Auxiliary Bishop John P. Dolan of San Diego to take new role in early August
PHOENIX — The Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix has a new bishop.
Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted and appointed Auxiliary Bishop John P. Dolan of San Diego to lead the Diocese of Phoenix.
Bishop Dolan will be the fifth to govern one of the fastest growing dioceses in the U.S., with an estimated Catholic population of 1.1 million spread throughout more than 43,000 square miles. He is set to assume his new responsibilities in early August.
Bishop Olmsted, who turned 75 in January, wrote to Pope Francis months ago, asking permission to retire, since by canon law, he had reached the “age limit” for bishops.
Both bishops were present at a press conference held at the Diocesan Pastoral Center in downtown Phoenix June 10, where priests and DPC staff gathered, eager to get a glimpse of their newly named leader.
“It’s my honor to welcome our new bishop to the Diocese of Phoenix,” Bishop Olmsted said as he called Bishop Dolan to the podium. “He is one of the most respected priests of San Diego,” Bishop Olmsted said, with a “vast amount of experience in leadership roles.”
Those roles in the Diocese of San Diego include serving as vicar for clergy, vicar general, and moderator of the curia as well as auxiliary bishop. He previously served as director of vocations for the San Diego Diocese.
Ordained to the priesthood in 1989, Bishop Dolan has lived his entire life in San Diego, attending Catholic schools and enjoying the mild California climate, surfing, and boogie boarding at the nearby beach. The seventh of nine children, his parents are in their nineties and celebrating 71 years of matrimony.
Those family statistics came up as local media probed Bishop Dolan for answers to thorny questions on issues as varied as the sexual abuse crisis, immigration, and LGBT concerns. He emphasized Pope Francis’ pastoral approach, the importance of dialogue and not “drawing lines in the sand.”
“I like to do dialogue and not shut things down,” Bishop Dolan said.
“Communication and opening hearts is a lot harder work, but it’s a lot better than drawing a line in the sand.”
Growing up among nine children, Bishop Dolan said they had to sometimes fight their way through disagreements, but ultimately came together around the table for dinner. The family lived in Tecolote Canyon, dubbed “Catholic Gulch” by many for its nearby Catholic institutions—University of San Diego and St. Mary Magdalene Parish — and its prolific Catholic population.
“Really, as a kid, I thought everyone was Catholic,” Bishop Dolan quipped.
On the debate over immigration, he noted that while countries have a right to establish borders, “we meet one soul at a time. If someone is trying their best to eke out a living and live, well it’s our responsibility, Jesus says, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. We don’t look at their card to see if we have to do that first.”
His motto, he said, is the words of Jesus: “Abide in my love.”
Before stepping away from the press conference, Bishop Dolan asked those gathered to keep him in their prayers: “The baton is being passed and I’m taking it. Please pray for me.”
In a conversation with Diocese of Phoenix communications staff following the press conference, Bishop Dolan said he planned to spend the first six months of his tenure in the diocese listening and getting to know people. He lauded the efforts of the Phoenix Diocese to take part in the worldwide Synod of Bishops.
“That whole approach opens up avenues to learn a lot about the diocese,” Bishop Dolan said. He plans to look at the data gathered by parishes, ecclesial groups, and others so as to hear what the faithful are saying. Then he’ll hit the road and start seeing things for himself.
“I’m going to try to visit as many priests as possible, as many parishes as possible; try to get to know the priests, the parish staffs; to get a sense of the layout of this diocese — not just the topography, but really the hearts and the souls of the people.”
Some of that traveling will take place on foot. Over the course of the Covid 19 pandemic, Bishop Dolan said he began an exercise regime that started with lengthy walks and graduated to running. He plans to continue his running regime once he takes up residence in Phoenix.
The exponential growth of the Phoenix Diocese has also captured Bishop Dolan’s attention, and he emphasized the need to stay on top of the growth.
“As communities grow, we want to make sure we have parishes within those areas, that they grow along with the communities that are growing.”
The biggest challenge facing the Church today, Bishop Dolan said, is “broadening our horizons of the human person.” Having worked in the area of mental health ministry, he said, has been an important means of realizing that, “in some fashion, we all have a little disorder, and if we accept that, then we’re able to communicate with a sense sympathy out of compassion, I would say, and start from that level.”
Bishop Dolan noted that mental health ministry is taking off around the nation and said he hopes to bring it to Phoenix. The Diocese of San Diego’s website lists a mental health ministry and states that “one in four families will experience mental health illness and its accompanying effects.”
“What it does is it opens up a better understanding of the human person,” Bishop Dolan said. “I think we’re seeing a development of doctrine of the person as we really tap into the beautiful gift of psychology and psychiatry.”
Bishop Dolan said he also draws inspiration from an early Italian Renaissance painter, Blessed Fra Angelico, beatified in recognition of the holiness of his life by St. John Paul II in 1982.
“I find him to be not just an extraordinary painter, but a communicator of the theology of mercy and forgiveness and love and compassion,” Bishop Dolan said.
To learn more about Bishop Dolan and his installation as the fifth bishop of Phoenix, visit dphx.org/new-bishop.