Courageous prophet or anti-Francis culture warrior? The Bishop Olmsted I knew was simply a pastor.
It was late. I was the editor of a diocesan newspaper, and I had logged extra hours that day to prepare the latest issue to go to press. It must have been between 10 and 11 p.m. by the time I took the elevator down to the subterranean garage at the chancery.
I was surprised to hear boisterous chatter when the elevator doors opened. I peeked around the corner to see Sergio, the security guard, prattling on. Now, Sergio did not fit any security guard stereotypes. He was timid, soft-spoken and did not make a lot of eye contact. Bit of a conflict-averse wallflower.
I had worked with Sergio for years but had never seen him this animated. He was smiling with his eyes wide, emphasizing his words with his hands and laughing. It seemed like the person he was speaking to was having a tough time getting a word in. I peeked a little further around the corner and saw Sergio speaking with Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted.
I witnessed interactions with Bishop Olmsted that complicate the storyline of a rigid shepherd that some put forth.
Bishop Olmsted is retiring as the ordinary of the Diocese of Phoenix. Pope Francis accepted his resignation recently and appointed Bishop John P. Dolan, San Diego’s auxiliary bishop, to succeed him. I haven’t worked for Bishop Olmsted since 2013. Still, of his more than 18 years as bishop of Phoenix, I was there for nine.
If you don’t live in Phoenix and you happen to have heard of Bishop Olmsted, there is a good chance it has to do with St. Joseph’s Hospital. Bishop Olmsted gained national attention after informing a religious sister of her excommunication for her involvement with an abortion at the hospital. Eventually, in 2009, he stripped the hospital of its Catholic status.
You may have also heard about how in 2004 he asked nine priests and one religious brother to remove their names from the “Phoenix Declaration,” a public statement organized by the group No Longer Silent and signed by Christian clergy in support of “gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons.”
Bishop Olmsted made news again in 2018, after Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former papal nuncio to the United States, published a lengthy testimony alleging a cover-up regarding former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s long history of sexual abuse. A few days later, Bishop Olmsted issued a statement calling Archbishop Viganò “a man of truthfulness, faith and integrity.” While Bishop Olmsted admitted having no knowledge of the information disclosed by Archbishop Viganò, he said the claims should be “investigated thoroughly.”
I know a number of people have felt hurt by Bishop Olmsted’s decisions. I have myself.
I know a number of people have felt hurt by Bishop Olmsted’s decisions. I have myself. I credit the Dominicans for keeping me Catholic in college, so when the bishop removed them from the Newman Center at Arizona State University, I felt like I should quit my position at the diocese. I was crushed more recently when I heard the diocese would stop publishing The Catholic Sun, the diocesan paper where I began my career. During my time as a diocesan employee, I understood or agreed with certain decisions; but I did not understand and disagreed with others.
Some friends of mine believe Bishop Olmsted is a saint and a prophet and praise his most controversial decisions as courageous. Other friends believe him to be too rigid and dogmatic, a “culture warrior” who, they believe, resists the Francis pontificate.
When you know someone only from afar, and not through the culture of encounter to which Pope Francis has called all of us, it can be easy to villainize or even commodify other human beings. I understand Bishop Olmsted differently precisely because of proximity. I witnessed interactions that complicate the storyline of a rigid shepherd that some put forth.
Bishop Olmsted never struck me as a person driven by an agenda, other than what he believes to be the teaching of the Catholic Church.
I first met Bishop Olmsted when he sat in on my second interview to get the position at The Catholic Sun. During that interview, I mentioned that Rosemary Radford Ruether sat on my master’s thesis committee. I thought Bishop Olmsted’s eyes were going to pop out. But they hired me anyway.
And I often think of that late night where I found him talking—or listening really—to Sergio: how he gave this security guard his undivided attention so late at night. When I drove by them—you know, hoping the big boss might see me working late—the bishop didn’t even look up. That’s the way Bishop Olmsted talks to people.
After Masses, he is the guy who stands outside in his vestments when it’s blazing hot, spending as long as it takes until everyone who wants to speak with him has a chance. I have rarely, if ever, seen him rush one of these casual conversations. When you talk to him, you feel like you are the center of his universe. (It was a little frustrating, frankly, when all I wanted was to get a quick quote from him after Mass.)
