Fresh from his encounter with Pope Francis during the pontiff’s historic visit to the U.S. last month, Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted delivered his second annual “State of the Church” address Oct. 6.
Sponsored by the Catholic Community Foundation, the ticketed event at the Sheraton Phoenix Downtown drew some 700 parish and ministry leaders as well as clergy from around the diocese, a substantial increase from last year’s 430 attendees.
“I’m here today to talk about the bridegroom and his love for his bride — God’s love for His Church,” Bishop Olmsted said. Drawing on the example of Pope Francis, Bishop Olmsted focused on “the contagious love of Jesus Christ” the Holy Father showed for the poor and marginalized during his recent visit.
“It was deeply moving for me to see how Pope Francis found time every day while he was here in the United States to serve the poor,” Bishop Olmsted said. Whether it was at a soup kitchen in Washington, D.C., or a prison in Pennsylvania or on the streets of New York City, the pope was “a sign of the love of Christ for those who are poor and overlooked.”
In his inaugural State of the Church address, Bishop Olmsted referred to Pope Francis’ words that Christians ought to live as though the truth were true. The Holy Father’s actions during his recent visit to the U.S., Bishop Olmsted said, are clear evidence that the pontiff lives that way.
“From the time Pope Francis landed in Cuba, he worked and pleaded for reconciliation and peace,” Bishop Olmsted said. Referring to the pope’s meeting with survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of clergy, Bishop Olmsted said the Holy Father was visibly shaken by the experience. The Diocese of Phoenix remains committed to outreach and counseling for victims, offering two annual healing Masses and mandatory safe environment training for all diocesan employees and volunteers, he said, and he himself continues to meet with survivors.
While last year’s State of the Church address focused on what Catholics ought to do to live out their faith, this year the bishop zeroed in on who it is Christ calls the faithful to be. Knowing God’s will for our lives, he said, is a great blessing. Yet before we can know our mission, we must first know our identity, he said. Inspired by Pope Francis, he focused on three dimensions of identity in Christ.
Citing Pope Francis’ recent encyclical “Laudato Si’,” the bishop noted that, “When we forget who we are in relationship to God and his creation, we too easily adopt an attitude, a foundation of pride and selfishness.” We’re called to be stewards of creation, he said, and the pope “helps us to see what happens when we create a ‘throw-away culture’ that disregards God.”
The second dimension of our identity in Christ has to do with being members of a family. Expressing gratitude for the influence of his two grandfathers on his life, Bishop Olmsted noted that the Holy Father’s primary reason for visiting the U.S. was to take part in the World Meeting of Families.
“He wanted to remind us of the importance of marriage, and thus the importance of motherhood, fatherhood and childhood,” Bishop Olmsted said. The pontiff framed his remarks on immigration and the refugee crisis by “referring to them as our brothers and sisters, reminding us that unless we see them as persons, rather than as problems, we will never arrive at a good solution to the complex issues of immigration, refugee resettlement and the treatment of prisoners.”
The third dimension Bishop Olmsted pointed to was Catholics’ identities as missionaries of mercy. The Year of Mercy, set to begin Dec. 8, will be an opportunity for the faithful to focus on becoming messengers of God’s love. It is after having experienced God’s unconditional love and undeserved mercy that a person can become a messenger of mercy, he said.
“Once we taste the joy of mercy, gratitude to God overflows within us, and then comes a deep desire to hand this mercy on to others,” Bishop Olmsted said. He challenged those in attendance to not be afraid but to tell their children and grandchildren about the beauty of marriage and children. He also urged young people to not be afraid of embarking on family life. “Be not afraid of God’s plan for your life,” he told the crowd.
The bishop received a standing ovation even before he began his remarks and yet another at the conclusion. Shannon Clancy, chief philanthropy officer for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, applauded Bishop Olmsted’s emphasis on being missionaries of mercy.
“That’s certainly part of what we try to do is offer our community, that opportunity to engage and come together in order to support people,” Clancy said. “That’s where we’re called, to connect with people one-to-one and see the face of Christ in each other, especially in those who are suffering.”
Wayne Rich, president of the Serra Club of Phoenix, said he was encouraged by the bishop’s address.
“All of it lifted my heart. I’m exuberant when I hear our bishop speaking but what I’ll take away is the message of mercy and the power of mercy,” Rich said.
Paul McClellan of St. Helen Parish found the event to be motivational.
“I was very impressed with his speech and what he said about the pope. We all need to get involved and do more than we’re currently doing,” McClellan said.