Bishop Olmsted reflects on how forming new relationships with his brother priests and lay Catholic families helped him “turn within”

By Joyce Coronel, Together Let Us Go Forth ~ Juntos Sigamos Adelante Magazine

The contingent of pastors sat in rapt attention as their shepherd, Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, slowly stood from the table and silently presented each one of them with a 12-inch, carved wooden cross. 

Then he looked each man in the eye. 

“Will you carry the cross with me out of love for Jesus and love for souls?” the bishop asked them.

Father John Muir, pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Avondale, was one of the priests in the room that day. Bishop Olmsted was inviting the pastors to embark with him on the “Together Let Us Go Forth ~ Juntos Sigamos Adelante” campaign.

“We all listened to him just witness to his willingness to trust God and to go out into that scary unknown with confidence in God,” Father Muir said. 

Billy Hardiman/CATHOLIC SUN

The campaign officially launched in the fall of 2017 on the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross — which also marked the 30th anniversary of St. John Paul II’s visit to Phoenix. It kicked off a historic effort to meet the needs of Catholic parishes and schools to build a strong future for the local Church, with a focused effort on promoting authentic discipleship and evangelization throughout the Diocese of Phoenix.

The $100 million campaign also provides direct support for parishes, Newman Centers, seminarians, the poor and tuition support for families with students in Catholic schools. The establishment of St. John Paul II Catholic High School in the far West Valley was perhaps the most prominent success story.

And in spite of what would seem a daunting financial goal, the campaign’s emphasis was on something far less tangible: conversion of heart. 

“That was really what we aimed at above all,” Bishop Olmsted said. “The success of the campaign is whether we became more in love with Christ and more eager to invite others into that.”

Billy Hardiman/CATHOLIC SUN


Though it might surprise some, Bishop Olmsted said he himself experienced his own conversion of heart through the campaign. Conversion, he pointed out, literally means “to turn with” in Latin.  Whether that’s turning toward something good or away from something harmful, “it’s this whole notion of being turned. And it happens primarily in relationships,” he said. 

“That’s why we called it Together Let Us Go Forth.” 

Building new relationships with people throughout the diocese and developing friendships with emerging leaders was a catalyst of conversion for the bishop. 

“The campaign Cabinet, in particular, which is such a blessing to me — getting to know them personally, being inspired by their lives, seeing how they themselves make sacrifices for the sake of the Lord — all of that had a deep impact on me.” 

The “Together Let Us Go Forth ~ Juntos Sigamos Adelante” campaign had pastors visiting the faithful in their homes, something that often doesn’t happen in today’s larger parishes where a pastor’s time is divided among thousands of faithful. 

“They had incredibly moving conversations in their homes and that’s when they could really talk about marriage and the challenges of raising kids and how marriage is an ongoing conversion,” Bishop Olmsted said. 

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted after Fr. Fernando Camou’s priest ordination on June 27, 2015.
Billy Hardiman/CATHOLIC SUN

“What we really wanted was to talk about evangelization and stewardship, and how our relationship with Christ moves us and engages us with a deeper love for Christ and His Church, but also a love for others. 

WHAT IS Discipleship?

Discipleship is a dynamic process of following Jesus. It means coming in close to the heart of Christ — watching, listening, asking — and then making an active choice to go where Jesus goes, to become more and more like Him. The word “disciple” in Greek signifies a student or apprentice, and for us, too, we confess our need to learn and to be transformed. It means giving our lives, totally, just as Jesus commanded Peter and Andrew. (Mk 4:19) Jesus is the model for us; in His teaching, action, joy, and hope — we must encounter Him and commit to following wherever He leads.

“I was edified often by the priests that are pastors in particular that
I worked with.”

Walking alongside his priests as the campaign developed, Bishop Olmsted saw their struggles and challenges. He noted that 49 percent of the priests who serve in the diocese hail from other countries.  

“They come from very different backgrounds and experiences of the Church,” Bishop Olmsted said. He pointed to St. Andrew the Apostle Parish in Chandler, where all three priests on staff are from Africa.  

Father Robert Aliunzi, AJ, pastor of St. Andrew the Apostle, said parishioners were thrilled to have their bishop among them.

“They are so happy that they are able to see the bishop in person. It was very, very powerful encouragement to me to have the shepherd of the diocese come and actually lead by example,” Father Aliunzi said. 

