In the Shoes of a Shepherd: A Week in the Life of an American Bishop

My first meeting with the bishop of Phoenix is at his home rectory of Sts. Simon and Jude. He’s halfway through Tuesday morning prayer with three other priests when I enter the small, unadorned room. Before I can register that there are only four seats, Bishop Thomas Olmsted kneels on the hard floor and motions me to his chair. He concludes the prayer kneeling at our feet.

Prior to Bishop Olmsted’s arrival, many churches in the Diocese of Phoenix had phased out the traditional kneeling parts of the Mass. Olmsted, recognizing that the symbol of kneeling carried deep significance, promptly reversed the practice. He explained the change in a homily by comparing kneeling to humility. Quoting the desert father Abba Apollo, he recalled the imagery of Satan as a snake: “The devil has no knees, he cannot kneel, he cannot adore, he cannot pray; he can only look down his nose in contempt.”

In that deft move, he successfully explained the change while deflecting any expected criticism. Perhaps one could argue against the need to kneel, but who could deny the need for humility? Carried out with as much subtle political skill as theological reasoning, it left little doubt as to Olmsted’s back-to-basics approach. The faithful breathed a sigh of relief. This was the man for the job.


After just over a year into his post, Olmsted’s leadership had been praised by both Catholic and secular media, and he’s widely considered one of the best bishops in America, a rising star in the land of the sun. He graciously allowed crisis to shadow him through a normal week to give readers an inside look at the life of a bishop.

 

Many Americans have an overly romantic view of bishops. Not in Phoenix. People here have seen a different side of the American episcopacy. Night after night, they watched the criminal proceedings of Bishop Thomas O’Brien, looking small and confused in the unlikely seat of the defendant. Bishop O’Brien reigned over a series of embarrassing scandals, finally leaving under his own.

Bishop Olmsted’s predecessor shuffled at least eight sexually abusive priests among parishes, putting them in direct contact with children while concealing past allegations against them (a thing he was forced to admit to avoid indictment). But the prosecutors weren’t done with O’Brien. After hitting and killing a pedestrian with his car — and then speeding away from the scene — he soon faced his own trial.

Accounts of the accident and subsequent courtroom events made national news and dominated local coverage. After the jury delivered a unanimous guilty verdict, Phoenix Catholics still recovering from the sex-abuse scandal were shamed yet again. The bishop behind the wheel of an out-of-control car became a metaphor for their diocese. Clearly, whoever was unlucky enough to succeed O’Brien in Phoenix would have one of the most difficult jobs in the country.

That honor would go to Thomas Olmsted.

I ask the bishop over a small bowl of cereal what he was thinking when he received the call. “For me the response was one of obedience,” he says with a smile. “Never in my wildest dreams did I expect I would be here in Phoenix. It’s one of the few places in the country where I did not know a single priest or deacon. I have to trust it is God’s will.”

If the former bishop tried to sweep the diocesan mess under the rug, Olmsted came ready to face it head-on. Soon after his installation, he disciplined eight priests who had signed a document contradicting Catholic teaching on homosexuality. In his weekly column in the diocesan newspaper, he challenged — with unusually blunt language — politicians who use the “I’m Catholic but…” approach to voting. He then suspended one priest for celebrating Mass with a non-Catholic minister and turned another over to authorities for embezzlement charges.

Along the way to instituting his tough reforms, something surprising happened: The faithful cheered.

“The situation here before Bishop Olmsted came was very discouraging,” Kelly Taylor, the youth minister at St. Thomas, explains. “But he came in full of hope with a real vision of what the diocese could become.”

Olmsted describes a bishop as “a symbol of Christ” and knows well that if the shepherd is lost, so too is the flock. He organized a teen pro-life group after discovering that there was none and prayed with them at the doors of local abortion clinics. Melanie Welsch, a national chastity speaker and Phoenix parishioner, was with Olmsted for some of these vigils. Having also endured the “discouraging times” before Olmsted’s arrival, she is impressed by his personal witness to prayer and service. “He’s shown that one man can transform a diocese,” Welsch says.

