Bishop Thomas Olmsted

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An interview with Bishop Thomas Olmsted of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix. Bishop Olmsted will discuss the 40th anniversary of the Diocese of Phoenix, Hispanic community outreach, and more.

José Cárdenas: I last interviewed bishop Thomas Olmsted when he was installed as the fourth bishop of the diocese of Phoenix back in 2003. He spoke about his vision for the diocese. The bishop is back to talk about what has happened in the last six years. Plus, he'll discuss the future of the church as it celebrates its 40th anniversary. Here with us is bishop Thomas Olmsted, the leader of the Phoenix Roman Catholic diocese. Bishop, welcome back to "Horizonte." It has been a while. We talked about the 40th anniversary and the book that has been written. We've got a shot we want to show our viewers of the book itself. And then I want to kind of walk through it, because it's a rather, I think, candid assessment of where the diocese has been all the way back to colonial era days. One thing that I think people would be surprised to know is the shape of the diocese and how it's changed over the years. It started out originally as part of the diocese of Santa Fe, including New Mexico. Give us a thumbnail sketch of how it's changed.

Thomas Olmsted:Church part has been here for 400 years. Our history is old compared to other parts of the United States. The diocese of Santa Fe began in 1840, around that time. And it's included all of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, large, large area. And then since then, smaller segments have been broken off no dioceses. And we're new compared to the others. We only began in 1969.

José Cárdenas: And we were split off dioceses of Tucson and the diocese of Gallup…

Thomas Olmsted: The diocese of Tucson, we received from them the county of Maricopa and then from the diocese of Gallup, we have Coconino, Mohave county and Yavapai.

José Cárdenas: I think most people would recognize and understand that the role of the Spanish priests, when the Spaniards rule this had part of the world, Mexican priests thereafter. I think we forget about the influence of the French in terms of religious development in this part of the country. Tell us about that.

Thomas Olmsted: Yeah, the French missionaries had a huge impact on North America. If you've studied anything about Canadian history you know that most were evangelized by those who came from France. And it was true for the first bishop of Santa Fe, who would have been serving this whole region of the country.

José Cárdenas: We've got remnants. The names of the various schools and others. And then the Irish had a big impact here.

Thomas Olmsted: The Irish had an impact all around the world. Lots of Irish missionaries in Africa, Australia and throughout the United States. And even in South America as well as in Canada.

José Cárdenas: Now, part of that candid discussion of the church's history I referred to before, concerns the relation between the Anglo and Mexican parishioners. I know we've got a picture of St. Mary's basilica, I think shortly after it was built and there was a controversy there with respect to Mexicans do their worship in the basement and Anglos above.

Thomas Olmsted: The Catholic church is made of different ethnic groups and the pastor who built the present church we know as St. Mary's basilica was there, he did not see the upper church being used by the himself population, even though originally when the parish started, which is the first parish here in the valley, it would have served only Hispanics but it was a sad part of our history.

José Cárdenas: And one of the consequences of that, or one of the resolutions of the dispute, according to the book, was the building the immaculate heart on Washington.

Thomas Olmsted: Exactly and that's why it has great mean to go all of our Hispanic population.

José Cárdenas: I want to come back to the role the church is playing with the Hispanic community on issues such as immigration and so forth. But also, the church had a history outreach to the Native American community and we've got one picture here we within the to show. The nuns with a number of Native American school girls.

Thomas Olmsted: Yes, they were the first ones we evangelized here. 400 years ago. That was who the church came to bring the good news of Christ to. And it was later that the settlers came from Spain and other parts of the world.

José Cárdenas: And the nuns played a critical role. I remember reading a line somewhere to the effect there's nothing a school bus full of nuns can't fix but that seems to have truth here.

Thomas Olmsted: Most of the first schools were operated by nuns and they were great teachers. They -- we would not have had Catholic education here for many, many years if it hadn't been for dedicated women.

