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Interview with Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix, Arizona

Valerie Schmalz | August 30, 2005

Most 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 O’Brien 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
to 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 who concelebrated a 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 parish.

Most recently, on August 5, 2005, the Arizona Republic, the state’s largest newspaper, gave Bishop Olmsted
front page play for barring public officials, specifically the state’s 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 entitled "Bishop’s Right is Freedom’s 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 the seminary.

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 recently spoke with Bishop Olmsted. 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 you’re already celebrating sacraments, and the Eucharist is the center of each day so that wasn’t a big adjustment. But the higher profile in terms of teaching and governing would have to be the bigger challenges. You live in a rectory attached to the Cathedral and with a number of other priests rather than living in the bishop’s house. Can you tell me about that?

Bishop Olmsted: Well, it’s just that that seems to work out best. The bishop’s residence is still being occupied by Bishop O’Brien 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 it’s 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 don’t 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. It’s just sort of what works practically. Since you’ve 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 that’s a big challenge! That’s by far and away my most important duty – to constantly try to nourish my close union with Him. I would say that it’s 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. You were recently chided by the Arizona Republic in an editorial titled "Bishop’s Right is Freedom’s 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 didn’t 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 euthanasia–the life issues. 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. There’s 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. When there was so much discussion about presidential candidate John Kerry’s 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 isn’t 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 don’t 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 there’s a chance for conversion of heart and, at least, to provide an explanation of the Church’s teaching why this is the case and then to ask them directly to refrain from Communion because the present situation they’re 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. The John Kerry example?

Bishop Olmsted: He never came to Arizona on a weekend so it was never something I had to deal with. 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 I’m 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 to stop. 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. 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, there’s scandal involved. In other words, it makes it easier for others to rationalize doing the same. So, yes, I think that’s true. And the more public the person, the more impact they have for good and for ill. So there is a scandal that’s 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 people’s conscience so that we don’t 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. 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 Church’s 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 Rite. Did the priests in those communities come back to the Church then?

Bishop Olmsted:
None of them have come back yet. I’ve had conversations with four of the five. I’ve had repeated conversations with two of the five. One of them seems to be very close to coming back but hasn’t yet made the final move. Like anything, it takes time. We human beings don’t change our minds quickly and so it’s been an ongoing effort at conversation, as well as working with their religious superiors. 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 Church’s 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 Church’s 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 Church’s teaching about homosexual persons and about homosexual acts. So that’s 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 Church’s 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 Church’s 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, there’s no mention whatsoever that the teaching of Christ and of the Church is that all sexual activity outside of marriage is sinful. There’s 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 didn’t 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 didn’t change. For many other reasons he was not in priestly ministry. Later several other priests (who had signed the Declaration) left active ministry. Was that related to the Declaration?

Bishop Olmsted:
No, those actions weren’t related to that. Those priests all left for their own individual reasons. 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 in liturgy?

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. That’s 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 they’re now dealing with all the information that was supplied to them, so it hasn’t been resolved yet. When will it be resolved?

Bishop Olmsted:
Soon, I hope. In the interim, the priest should not be celebrating the Mass?

Bishop Olmsted:
He’s been placed on administrative leave. While he was one of the persons who signed the Declaration, it had nothing to do with that. 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, it’s still in the planning and talking stage.

Related Links:

The Blessing 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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