this is the case and then to ask them directly to refrain from Communion
because the present situation theyre in is totally contrary to the
Church and her teachings.
So anyone who has had an abortion, or has participated in one, or euthanasia,
or who would be promoting those things, or have failed to protect human
life while in a position where they could protect it such as a politician
or a judge they should not be receiving Communion. If they persisted
in it after [Church teaching] was presented to them, then I think the priest
or deacon should not give them Communion in that case. But we should try
to make the efforts beforehand to be in conversation with them.
IgnatiusInsight.com: The John Kerry example?
Bishop Olmsted: He never came to Arizona on a weekend so it was never
something I had to deal with.
IgnatiusInsight.com: There are a lot of Catholic politicians who will say,
"I disagree with the Catholic Church on abortion, gay marriage, and
embryonic stem cell research, but Im a practicing Catholic."
Bishop Olmsted: Right. And I think they should refrain from receiving
Communion. And, I think if I knew them if I had the opportunity to
I should try to sit down with them, and explain things, and ask them
IgnatiusInsight.com: So, at some point, you would not give them Communion?
Bishop Olmsted: If they persisted after that, then I would be in
a position where I think I should not give them Communion. Yes.
IgnatiusInsight.com: One of the reasons for refusing to give Communion in
those cases, it seems to me is that it really is a kind of scandal and sends
a message that this is acceptable. Do you feel that is the case as well
or is that just a secondary consideration?
Bishop Olmsted: I think that is the case. I think that there is scandal
involved. Anytime we commit sin that is publicly known, theres scandal
involved. In other words, it makes it easier for others to rationalize doing
the same. So, yes, I think thats true. And the more public the person,
the more impact they have for good and for ill. So there is a scandal thats
given in those kinds of situations. On the other hand, as a Church we must
always do everything we can to be in conversation with and to deal with
peoples conscience so that we dont just issue edicts, but we
also try to explain those and to persuade, in so far as we can, and not
cut off the lines of communication, as far as we can.
IgnatiusInsight.com: You re-instituted the Latin Mass in your diocese after
a twenty-year absence. What was your reasoning? Since the Latin Mass is
a hot-button issue for many Catholics, can you explain the different values
of the Mass in Latin and in the vernacular, and the Churchs position
on these different forms?
Bishop Olmsted: First of all, the Church is always about reconciliation
and building up in unity and bringing back the lost sheep. As a result of
that, in the 1980s John Paul II asked that the bishops around the world
provide, if possible, for those faithful who wish to participate in the
Tridentine Mass to be able to do so. And so it was a question of obedience
for me in that regard.
The second reason, which is a reason John Paul II spelled out very clearly,
is that in this particular local church of Phoenix there is a great need
for reconciliation. I am aware of five communities and five priests who
are not in communion with Rome who are celebrating the Tridentine Mass.
When I found out about that and I found there was no opportunity for people
who wish to go to the Tridentine Mass, I had a great desire to at least
have it be possible for them so that they can be in communion with the Church
by going to Mass in the Tridentine Rite.
So, the primary motivation had to do with the request of John Paul II, and
the local situation of all of these Catholics who were not participating
in the Faith, as well as the five priests who were outside of communion
with the Church. So that was why I began it here. I also had the experience
of the diocese where I was previously, where we did have Mass on Sunday
for a small group of Catholics who wanted to have the Mass in the Tridentine
IgnatiusInsight.com: Did the priests in those communities come back to the
Bishop Olmsted: None of them have come back yet. Ive had conversations
with four of the five. Ive had repeated conversations with two of
the five. One of them seems to be very close to coming back but hasnt
yet made the final move. Like anything, it takes time. We human beings dont
change our minds quickly and so its been an ongoing effort at conversation,
as well as working with their religious superiors.
IgnatiusInsight.com: One of the first things that happened after you came
in as bishop was that you asked the priests who had signed the Phoenix Declaration
on homosexuality () to take their names off of it. [Note: Among
the statements on the Declaration was this: "Homosexuality is not a
sickness, not a choice, and not a sin. We affirm that GLBT persons are distinctive,
holy, and precious gifts to all who struggle to become the family of God."]
Why did you ask them to do that? From the Churchs standpoint, what
was wrong with the Phoenix Declaration?
Bishop Olmsted: It was called the "No Longer Silent Phoenix Declaration."