José Cárdenas: With respect -- a role in immigration issues, some of your predecessors were supporters of Cesar Chávez and you and a number of other bishops issued a letter on the subject of immigration. Tell us what the church's position is on immigration?

Thomas Olmsted: First, the church in the United States has been strengthened with waves of immigration. For many, many years. Going back more than a century. Presently, the largest number of those who are immigrants into this part of the world are mostly coming from Spanish speaking countries but we also have quit a few people coming from Asia and the islands of the Pacific. But far and away the largest number coming into Arizona in the last 30 years have been mostly Spanish speaking and the church has seen itself as having a very important responsibility of welcoming those. That welcoming happens especially in our parishes and we especially urge all of our pastors and schools and institutions in our patients to reach out and offer hospitality to those coming. And for that reason, I've recruited a number of priests who are Spanish speaking to assist and seminarians preparing to be priests are required to know Spanish well. It's needed and a great enrichment to have these people come and the Hispanics who come are about 70% Catholic so they -- 70% Catholic.

José Cárdenas: And you're a fluent Spanish speaker. But there are some who feel that the church is not as vocal as it could be on the issue of immigration. There's no -- at least to my knowledge, the church hasn't come out and expressed concern about the tactics of sheriff Arpaio, for example. How do you respond to those charges?

Thomas Olmsted: Well, I think we always have a great concern about the atmosphere. Especially if it isn't welcoming. And if it doesn't show respect for the dignity of every human person. I see the church's role as primarily to lift up through our teaching, the dignity of every living person and the way we welcome them into our schools and parishes. In terms of those in political life, I'm in conversation with them. We have Arizona Catholic conference which is engaged in conversation with all elected public officials and at the national level, which is actually crucial if we're going to address the immigration issue satisfactorily, the United States conference of Catholic bishops has a continuing dialogue.

José Cárdenas: One of your predecessors-- was known for being a pretty vocal supporter of, for example, the farmworkers. We've got a picture of him on the screen right now. Do you see yourself as that kind of vocal leader on these kinds of social issues?

Thomas Olmsted: I see myself as needing to lift up the dignity of each human person and seeing its central role with regard to every issue out there. From the unborn child in the womb to the elderly person to the immigrant who arrives and even if the person has no documentation, they remain a person who is made in god's image and deserves to have their dignity respected.

José Cárdenas: Now, among the issues that have been out there for a while, the issues with respect to Hispanic, but the Newman center, which I understand is one of the largest Catholic campus ministries in the country. Back in the '60s was regarded as a hotbed of anti-war protests and. And I think someone named Walsh was dismissed from that position. And now it's controversy again. You made a decision to replace the Dominican who have been ministering to the Newman center with diocesan priests.

Thomas Olmsted: It comes from the desire to be engaged as a diocese with our young people. So a year and a half ago I put in all of our Catholic high schools a priest-chaplain because I wanted a greater presence in our high schools of our priests and a closer name with our parishes and schools. This time in July, we have a full-time priest-chaplain from the diocese serving in NAU, Flagstaff. I wanted to give presence there to the Catholic church on campus. And the same at ASU. The Dominican friars have done great -- friars have done great service there. If we have our own diocese's priests serving there. That's the reason why I've been interested in making that change.

José Cárdenas: The thing that is you considered the priest there to be too liberal.

Thomas Olmsted: I can't speak more highly of the priest there. (Father Thompson there…) He's been a help to me in this time of transition, with you I'm sure has been a difficult time for him because of the uncertainty and the doubts that the Dominican priests will be leaving there this June.

José Cárdenas: What do you see as the role of the priests, in terms of staffing parishes?

Thomas Olmsted: There should be a complementary relationship between diocesan priests and religious priests. I've been in dialogue to ask them to stay in the diocese and be involved in our parishes. I wanted diocese priest there is because I want a closer link with our campuses and I think many of our young people leave home and go to university and if we can make a clearer link there with the parish and university, I hope more quickly they'll get engaged with the Catholic Newman center and it can be more alive and effective in reaching out to our young people.

