Moments after Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted received a phone call Saturday afternoon that Pope John Paul II had died, he went into his chapel at Sts. Simon and Jude Cathedral in Phoenix and wept openly.
"Our emotions are hard to predict. Certainly, the memories came flooding back," said the leader of the Phoenix Catholic Diocese. For nine of his 16 years working in Rome, he served in the Secretariat of State of the Holy See (1979-88), working for the pope.
One especially vivid memory that came back Saturday involved the pontiff’s near assassination in Rome in 1981. The bullets that were fired at him also had wounded two women in a crowd. "The Holy Father asked me to visit the women in the hospital so they would not feel let down," Olmsted said.
Olmsted first heard the news of the pope’s death as he worked on his homily for a Saturday night Mass at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Phoenix, where 73 new Catholics would be confirmed and given their first sacraments.
At the start of the Mass on Saturday evening, the bishop told the 1,700 faithful in the full church to show gratitude for the pope’s "wonderful 26 years serving us." A portrait of John Paul II was displayed on an easel at the front of the chancel, or stage, with a white candle lit beside it and Easter lilies gracing the base.
"Our hearts long for the comfort and consolation of the Holy Spirit, as we mourn the loss," Olmsted said.
Olmsted last saw the pope in May 2004 when he was in Rome for his "ad lumina" trip as required by bishops every five years. He said it might not be until his next required trip to the Vatican in 2009 that he meets the next pope. "There could be for other reasons that he might call certain bishops over to Rome to see him if there was consultation that was needed," he said.
The bishop plans to follow "quite closely" the election of a new pope by the College of Cardinals. Olmsted wouldn’t offer an opinion on the kind of new pope to be chosen.
"I wouldn’t trust my judgment," he said in an interview after the Mass. "I am praying that the Holy Spirit gives us the pope we need.
"The first thing he needs to do is to exhibit the great confidence that God is with us and that his grace will be with us as we move forward," Olmsted said. "I think, in time of transition, there are fears that are there — an uneasiness, an anxiety." John Paul II demonstrated refreshing and assuring confidence from the outset, he said.
The new pope also must make sure Catholics "are focused on serving Christ and to believe that he is with us as we move forward."
"I really believe the new evangelization is the primary mission of the church," he said.