Father Muir similarly described the impact of Bishop Olmsted’s example.

“The whole thing was a giant transformation for me. At the beginning I was kind of afraid of getting outside my comfort zone and inviting people to participate in something like this,” Father Muir said. 

“But what gave me so much courage was just seeing Bishop’s
example. He said over and over, ‘This is really not about money. This is about evangelization and our mission.’ For me, that was really liberating.”

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted and Auxiliary Bishop Eduardo A. Nevares during the Honor Your Mother celebration parade and mass in Downtown Phoenix on Saturday, December 5, 2015.
Billy Hardiman/CATHOLIC SUN


In his visits to dozens of families around the diocese, Bishop Olmsted was able to speak informally. On one occasion, a family with young teenagers questioned him about the sexual abuse scandal in the Church. 

Cande de Leon, director of the Office of Mission Advancement for the Diocese of Phoenix, who directed the campaign and accompanied Bishop Olmsted on the visits, still remembers that conversation. 

“It was an opportunity to be honest and it was an opportunity to encourage them to get involved, to always have faith in Jesus Christ,” de Leon said. Other families also delved into the sensitive topic. 

“We had really good, frank discussions about the hurt of the scandal, the disappointment and the wonderment about how this could possibly have taken place,” Bishop Olmsted said. 

Billy Hardiman/CATHOLIC SUN

“They were not scripted conversations in any way whatsoever. They were real conversations from people of different ages, including teenagers, about facing the fact of sin in the Church and in their own lives and then how Christ can just turn that all around.”

The Together campaign has also been a way of equipping the laity to evangelize by sharing their faith with their friends and neighbors and inviting them into supporting the mission of the Church, de Leon said. 

WHAT IS Evangelization?

Evangelization is the process of proclaiming the Good News that Jesus is Lord, and that the Church He founded is true indeed. Pope St. Paul VI said, “Evangelization is bringing the Good News of Jesus into every human situation” and “the Church exists in order to evangelize … to preach and teach, to channel the gift of grace, to reconcile sinners with God.” The Catholic Church has a bold mission: live authentically as disciples, give reason for our hope in Christ and encourage others in faith to enter fully into a relationship with God.

Jack and Mary Jean Bublitz of San Francisco de Asís Parish in Flagstaff, one of four couples who were co-chairs of the campaign, did just that. They have also prayed a rosary every day for the campaign’s success. 

“It was probably one of the best experiences I ever went through,” Jack said. God’s grace seemed to accompany them the entire way and evangelization was a natural product of the conversations they had with fellow Catholics. 

“Just talking to other people,” Mary Jean said. “Just being uplifting and happy — happy to be part of something so important like this.” 

Bishop Olmsted recalled visiting a home of one of the campaign co-chairs alongside de Leon and other leaders. A neighbor had been invited to join them. 

“They didn’t know if he was Catholic or not. They just said, ‘The Catholic bishop of Phoenix is going to be here tonight. Would you like to come?’ The man was non-committal but did show up in the middle and stayed for about 20 minutes. Neither the bishop nor de Leon saw or met him.

The next day, the man called.

“And he was so moved. He’d been away from the Church for a number of years. He wasn’t married in the Church. He had two children and he was just so moved because everything we were doing was for the sake of a better, closer relationship with Jesus Christ and that’s what he longed for,” Bishop Olmsted said.

“It was that personal invitation and just the way he heard us speaking about it that made an incredible impact in his life,” Bishop Olmsted said. 

“The first thing I ask people to do, which is sacrificial for many, I say: Be a leader by just talking about why you think this campaign is important, why it’s important that we focus on being good disciples, followers of Jesus and inviting others to join us in doing that. Why that’s important to you. That’s conversion,” Bishop Olmsted continued.

“If that happens more and more, that’ll make the Church grow. More than dollars will.”

Billy Hardiman/CATHOLIC SUN

We invite you to participate in discipleship and evangelization efforts at the Diocesan level, including the Together Let Us Go Forth ~ Juntos Sigamos Adelante campaign, the Charity & Development Appeal, the TV MassCatholic School Support 365, and through supporting our seminarians and Nazareth House. If you would like to receive the magazine at your home, we invite you to support the mission by participating in one of these efforts. You may also call our donor services team at (602) 354-2235 to receive future issues or provide one of our team members with an updated address.