José Cárdenas: One last question with respect to the Newman center. There had been in the works, a $50 million capital campaign. What's the status of that?

Thomas Olmsted: The status is we wanted to continue to go forward. We still need that new chapel and the Casey Newman center. So we hope for that to move forward.

José Cárdenas: Before we go further, how about facts and figures about the diocese. The demographics, the size.

Thomas Olmsted: Well, it's continually growing so it's hard to keep track of that. But right now, we have over 700,000 Catholics in the diocese of Phoenix. Like I say, it goes all the way to Utah, Nevada, California, includes Grand Canyon and Flagstaff, all of those areas but over 700,000. We have about -- what? -- 38 schools, six Catholic high schools. And our number of schools has been growing over the years. Thanks be to god.

José Cárdenas: Bishop, you've initiated a number of changes in the church. One of them is an emphasis on strengthening marriage bonds as something relatively new, what's going on there?

Thomas Olmsted: The main things we've done is for the last four years, we've been preparing a new policy for marriage preparation. And what we see is that many of our young people who get engaged do not have a good understanding of the church's teaching on marriage. And without that, and then without the added skills they need to understand good communication, the role of prayer in their lives and those dimensions that will make a happy marriage, the chances of succeeding in marriage are not good. As we see from statistics across our country. So we've strengthened our marriage preparation program just beginning this January it has taken effect.

José Cárdenas: Is there any connection between the emphasis on marriage and what some newspaper articles have described as you being, quote/unquote tough on gay issues. And point at things, for example, the priest who signed a letter that affirmed gay rights and your order to them to withdraw their support.

Thomas Olmsted: My teaching was to repeat the church's teaching. What I have a difficulty with is if we say homosexual activity is not wrong, that's a clear teaching of the bible and church and has always been. The dignity of every person, whether they have a homosexual orientation or not, is something that we defend and that we uplift. Every single human person, no matter what their state in life, their orientation, is made in god's image and deserves to be respected and defended.

José Cárdenas: Speaking of defense, the diocese got into a little bit of hot water, somewhat controversial that contribution of $50,000 that the diocese made to support the anti-gay marriage effort in Maine.

Thomas Olmsted: The defense of marriage efforts there. It seemed to us very important to defend marriage in Arizona. When that came up for a ballot here. And when it came up for a ballot in Maine, it was the only place it was being challenged at that time. And as we know, what happens in one state affects the other states as well. So it was part of our efforts to be of assistance to the local bishop there. And so to defend marriage between a man and a woman.

José Cárdenas: Bishop, another sensitive subject discussed in the books is one that's afflicted dioceses throughout the country, in Europe and all over the world, and that's the issue of sexual abuse by priests and others of Catholic youth. Most recently, in the news because of the defrocking of father Dale, a monsignor. What can you tell us about that?

Thomas Olmsted: There's been a huge problem in society with the abuse of children and that's grown and grown. The greatest place that's happened is in families and in schools. It's been part, sadly, also our church institutions and so we've had to take a hard look at ourselves, to be sure that anyone who is ever abused a child is removed from service in our schools, institutions or from ministry. And so that would be what's involved with the case of the monsignor.

José Cárdenas: And the newspaper article emphasized how rare this was that a priest would be defrocked as well as having been excommunicated.

Thomas Olmsted: Well, the policy of the United States bishops has been very consistent and also quite strong. Since the charter we call the Dallas charter was put into effect to protect children and young people. So any priest who's been convicted of harming a child through sexual abuse is removed from then on from the ministry in any of our dioceses throughout the United States. We're not the only diocese that has done that.

José Cárdenas: Bishop, as the diocese prepares to celebrate its 40th ceremony, it's doing it in difficult economic times. Tell us the impact on the diocese in terms of its own finances.