The bishop even suggests his difficult situation might have helped his transition. “I have been warmly received here,” he tells me. “There was a longing for healing and hope because of a very bad two years prior to my arrival. Renewal begins with conversion. Until we have need of a Redeemer [Jesus], we take Him for granted.”

We leave the rectory and head downtown to the plush $15 million diocesan offices that opened a year before Olmsted’s arrival. We take our seats for one of the morning’s meetings — this one involving the question of whether to create a Tridentine Rite parish. The diocese currently offers a temporary Tridentine liturgy.

“These are people in good faith. How do we bring them in?” the bishop begins.

Once the meeting gets rolling, there’s little small talk. But Olmsted has a light touch — more a moderator than director — and lets his advisers speak their minds. Once they do, he turns to Rev. Alonzo, who is currently offering the diocese’s Tridentine Mass. “I’ve only received good letters of support since you took over,” Olmsted says. “Thank you for bringing us to this point.”

One of the other priests asks Father Alonzo how many people come to the Indult liturgy. “We see around 350 each week,” he answers. “I’ve heard from some people who haven’t been to church since 1971. People come back to it because of the Tridentine Mass, but also because of the abuse scandal in their own parishes.”

A three-to-one vote is talked out until the decision is unanimous and Father Alonzo is asked to continue saying the Mass on a permanent basis. “We need a new parish, not just a Mass on the fringes,” Olmsted summarizes. The details are quickly worked out, and the meeting ends as efficiently as it began.

Olmsted breaks for lunch down in the cafeteria where he eats a bowl of vegetable soup with the building staff. Afterward, he stops by the chapel for 20 minutes of silent prayer and then returns to his meetings.

Thursday is St. Patrick’s Day and the bishop has decided to spend it with an Irish order, the Sisters of Loretto. The sisters assemble in their convent’s small chapel, the only visitors being the bishop, his cousin Lynn Crowley, and me. Olmsted, dressed in his priestly clericals, launches into an eloquent homily on the importance of St. Patrick. “Interestingly, many of the saints we associate with places did not come from them originally,” he notes. “St. Anthony was not from Padua, but from Portugal. Mother Teresa was not from Calcutta, and Patrick was not from Ireland. He was brought there as a slave.”

The bishop goes on to explain, with visible admiration, how the saint was able to change for the better a strange and foreign land. Being an outsider helped Patrick as a missionary, Olmsted says, giving him a clarity and focus he used to rise from humble origins.

Missionaries in a foreign land — it’s a theme the sisters can identify with. They had the poor timing to arrive in Phoenix in August from the cool of the Emerald Isle. As a teaching order, their first lesson was that 120 degrees Fahrenheit is very hot. “If I could have got back on the plane and flown back to Ireland, I would have,” Sister Gabrielle insists.

But instead of wilting in the sun, over the past two decades they’ve grown to love being missionaries in Phoenix. Like Olmsted, they found it easy to be outsiders in a city where everyone’s an outsider. “It helps that there are no natives here,” Olmsted admits to me later. “And there is a spirit of welcoming from the Phoenix Catholic community.”

Today Olmsted’s focus is on one sister in particular. A young Sister Carmella is retaking her final vows, preparing to return to her convent in Peru after studying English here for six weeks. Olmsted addresses her in Spanish, one of the three languages he speaks, translating at times for the other sisters. Sister Carmella recites her vows and her joy is evident as she makes the rounds, hugging everyone in the room.

The group moves to the dining area for an Irish feast. Olmsted takes his seat among the sisters and is soon laughing and talking so much, he finds little time to eat. The whole celebration is relaxed and easy, and one of the sisters explains why: “Here with us, he’s just a brother and a friend. He doesn’t have to be bishop.”

A very long dinner ends with Olmsted thanking the sisters for the best St. Patrick’s Day he’s ever had. The sisters, who still speak Gaelic when they want to say something to each other without their students knowing, stand in unison and sing a traditional Irish farewell. “May the road rise up to meet you; may the wind be ever at your back.”

Olmsted bids farewell with a broad smile. “Wasn’t that something?” he asks as we walk back to the car. “Heavenly,” he says.

