Bishop Olmsted marks 40 years of priesthood

Fr. Olmsted with First Communicants. (Courtesy Olmsted family)
Fr. Olmsted with First Communicants. (Courtesy Olmsted family)

When he approached his pastor about discerning the call to Holy Orders, his pastor said flatly, “Your brother would make a good priest.”

Not yet a priest, Thomas Olmsted receives a blessing from Cardinal Hickey, retired archbishop of Washington, D.C., during his ordination to the priesthood. (Courtesy Olmsted family)
Not yet a priest,
Thomas Olmsted receives a blessing from Cardinal Hickey, retired archbishop
of Washington, D.C., during his ordination to the priesthood. (Courtesy Olmsted family)

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted shared this wry recollection with those who gathered for a July 3 Mass in the Diocesan Pastoral Center chapel. The chancery staff gathered to celebrate the bishop’s ordination to the priesthood 40 years ago July 2.

Other than a couple of parenthetical comments, the bishop focused his homily on St. Thomas the Apostle, whose feast the Church celebrates July 3. We often focus on St. Thomas’ most embarrassing moment, even referring to him “doubting Thomas,” he said. But the Apostle went on to do many great things after that account found in the Gospels.

God, the bishop said, doesn’t focus on where you’ve been, but on where you go. When Deacon Doug Bougart read the words of St. Thomas, “My Lord and my God,” Bishop Olmsted touched his folded hands to his mouth.

“As a priest, he’s trying to do what a priest should do,” said Fr. Paul Sullivan, director of vocations. “He never brings others to himself, but only to Christ.”

On this day, organizers of the pizza, salad and cake party set a seat aside for Bishop Olmsted — he sat with his brother priests. But on most days, the bishop sits with someone different every day, getting to know those with whom he works in the pastoral center.

“He leads a well-rounded life,” Fr. Sullivan said, noting the bishop exercises, rests and eats healthy foods. But most importantly, the bishop is always sure to pray.

“He’s always praying in the chapel,” said seminarian Vinhson Nguyen. “He has been a great model for us.”

Seminarian Harold Escarcega called him a “holy man,” but stressed that the bishop was “down to earth.”

“He’s genuine,” Escarcega said. “He doesn’t change how he acts from one person to the next. There’s no duplicity in that man.”

Over four decades of priesthood, the bishop has served in Rome, as rector of a seminary and as a parish priest. The year after his ordination, he joined Jesus Caritas, a fraternity of priests founded by Blessed Charles de Foucauld. As bishop, he’s served on many U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ committees.

Emy Palermo, who’s served as secretary for two bishops the last 30 years, quipped that the bishop “is always in a good mood with me.” She applauded Bishop Olmsted’s ability to speak both English and Spanish.

“He loves email,” Palermo said. “He loves to communicate.”

Among his favorite decorations is a statue of Baby Jesus and a Filipino Day clock, which he keeps up to date, Palermo said. He’s also an avid reader and quotes heavily in his homilies, columns and other public proclamations. In his July 3 homily, he quoted liberally from Cardinal Francis E. George, archbishop of Chicago.

Most days, the bishop celebrates 6:15 a.m. Mass at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral, where he lives in a small room at the rectory. After Mass, he prays and eventually makes his way to the downtown Diocesan Pastoral Center by 9 a.m., according to Palermo.

“The night before, I prepare him for the following day,” Palermo said. Bishop Olmsted often works into the evening and celebrates Mass in parishes throughout the diocese. After each Mass, he stays to greet anyone who would like to speak with him and gives them his complete attention, Palermo said. He never measures the length of the line.

The bishop, who loves his family dearly, goes to Kansas to visit them three times a year. He does everyone’s weddings.

When Bishop Olmsted told his father he wanted to be a priest, his father said, “I always wished one of my sons would be a Major League baseball player,” the bishop recounted shortly before cutting his anniversary cake.

“But I don’t think he wanted them to play for the Diamondbacks,” he quipped, “especially not after last week.”