Thomas Olmsted: it's a difficult time for all of us across the United States and around the world. In some ways, we see this as a tomb to emphasize the deeper values, the spiritual values, the value of the family and human relationships and we see the church as playing a very important role in strengthening people's hope and continuing to reach out to them if they lose their job or going through a very difficult time in their family because of economic difficulties. Thanks be to god, here in Arizona, and especially in our diocese of Phoenix, we have a very strong Catholic agencies that assist the poor St. Vincent dePaul. We have the largest society in the world and they do great work for many people facing crises and special needs and with the downturn in the economy, even more have come forward. Catholic charities here. Which is helped to serve the poor. We have a lot of agencies able to help at this time. When the bishops and I met with the governor a few weeks ago, we talked about the fact of how our churches can be of assistance at this time when our government is facing such serious economic difficulties.

José Cárdenas: Are there any initiatives that you intend to launch?

Thomas Olmsted: Not any additional initiatives. What we want to do is be sure the ones we have are able to continue to serve well and focused on the greatest needs.

José Cárdenas: Bishop, the book, of course, celebrates some of the highlights of the history of the diocese. Including visits from important world personages. We've got a picture of pope John Paul. Celebrating mass at Sun Devil Stadium. And then another one involving your predecessor, bishop O'Brien with mother Teresa. There it is. The circumstances of his departure were, of course, tragic, but he's by all reports doing well. What can you tell us about him?

Thomas Olmsted: You know, the present time, I think he's doing quite well. I'm grateful for that. He's obviously retired to a rather quiet life. But he has many good friends and I know he continues to be of service to the church through his prayers. He's been constantly, to me, very friendly and encouraging. I couldn't be more grateful for his kindness to me.

José Cárdenas: We talked earlier in the interview about outreach to Hispanics and native Americans and the book also talks about outreach to African Americans. And even so, the image of the church is changing. We've got a picture here of -- that reflects the types of dress we see. I think there's reference to the number of Vietnamese Catholics.

Thomas Olmsted: What it's meant for many, many century, the Catholic church embraces all of these cultures and languages and traditions and Phoenix, because we have people moving in here from all around the world, reflects that. We have a new church I'll be dedicating in April, the Vietnamese martyrs church, and it's up 30th and northern, and it's an incredibly beautiful church but you have no doubt this church was built by someone from Asia. It's a magnificent church. We have churches for those who have come from Iraq, Lebanon and Korea, so we just keep growing in many different ways from different cultures and different countries.

José Cárdenas: Bishop, the book describes you as serious, reserved and studious and an avid baseball fan. Accurate?

Thomas Olmsted: It is. You know, when my father was asked, did you ever think one of your sons would be a bishop? And he said, I always wished one would be a major league baseball player.

José Cárdenas: And that's what you wanted to be?

Thomas Olmsted: I loved baseball, and it took my heart and I always loved Christ and wanted to serve as a priest.

José Cárdenas: I heard from a friend of mine and somebody you know that you gave an interesting answer to the question, what would you have been if you hadn't been a priest.

Thomas Olmsted: Well, that's really all I ever thought about being is a priest.

José Cárdenas: I think the answer is that you would have been a cowboy.

Thomas Olmsted: Well, it's true when I was a senior in high school, you had to write down what you wanted to be and the first thing I put down was a priest. The second thing I put down was to be in the rodeo because I loved to ride horses and even to ride our -- our other farm animals. The cows and the bulls and that kind of thing. So yeah, I love -- I love the rodeo as well.

José Cárdenas: Bishop, we've talked about your past. There was a article in the paper last week about your possible future and whether you might be going to Los Angeles.

Thomas Olmsted: That's a rumor. I'm happy here in Arizona and I'm pretty confident this is where god wants me to be.

José Cárdenas: Bishop, got about 20 seconds left. Final words?

Thomas Olmsted: Thank you for this interview. It's been a great blessing for me to come to Arizona and I'm very happy to be serving here.

José Cárdenas: Thanks for joining us on "Horizonte." It's a pleasure to have you.

Thomas Olmsted: Thank you very much.

Thomas Olmsted:Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix;

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