[dropcap type=”4″]I[/dropcap]n a world beset by challenges, Pope Francis’ fresh approach has inspired hope in many.
Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of the Diocese of Phoenix echoed those hopes and spelled out his thoughts about the Church in Arizona in his inaugural “State of the Catholic Church” address Sept. 23.
The event served as a way to share the impact of recent global and local Church efforts and highlighted what more can be done. Bishop Olmsted heavily cited Pope Francis’ role in helping Catholics to, as G.K. Chesterton said, “read the New Testament as ‘new.’”
“He surprises and inspires, he startles us and makes us think; he opens our eyes to see Jesus in a new way. He helps us to see the Church and society in a new way,” the bishop said.
Phoenix’s Catholic shepherd spent the rest of his 45-minute talk going in depth with examples that the faithful should also see as “pivotal for the Church in Arizona.”
Sharing the Good News
The bishop emphasized Pope Francis’ urging to share the faith and engage with youth and the elderly. He expressed deep gratitude for the contribution of senior parishioners, including those who only live here part time, and prayed they never doubt how necessary their witness is.
So too, is the witness of youth.
One of few lighthearted moments of the address came toward the end as Bishop Olmsted recalled words Pope Francis spoke during World Youth Day in Brazil last year. The Church’s supreme leader said civilization has largely dismissed youth and the elderly.[quote_box_right]
State of the Catholic Church
Listen to Bishop Olmsted’s remarks from this event at 11 a.m., Sept. 29, on 1310 AM, during a special broadcast of The Bishop’s Hour.
“Don’t allow yourselves to be excluded,” he said, “Please do not water down your faith in Jesus Christ. We dilute fruit drinks—orange, apple or banana juice. But please do not drink a diluted form of faith. Faith is whole and entire, not something that you water down. It is faith in Jesus.”
Holy Cross Father Tom Eckert, pastor of St. John Vianney in Goodyear, left the address with that message in mind.
“That’s a great challenge for our youth and for each of us,” Fr. Eckert said.
Caring for youth and the future of the Church made up a good portion of the address. Bishop Olmsted said the vocations picture — both seminary and religious life — is seeing an increase in numbers.
“At the same time, what is most important is that we are developing, in our Catholic schools and other faith formation programs, a healthy awareness that every person has a vocation from God,” the bishop said.
Every baptized person is called to be a gift to the world.
He said the six Catholic high schools and 28 elementary schools that serve the diocese help students realize that and a feasibility study is exploring the idea of a West Valley high school.
The bishop praised Catholic outreach at two public universities and two Catholic ones in diocesan boundaries. Two other Catholic universities for the Valley hold great potential. Still, there’s an urgent need for Catholic Newman Centers at many other local colleges and universities, he said.
Julie Smith was grateful to hear that acknowledged. Smith and her husband, David, are beginning the college search with their eldest, a high school junior. The St. Mary Magdalene couple is anxious about sending him out without the support of a Catholic campus ministry.
Living the truth
Melissa Fees found inspiration in another lesson the pope has been teaching: live as though the truth were true.
“We have to be reminded and challenged to do that, especially in this time,” said Fees, who attended the address as a board member of Catholic Education Arizona.
The bishop immediately pointed to the need to first know the truth. That’s why the Church founded the world’s first universities, he said. He also lauded early childhood education and faith formation programs for adults such as the Kino Catechetical Institute.
Solid formation leads to authentic witnesses. Smith has found herself sharing the Church’s truths via Catholic memes and messages on her personal Facebook page. The effort has opened the door to peaceful conversation.
“By and large, it’s my LDS [Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints] friends that ‘like’ it and begin to ask me questions about my faith,” Smith said.
The Church strives for peace and reconciliation among all people and the pope has led the way in recent months.
“Pope Francis’ efforts have been both spiritual and practical. He argued for peaceful resolutions of conflict. He has also upheld the rights of people and nations to legitimate self-defense,” the bishop said.
He went on to acknowledge the role governments, pastors and churches can do in such situations. What’s unacceptable is to stand by doing nothing, he said. That’s the predicament Arizonans face with immigration, he said.
It’s first and foremost a moral issue, the bishop said, one that “the Church does not have technical solutions or a specific policy to offer,” but one with which local parishes, social service agencies and charitable apostolates are familiar. He stressed the need for solutions that are compassionate, rooted in commonsense and the Gospel of God’s mercy.
Even some priests who wish to serve the diocese arrive later than anticipated due to immigration issues. The bishop’s opening remarks pointed to the diversity of the diocese. Some 40 percent of priests serving here come from foreign counties. Many laity do as well with liturgies offered in at least 13 different languages weekly.
“While each one brings cultural and spiritual blessings, I also recognize that real sacrifices are required on the part of all to accept one another as brothers and sisters, to adapt to new accents, viewpoints and cultural practices and to be united in our witness to Jesus and His Gospel,” the bishop said.
Concern for poor, family life
That unified witness is vital when it comes to serving the poor and the domestic church found within a home. Bishop Olmsted cited the pope’s concern for the elderly and oppressed and proceeded with a litany of area ministries and agencies that carry out the works of mercy in their daily activities.
They journey with those who are refugees, homeless, unemployed, facing an unplanned pregnancy or needing post-abortive healing and provide basic medical and social services. Images of such outreach decorated many of the tall banners that lined each side of the stage.
“I pray that we never forget what obstacles and challenges these apostolates face and do our part to support and encourage them,” the bishop said. “In a time when a ‘throw-away culture’ treats the most vulnerable as expendable, how blessed we are that Jesus is lifting up faith-filled followers, and giving them the grace to serve the least among us.”
The struggles of the domestic church are also of chief concern. Pope Francis dedicated the next 13 months to seeking pastoral solutions to concrete problems faced by families.
“More than ever, we need to support married couples in difficultly, to reach out to the divorced and broken families, to offer pastoral care for those with same-sex attraction and to prepare couples well to live their vocation in the world,” the bishop said.
He praised local efforts so far and said surveys show they’re making a difference. Couples who hear God’s plan for marriage and family largely embrace it — even those who weren’t chaste — and begin to live as such until marriage.
Rick Frisch, president and chief executive officer of the Catholic Community Foundation, told the crowd he hopes the bishop’s first address helps local Catholics embrace the Church’s vision of a fruitful diocese. He invited them to team up to create an even larger footprint.
Frisch cited the diocesan Vocations Office as an example. The office accepted eight more seminarians this year which was not in the original budget. It costs $40,000 per year for seminarian formation.
“We want to support the ministries as they operate and to give the bishop the opportunity to make the kind of impact we want to make,” Frisch said.