His predecessor, Bishop Thomas J. O’Brien, built the current chancery building, which has a separate priest dining room where the priests were to eat lunch together each day. At least, that was the plan. Under Bishop Olmsted’s leadership, the dining room is rarely used. Instead, during my time there, everyone ate together in the cafeteria.
That included Bishop Olmsted. If there was a person sitting alone, he would often join that person. And he would remember what you shared with him and bring it up the next time he picked your table—or perhaps if he ran into you in the hall. (Not the elevator, though, because Bishop Olmsted always took the stairs.) When I worked there, he knew everyone’s names. And I could never tell if he had favorites.
In so many ways, I have come to deeply admire Bishop Olmsted. Prayer is central to his life. He lives simply. He cares deeply for others, including the marginalized.
There is (or used to be) a “bishop’s residence,” located in a well-to-do Phoenix neighborhood. Bishop Olmsted never lived there. Instead, he lives in a small room in the Sts. Simon and Jude Cathedral rectory. The cathedral is nice, don’t get me wrong. But it is certainly not located in a wealthy neighborhood. The bishop told me once that he lived in the rectory because he liked community life and wanted to be in relationship with others.
He took over in Phoenix at what must have felt like an impossible time for the diocese. His predecessor Bishop O’Brien had resigned days after fleeing the scene of a fatal car accident. Before that, Bishop O’Brien had signed an agreement with the county attorney’s office in which he admitted to protecting priests accused of child sexual abuse.
“I really don’t know why I was asked,” Bishop Olmsted told The Catholic Advance, the Wichita diocesan paper, at the time of his appointment to Phoenix in 2003. “I think it would be linked with the fact that the Diocese of Wichita is a really good diocese. And because of that, it looks like I’m doing O.K. as a bishop.”
Through it all, it always seemed like Bishop Olmsted stayed in touch with his upbringing on a farm on the Kansas-Nebraska border. He grew up with five brothers and sisters, and his family would heat up old catalogs on the stove to keep their feet warm in bed.
After his ordination as a priest, Bishop Olmsted joined the Jesus Caritas priestly fraternity, which is inspired by St. Charles de Foucauld, a French priest who lived in the Sahara and sought to be a brother to everyone. It is because of this saint that Bishop Olmsted keeps a statue of the child Jesus in his office and near his bed.
“A lot of times those who do not know Christ will be frightened of the crucifix,” the bishop told me years ago for a profile I wrote on his 10-year anniversary in Phoenix. “But no one is frightened of a baby.”
In this time of polarization—both in our society and in our church—can we learn from those with whom we disagree?
While I worked for him, Bishop Olmsted made it a point to regularly visit the Native American reservations in the area. On Christmas Eve, he would typically celebrate the midnight Mass at the cathedral; on Christmas Day, he would celebrate the morning Mass at one of the local prisons, before heading to the airport to visit his family.
Bishop Olmsted never struck me as a person driven by an agenda, other than what he believes to be the teaching of the Catholic Church. To find out what that teaching is, I believe he would point you to the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Bible, among other sources. Some might consider that a simplistic answer, but whatever it is, I never thought it was driven by personal ego.
In this time of polarization—both in our society and in our church—can we learn from those with whom we disagree? Perhaps understanding ourselves as “progressive” or “conservative” might help us identify the differences that need to be bridged. But when such categories are used as barriers to communion, they are deeply un-Christian.
In so many ways, I have come to deeply admire Bishop Olmsted. Prayer is central to his life. He lives simply. He cares deeply for others, including the marginalized. He gives his undivided attention to those who wish to speak with him. (My wife would love it if I were more like that.)
I believe Bishop Olmsted will enjoy his retirement. He will certainly have more time for prayer and hiking in the desert, one of his favorite pastimes. I understand he will be in residence at one of the parishes in the diocese. And I imagine he will be tapped to do confirmations now and then. But in some ways, he’ll focus more on his priestly ministry. And, it seems to me, a priest is what he has always wanted to be.