Friday brings early Mass followed by a series of long meetings — some of which deal with victims of priestly molestation. To handle this, the most pressing of the crises he inherited, Olmsted needs to be both sensitive and firm. “On one hand, we’re a Church that’s focused on help for sinners,” he says. “But on the other hand, we need to be accountable and have structures in place for that.”

He implemented a system of zero tolerance that quickly investigates any meaningful accusation, no matter the time and material cost. “We have to work to find the truth, and that costs money in legal and lawyer’s fees — money we could use for other things,” he acknowledges. “But the truth is most important.”

Soon after arriving in Phoenix, Olmsted organized a summit meeting on abuse and held private meetings with the victims. In addition, he instituted a simple, commonsense solution that protects both the child from impropriety and the adult from false accusations. “Two adults should be present every time a child is dealt with,” he says. “We should have been doing that before. Not only can that work now, but it will ensure a better future.”

But it’s difficult to heal a wound still bleeding. Almost a year after the bishop took office and began his reforms, explosive new allegations surfaced. This time they linked the most prominent Arizonian Catholic — Life Teen founder Msgr. Dale Fushek — to a past case of pedophilia.

Fushek and his Life Teen youth ministry were so well-regarded that he drew visits to Phoenix by both Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa. He became the diocese’s most effective fund raiser. Despite this — and a personal friendship with Fushek — Olmsted couldn’t hesitate. He put the beloved monsignor on paid administrative leave, forbidding him from saying Mass at his parish.

The more than 15-year-old “recovered” memory at the heart of the allegation doesn’t actually involve Fushek participating in the claimed molestation — only witnessing it. Further, the first attempt at recovering the memory didn’t include Fushek at all. That came after further attempts, and was quickly followed with a multimillion-dollar lawsuit.

But despite the evident weakness of the charges, Olmsted stuck to his policy. Even the jaded local media agreed that his conduct was commendable. And while shocked St. Timothy’s parishioners refused to believe Fushek was guilty, they were nevertheless impressed with Olmsted’s swift and decisive action.

“Those are always difficult situations,” the bishop tells me, “because we cannot at those moments know of the possibility of guilt. It puts me in a very difficult spot. I want to support the priests, but we need to do whatever we can to arrive at the truth.”

When I ask him if the damage left from the sex-abuse scandals could paralyze the diocese’s ability to administer to its youth, he shakes his head: “I don’t accept that hypothesis. I think what paralyzes the most is fear. We should not be fearful. Fear cannot run our lives.”

Saturday arrives and the bishop needs to clear his head. It’s 6 A.M. in the cactus- and chaparral-coated North Mountain Reserve, and Phoenix has not yet risen. Olmsted awakens to bird songs, scampering desert hares, and the earthy perfume of wild sage. Here, he can be alone with God’s creation.

Much of the bishop’s love for Phoenix comes from his love of nature. Being an avid hiker on the flat plains of Kansas — where he served prior to his post here — is not unlike being a surfer in Alaska. But with Phoenix ‘s endless network of scenic trails, he’s constantly looking for new places to explore.

He quickly came to love the way the desert reveals hidden joys, if you’re one of the few to get out of the car and look for them. Trails take you for miles down dry, desolate gullies only to pick up a spring or creek and transport you into an oasis of flowers and wildlife. It’s like stumbling into a private paradise.

Several hours later, while riding in Deacon Louis Cornelle’s immaculately clean sports utility vehicle, Olmsted is straining to remember the name of a bird he saw on one of his morning hikes. While he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the birds and plants of the area, this one is eluding him. “It looks a lot like the meadowlarks we have back in Kansas,” he says.

We are on the way to a memorial Mass the bishop is saying for Dorothy Stang, a Catholic sister murdered in the Brazilian Amazon. Stang’s work and death attracted worldwide attention, but before she was a missionary and a martyr, she was a teacher and principal at Most Holy Trinity school in Phoenix.

When they arrive, Olmsted asks Deacon Lou if they’ll need the booklet on the Last Rites for the ceremony. Lou notes that since it’s a memorial Mass and not a funeral, it won’t be necessary. Olmsted nods. The bishop has a close connection with his deacons and trusts them implicitly; they act as a bridge between the laity and the priests, since they’re a little bit of both.

