“The Truth has Power Within Itself”
An Interview with the Most Rev. Thomas J. Olmsted
Bishop of Phoenix
Note: Bishop Olmsted was Thomas Aquinas College’s 2015 Convocation Speaker.
Do you have any advice for schools such as Thomas Aquinas College and Catholics in general as we try to witness to the truth of marriage and family in a hostile culture?
I think it is very important that we learn how to present the teaching about femininity, masculinity, and marriage in as persuasive a way as possible. We will always have certain people who do not want to listen, but there will always be someone who will listen in the midst of a crowd. I think we need always to make an effort to do that because the truth has power within itself. It does not depend on our energy or on anything else; we must simply have the courage to say the truth. It has its own inner power.
We need to do our best to present the good news of God’s plan for man, for woman, and for marriage — and then to leave it out there for it to have its own impact on people’s lives. I think your students here are very articulate in speaking the truth. That is a great gift for the Church right now. If we can continue to remind them that whenever they present the truth, they should present it with charity and confidence, it will have its own impact in its own time.
When I became a priest, I remember very well in my first three years that the people I really wanted to change seldom did. And many that I ministered to, whom I was not really thinking about, were changed! It is amazing how God changes people’s lives, in His own time and way.
In the coming years, our institutions — and we personally — will be challenged on these things. We don’t know exactly how that will happen, or how it will come. But I think we need to be wise, and just continue to present things as they are. What we should talk about is not homosexual marriage, because there really is no such thing. That’s a misnomer. What we should talk about is God’s plan for marriage, and the re-definition of marriage, which is really a falsification of it. You cannot redefine what God gave us. It is a reality; we did not create it. Whenever we talk about marriage we should talk about it as God does in the Sacred Scriptures, and as all of history has done, by and large, until the last few years.
Some years ago you made a decision to change the place of the Sacrament of Confirmation in the order of the sacraments, placing it prior to the Sacrament of First Holy Communion. What was your reason for doing this, and how did you go about it?
First of all, I consulted with the priests, religious, and catechists of the diocese and told them a few things I wanted them to consider. The first was that it seemed to me children already in third, fourth, fifth grade, and certainly by sixth grade, were being forced to make serious decisions about using drugs, about what they would be seeing on television, and other things, and that they needed the Holy Spirit to make these kinds of decisions. Secondly, I said, if you look in the documents of the Church, they do not say that Confirmation should be done after First Communion. The order that one finds listed is always Baptism, Confirmation, and then the Eucharist. That is the full initiation into the Church, and that was the order nearly always followed until Pope Pius X lowered the age for children to receive First Communion. I also gave them a statistic: Twelve years ago, less than 40 percent of Catholics were confirmed. Adult Catholics! If we wait until they are in high school, the majority of them will never get confirmed. That means they live without the help of the Holy Spirit, that is, the full grace of the Holy Spirit, in their younger years but also continue much later in life without Confirmation.
So the priests and religious of the diocese, as well as deacons and catechists — people engaged in the preparation of young people for First Holy Communion — gave it some consideration, and they came back and unanimously recommended that I return to the original order. They looked at what was happening in other places, they studied the theology of it, and they looked at the psychological reasons.
I was never convinced that the psychology should be the primary reason, because if you ask people why Confirmation happened later, they would usually say, “Because that’s when young people make decisions, so you need to wait until they can choose for themselves when they can really understand.” My response is that we never fully understand the Eucharist. And there is a danger here, too, when Confirmation is given later: It can become like a graduation, as if once one receives the Sacrament of Confirmation, he doesn’t have to go to Church again.
An even bigger problem for me was Pelagiansim. There is a great danger that we would think that the sacrament depends more on us than on the gift of God’s grace. Many Confirmation programs had built into them that the young person had to do so many service hours, and if he didn’t do that, he would not be confirmed. So it was as though one was earning the graces of the sacrament — and insofar as that thought could creep in, it did. In some cases, it seemed to me, it was running directly contrary to the grace of God and the sacraments.
Not too long ago there was a religious sister at a hospital in your diocese who helped to procure an abortion for a patient. Would you recount what ensued?
Yes. I confidentially informed her that by her action she had incurred excommunication upon herself; she then made that public. I also officially declared that the hospital where this occurred was no longer a Catholic hospital because it refused to allow the bishop to be the ultimate determiner of right and wrong about what it did. The truth was that I could not be sure that they would follow the ethical and religious directives of the Catholic Church. It was a huge tragedy, and it is the last thing I wanted to have to do. But it seems to me that it is a real scandal if we do not do what we should be doing when we call ourselves Catholic.
At this time, more than in any other in the history of the Church, we need good, Catholic healthcare that is loyal to the Church’s teachings and can show — by both practice and conviction — the rich wisdom of the Church with regard to the dignity of each human person in the most fragile moment, from the beginning of life to the end of life. It is badly needed right now.
The Church is very helpful in this and has very clear and wonderful ethical and religious directives. They are updated every few years when new medical procedures come along that we have not had to face and think about before. And we are blessed to have the National Catholic Bioethics Center run by Dr. John Haas, which is a great consultative center for anyone on these issues, especially Catholic healthcare organizations.
You are a member of the Jesus Caritas Fraternity. What is this organization and what is its mission?
In my first few years of being a priest, I learned about the Jesus Caritas Fraternity and several things about it attracted me. One was the simple commitments you had to make. First was the commitment to do an hour of Adoration every day. The second one was to live a simple life. The third one was to gather with other brother priests once a month for a fraternity day — an hour of Adoration together, some Scripture sharing, a social and fraternal meal, and then a review of life. A review of life is when we share about something in the past month that has had a real impact on our relationship and our love for Jesus Christ.
These are opportunities to be among brothers with whom there is an atmosphere of trust that grows over time, and to perceive how Christ is at work in your life, or how maybe you are resisting His work in your life. And it has a huge impact in your life because we believe that Christ changes our lives. He came to redeem us and change us. So it helps you grow in your confidence that Jesus loves you and that He is at work in your life. It is built around deepening your own contemplative prayer, building dedication to Christ in the Eucharist and Adoration, and growing in deep fraternal love for one another. It is not built on natural friendships. Rather, the five or six priests in your fraternity come because they all want to make a commitment to these basic things and to deepen their love for Jesus Christ. That is why it is named after the Latin words Jesus Caritas. That is its aim.
What do you do to encourage young men and women in the Diocese of Phoenix to discern their vocations?
Vocations are a great mystery. How God calls us, and how we hear Him, is the great mystery of faith. But we know that Jesus Himself called people by name. The Apostles are listed that way: There was Peter and Andrew, and they were washing their nets. And there was James and John, the sons of Zebedee, and they were working with their father. Scripture tells us exactly their names. So we have to be very personal, and we have to engage young people and invite them to consider whether Christ is calling them. It is not a matter of persuading them; it is rather helping them to grow in a confidence that God has a plan for them, and that it will be the best thing for their lives
Then we have to promote ways to help them learn to pray. If our young people pray, our Lord will tell them, because the heart of prayer is listening, opening yourself to God. That is why I think here at Thomas Aquinas College you have so many young people responding to religious and priestly vocations — because your worship is central. Your chapel shows that. The reverence of your Masses shows that. Prayer is the way in which we seriously open ourselves to God. I think that’s the most important thing.