A veritable stranger to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix arrived to be its new bishop Tuesday, saying “because of the love of Christ, I come as a servant of hope.”
The Most Rev. Thomas J. Olmsted, who took over as the bishop of the Diocese of Wichita, Kan., in 2001 after two years in waiting as the coadjutor bishop, was rushed before a news conference about six hours after the Vatican formally announced Pope John Paul II’s choice to be the pastoral shepherd for more than 480,000 registered Catholics in central and northern Arizona.
Olmsted, ordained a priest in 1973, with strengths as an administrator, canon lawyer and spiritual formation advocate, will be installed in ceremonies 10 a.m. Dec. 20 at Sts. Simon and Jude Cathedral in Phoenix, which is commonly called “The Bishop’s Church.” While the diocese has 60 days to complete installation, the process was speeded up at Olmsted’s request and to accommodate schedules of key higher church leaders.
“When I talked to Bishop Olmsted about the installation process, he said, ‘I want it to be simple. I want it to be humble, and I want it to be fairly soon,’ ” said Archbishop Michael Sheehan, apostolic administrator of the diocese.
By holding it before the holidays, he said, the new bishop “indeed will be the Christmas gift to the people of the diocese of Phoenix.” The diocese is working to televise the historic event because the cathedral has seating for only 1,200.
The choice of Olmsted, 56, came as a surprise to diocesan officials, who noted that he was not one of three men on the secret list developed last summer, by procedure, and forwarded to the pope's U.S. nuncio or ambassador in Washington, D.C., Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, to forward to the Vatican.
“The choice certainly came from the Vatican itself,” said Monsignor Dale Fushek, vicar general of the Phoenix diocese and pastor of St. Timothy’s Catholic Community in Mesa. “He was not on the radar screen at all.”
“This appears to be a hand-picked selection,” said Fushek, noting that the new bishop had spent 16 years studying and working in Rome and for the Holy See.
“I never thought of myself as an insider,” Olmsted told the press. “I was very surprised when I learned about this appointment,” but it took him just 15 seconds, he said, to decide to take the new post.
During nine years of the pope’s first decade, “I had the privilege of working for and with him in the Secretariat of State in the Holy See. To this day, I remain deeply grateful for the way he has always lived,” Olmsted said.
The new bishop, who becomes the fourth bishop since the diocese of Phoenix was forged out of the Tucson diocese in 1969, fills the vacancy created last June when Bishop Thomas J. O’Brien, 67, abruptly resigned three days after the car he was driving in Phoenix struck and killed Jim Reed, 43, who was jaywalking in the darkness. O’Brien goes on trial Jan. 14 on charges of leaving the scene of a fatal crash.
The accident capped a 2 1/2-week firestorm over the bishop’s handling of more than 25 years of sexual misconduct cases and an settlement he made with Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley for immunity in exchange for cooperation.
Olmsted, who has met O’Brien at bishop conferences but does not know him well, said he phoned his predecessor earlier in the morning. “He warmly welcomed me, and he said, ‘You have my full support and prayers. I really don’t know him well, but I will have a chance to do that in the weeks ahead.”
Fushek quipped that “it freaks me out” that the diocese will be headed again by a “Most Rev. Thomas J. O . . . ” Both apply to O’Brien and Olmsted. “I called Bishop O’Brien, and I told him when he approves (paperwork) with ‘TJO,’ we are going to have to know which man’s it is.”
Olmsted was barraged with questions about how he might deal with sexual misconduct complaints. Saying he didn’t know the Phoenix’s diocese’s history of misconduct well, Olmsted said he had no notable experience with such complaints in Wichita. “While we have some priests, in the past, who have been removed because of sexual abuse, that was done by my predecessor. I did not have to remove anybody.”
In Phoenix, he said, “I have to give it the attention it deserves. I think sexual abuse is a huge problem in our society. If every clergy person who ever abused a child is removed from office — and I hope that happens — 99 percent of the problems would still be there.” The church, he said, has to be a force to stop abuse of children.
In his work with 93 parishes in 25 counties in the southeastern quadrant of Kansas, Olmsted has received good marks for implementing diocesan policies and training to prevent abuse, said Abe Levy, religion writer for the Wichita Eagle.
“He has overseen that, it’s gone fairly well and he keeps things pretty straight,” Levy said. “A lot of people think he has a lot of integrity.”
News of Olmsted’s departure in 3 1/2 weeks stunned the Wichita diocese, Levy said.
“There is going to be a lot of shock. It’s a big loss.” However, some “are not surprised, because they know his great talents and they figured he was moving to other places because he has a lot of leadership skills that are in demand. People are shocked and saddened, but they understand.”
During the news conference, Olmsted repeatedly was asked how he will minister in a more diverse diocese, one that is 54 percent Hispanic and has a woeful shortage of Spanish-speaking priests. He responded in Spanish, which he developed doing mission work in 1967-68 in Baja California, Mexico.
“In my own diocese of Wichita, we have more than doubled the number of Hispanics the last 10 years,” he said. “We just put out a new pastoral plan for pastoral ministry. We require all our seminarians to learn Spanish so they can minister to our Hispanics.”
Olmsted said he is a strong advocate of the cursillo movement, well-known for weekend spiritual retreats for faith formation. “So many of our Hispanics find that it is one of the best ways to grow in the closeness of Christ to become leaders in the church.”
In his opening remarks, Olmsted took about seven minutes to deliver a pastoral homily, mixing English and Spanish.
“The cross is the fullest expression of love, and therein lies my mission to the people of Arizona — to speak the amazing love of Christ at every opportunity and help my brothers and sisters in every circumstance to trust that his mercy is stronger than evil and more powerful than death.”
New Bishop: Most Rev. Thomas J. Olmsted
Previous role: Bishop of Roman Catholic Diocese of Wichita, Kan., since 2001
Born: Jan. 21, 1947, in Marysville, Kan.
Seminary: St. Thomas Seminary, Denver, 1969
Ordained: July 2, 1973, Diocese of Lincoln, Neb.
Other studies: North American College in Rome; and canon law studies, Pontifical Gregorian University, summa cum laude, 1981.
Appointments: Worked in the Vatican Secretariat of State and was spiritual director of the Pontifical North American College in Rome, 1979-88; pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Church in Seward, Neb., and official of diocesan tribunal, 1989-93; president and rector of Pontifical College Josephinum in Worthington, Ohio, 1997-99; coadjutor of the Diocese of Wichita, 1999-2001
Interests: History, baseball and basketball