The men walk into the back of the church and greet several waiting priests. Olmsted drops off his suitcase and removes the pieces of his crosier from the padding, not unlike a musician assembling a trumpet backstage. Soon the rip of Velcro fills the incense-sweet air, and white cassocks are pulled over white robes. A sister from the school adjusts the bishop’s collar, and he thanks her. He takes a quick moment for a friendly interview of the wide-eyed altar servers and then, as the organ chimes up, retreats to a corner of the room for silent prayer.

To get to the front of the church, the entourage of priests needs to walk around from the outside. The trees are in full bloom, and Olmsted stops briefly to smell one of the yellow flowers. They round the corner… and run into the media.

If he’s sorry to see them you wouldn’t know it, and he greets each person warmly while smiling for the cameras. Mary Jo West, his press secretary, briefs the television reporters for channel 3 and 5 on the significance of the event, framing each question they ask. At one point she takes a microphone from a camera man and holds it closer to Olmsted. When Olmsted came to Phoenix and cleaned house, he installed his own people in most key positions, but he wisely kept West. “I don’t think of the private or public dimension,” he tells me. “Mary Jo West has to think of those things.”

She’s proud to be working for her new boss and loves to tell stories. “Did you know the first thing he did when he got here was ask for the key to the church so he could pray before the Blessed Sacrament?” she asks. “He gets up almost every morning to say 6:15 Mass at the cathedral — he doesn’t have to do that — he just thinks it’s important. I’ve never seen him cross. Oh, and have you noticed the man absolutely eats like a bird?”

The memorial Mass is emotional, the eulogy highlighted at the end by a song from the school’s children’s choir. Marching from their seats they take formation on the stage and sing in the joltingly loud, tone-deaf manner of young children. Olmsted is delighted.

When the service has finished at the church, the group files out and walks a block to the reception hall. Olmsted gives a man on the street a thumbs up for wearing a Kansas City Royals shirt — a nod to his Kansas past. A silent crowd gathers in the middle of the large hall around a portrait of Stang as a vocal crowd gathers around Olmsted.

As I spend time with the bishop, I notice an interesting phenomenon that occurs whenever people approach him for the first time. Almost everyone presents a quick list of their qualifications to him, like a résumé for getting into heaven. “Bishop, you might know me from that fund-raiser last month…” or “Bishop, I belong to this group….” It’s a strange way to approach a man who preaches on humility more than any other topic. And I realize to my embarrassment that it’s exactly how I introduced myself to him.

The parish is near the moneyed section of Phoenix, and the hall is a swarm of black suits and white hair, of nodding heads and firm handshakes. Suddenly from down below the knees of the throng pops a beautiful young girl with deep blue eyes and blond hair. Shyly, she extends a hand to Olmsted, clenching a cold bottle of water. His serious expression is gone in an instant and he bends over to take the gift. He grins broadly in thanks, and gently pats the girl’s shoulder.

In that moment — in the midst of a cacophony of noise and movement — there is just the bishop and his young admirer. I remember something Welsh told me: “When I first met him, I said this man really reminds me of Pope John Paul. The way he is attentive and affirming. But particularly, the way he interacts with children.”

The girl disappears back into the crowd, and the bishop straightens up to address the adults. Half an hour and countless meet-and-greets later, he’s at the end of the line for a table piled high with cookies and pastries. He steps away empty-handed, still holding his water bottle (which he never had time to open) and moves toward the door.

Olmsted has been so enthusiastically received by the 500,000 people in the diocese, it makes it difficult to assemble a balanced picture of him. If he struggles with anything, it’s the tensions of being a private man who’s always in the public eye.

Sister Mary McGreevy, principal of Bourgade Catholic High School, is impressed with Olmsted’s leadership — particularly through the scandals. “I think he has been very straightforward and compassionate to both victims and abuser,” she says. “We needed clarity and directness. The people were looking for it.”

Yet despite having had to help clean up the damage of O’Brien’s scandals, she still misses the former bishop. He was frequently on campus, McGreevy says, and the students had a personal relationship with him. “People really appreciated O’Brien’s collegiality.”