I became aware of it after being here several months. Somebody downloaded
the document and showed it to me, so I read it very, very carefully and
then I took about a month to read through all of the Churchs teaching
and then to consult with some people. And then I decided I needed to do
two things. I needed to ask the nine priests who had signed it to remove
their names and I needed to write articles [see "The
Blessing of a Chaste Life"] to the whole of my diocese in my Catholic
paper about the Churchs teaching about homosexual persons and about
homosexual acts. So thats what I did.
There were four reasons that I gave to the priests that asked that they
remove their name from it. And all of them but one removed their names.
The four reasons were these: First, that the ambiguity of the language is
very much in contrast to the clear teaching of the Sacred Scriptures and
of the Magisterium about homosexuality. In this, the Churchs teaching,
especially in the documents from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith, talks specifically about how ambiguity is very dangerous in this
area. Because it can allow people to misunderstand or be confused about
what the Churchs teaching truly is.
The second reason is that there was a not-so-subtle implication that authentic
Church teaching fostered intolerance and even violence toward homosexual
persons. So the whole tone of the declaration was implying that the Church
itself was a source of intolerance and of violence toward homosexual persons.
Thirdly, theres no mention whatsoever that the teaching of Christ
and of the Church is that all sexual activity outside of marriage is sinful.
Theres never any talk about sin in the Declaration.
The fourth reason is because the tone and the language of the document had
a great potential for being a divisive force among the clergy and the laity
because it tended to imply that if you didnt agree with the thing,
that you were intolerant.
Eight of the nine withdrew their names. The one who did not was a retired
priest who had been out of ministry for many, many years. So his status
didnt change. For many other reasons he was not in priestly ministry.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Later several other priests (who had signed the Declaration)
left active ministry. Was that related to the Declaration?
Bishop Olmsted: No, those actions werent related to that. Those
priests all left for their own individual reasons.
IgnatiusInsight.com: One of the priests who signed the Phoenix Declaration
was recently asked to step down after concelebrating a wedding Mass with
a non-Catholic. Would you explain the significance of proper celebration
of the Mass and what constitutes the parameters of participation by non-Catholics
Bishop Olmsted: It is not unlinked with the question of receiving Communion.
The Church has great care for its greatest treasure and that greatest
treasure is the Eucharist. The only one who can celebrate the Eucharist
validly is a priest and anyone who simulates that commits a very serious
sacrilege. The con-celebration of a priest with someone who is not a priest
is a really major scandal and a sacrilege. For that reason the Holy See
actually has withdrawn to itself the right to deal with these cases. If
ever this happens in your local diocese, you need to refer it to the Congregation
for the Doctrine of the Faith. Thats exactly what I did. Then the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sent back to me the instructions
about how they wanted it to be dealt with which was they asked me
to set up a tribunal to go through all the facts of the case and to make
a determination. That tribunal has been set up and theyre now dealing
with all the information that was supplied to them, so it hasnt been
IgnatiusInsight.com: When will it be resolved?
Bishop Olmsted: Soon, I hope.
IgnatiusInsight.com: In the interim, the priest should not be celebrating
Bishop Olmsted: Hes been placed on administrative leave. While
he was one of the persons who signed the Declaration, it had nothing to
do with that.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Finally, there has been talk of bringing a Catholic
university to Phoenix. Is that in progress?
Bishop Olmsted: I am not personally in the process of setting up a Catholic
university but I have said on a number of occasions that I cannot help but
believe that the Holy Spirit will bring it about here. And that I would,
of course, be delighted to do whatever I could to encourage it. The diocese
is not in a position because of personnel and funds to establish a Catholic
university. I did ask someone to serve as my liaison and to be in conversation
with different persons who have an interest in establishing a Catholic university.
There have been several initiatives that have come forward and I have met
with a few who are connected one specific initiative may eventually
result in us being able to do that. But, its still in the planning
and talking stage.
of a Chaste Life | Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted
Drawing A Line:
An Interview with Bishop Michael J. Sheridan
Valerie Schmalz is a writer for IgnatiusInsight.
She worked as a reporter and editor for The Associated Press, and in print
and broadcast media for ten years. She holds a BA in Government from University
of San Francisco and a Master of Science from the School of Foreign Service
at Georgetown University. She is the former director of Birthright of San
Francisco. Valerie and her wonderful husband have four children.
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