Olmsted works hard on collegiality as well, but in his own way. “The first thing I did the night I came in was have a prayer service with priests and seminarians,” he says. At an appreciation dinner for the religious, I watch him seek out Sister Ruth. “He knew I was sick and came to ask how I was doing,” she says, touched by his concern. “He’s very firm but down to earth. We’re so lucky to have him.”

But being the leader has its own difficulties. “The laity has responded so well to me in part because my policies don’t directly affect them,” Olmsted says. “But the priests are affected. I think you would expect caution on their parts, and there should be.”

I ask him if he ever entertains thoughts about returning to the simpler worries of the parish priest. He shakes the question off, saying he needs to focus on where God has put him now. “I begin each day in prayer and ask God, ‘What do You want me to be? ‘”

If Olmsted isn’t completely comfortable in large, showy events, few would say he handles them badly. Nor are there many who doubt his quick-thinking diplomacy.

Once he was approached by a priest of a schismatic Catholic church in Phoenix who claims to be Catholic. The priest knelt before him and asked for his blessing. This boxed Olmsted into a corner — he knew the priest wanted the bishop’s blessing so he could claim his breakaway group is in fact aligned with the Catholic Church. But at the same time, it wouldn’t look good to the uninformed around him if the bishop refused someone a simple blessing. The solution was quick: The bishop prayed quietly over the priest, asking God for his conversion.

Head due east, just outside the Phoenix city limits, and you’ll soon be on the Santan Indian reservation. There’s no clear border or sign telling you that you’ve arrived, but you’ll notice the change when the large Scottsdale houses with deep green grass fade into shacks with weed-patch yards.

Olmsted likes to cite a recent survey that found Phoenix behind only New York City for America ‘s largest divide between rich and poor. “Fourteen percent of the people here make more than $100,000, and 25 percent make less than $20,000,” he says, aware that his ministry extends to both. Today is Palm Sunday, and instead of a large Mass in the cathedral, he has come to one of the smallest parishes in his diocese.

The mission church — like the parishioners filling it — is full of character. The trim is painted with Kokopelli-like Indians with flutes to their mouths, dancing around the top of the interior. A large painting of a Native American woman is on the back wall, and a cross made of the skeleton of a cactus hangs near the altar. Olmsted arrives separately from Deacon Lou, since he was told of a nearby trail that he wants to hike after Mass.

From the pulpit, Olmsted tells the parishioners how happy he is to be with them. From his obvious pleasure, it’s hard to imagine his being anywhere else. If there’s any good that comes from being a walking symbol, it’s most acutely felt in moments like these. His very presence as bishop bestows on those in his company a feeling of importance and worth.

The Mass is long and festive with a procession of parishioners brandishing palms. Most priests on Palm Sunday take the homily off (due to the longer gospel reading), but Olmsted takes ten minutes to eloquently defend the sanctity of life, with the Terri Schiavo case heating up at that time in the news. It’s standard Olmsted fare — part lesson plan, part gospel, and part encouragement — and he delivers it enthusiastically.

The lectern from which the bishop speaks is emblazoned with the tribe’s symbol, a large circular labyrinth surrounding a small figure. Called “The Man in the Maze,” parishioner Ena Ramon later tells me, it represents “life’s journey and how sometimes you fall or get turned around, but you’re always working your way to the center.”

After Mass, Olmsted shakes everyone’s hand and blesses their crosses and religious items. The crowd filters into the hall where a Native American feast of spicy chicken, beans, tortillas, corn, and rice is waiting. It’s the first time I see Olmsted eating a full meal. He seats himself at a table, a huge white banner welcoming him to the parish at his rear.

He’s presented with several gifts, one of which is a wicker weave of the Man in the Maze, given by another parishioner, Alfretta Antone. “You are a wonderful man,” she tells him. “You have brought healing to our community in many different ways.”

A boy and his mother offers the bishop a handmade rawhide drum. Olmsted gives an impromptu performance, to the delight of the crowd.

People slowly drift out of the hall until only Olmsted and a few stragglers remain. When I finally leave him, he’s still standing outside the little reservation church. Soon, he’ll change into his hiking clothes and be off, indistinguishable from everyone else out on this sunny day.

This article originally appeared in the September 2005 issue of Crisis Magazine. Photo credit: Reuters

By

Robert Griffin is a freelance journalist.

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