By Tony Gutiérrez, The Catholic Sun
Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted’s two signature teachings on marriage and the family, “Into the Breach” and “Complete My Joy,” helped lay the foundation for Sean and Aryn Sylvester to strengthen their domestic Church when the world was put on lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We had that time when the focus was put on the family, and we were all trapped in our homes,” reflected Aryn. “He was already pushing us to strengthen the family, and then COVID happened. It was a way for us to function in our homes in a time of uncertainty.”
Since they were unable to attend Mass in person, the Sylvesters were committed to praying a family rosary with their eight children. They also prioritized the family meal, another recommendation of the bishop for strengthening the family.
“It created opportunities for conversation, which created opportunities for conversion, which created opportunities for things to be brought into the light that needed to be brought into the light,” said Sean. “A lot of healing took place.”
The family, which attends St. Mary Parish in Chandler, also built community with their 70-year-old neighbors, who they described as “adopted grandparents” for the Sylvester children. As a result of that invitation, the wife became Catholic, and the husband returned to the Church.
“That’s all stuff Bishop talked about in ‘Complete My Joy’ as it relates to the evangelistic component of our faith,” said Sean, who is part of the diaconate formation cohort expected to be ordained this year.
In accordance with canon law, Bishop Olmsted submitted his resignation as ordinary of the Diocese of Phoenix to Pope Francis on Jan. 21 of this year, his 75th birthday. Pope Francis formally accepted it with the June 10 appointment of San Diego Auxiliary Bishop John P. Dolan as his successor. Bishop Dolan will formally be installed as the new bishop of Phoenix on Aug. 2 of this year.
Mike Phelan, who has served as the diocesan director of the Office of Marriage and Respect Life for the last 17 years, described working alongside Bishop Olmsted in his efforts to strengthen the family as a “complete joy.”
“The domestic Church was always on our bishop’s mind, and whatever could be done to strengthen marriage, family, Catholic identity in the family, and the respect for life is always on Bishop Olmsted’s mind,” said Phelan.
During Bishop Olmsted’s episcopate, marriage preparation and enrichment programs have continued to grow to make sure couples getting married have a solid foundation. Among his initiatives have been expanding the Natural Family Planning Office, establishing the John Paul II Theology of the Body Resource Center, and creating an environment enabling pro-life ob/gyn doctors and Catholic marriage and family life counselors and therapists to practice in accordance with Church teaching.
“Our marriage preparation process for the last 13 years has really made a big impact on young couples and encouraged a growing number of young adult married couple communities that have sprouted up around the diocese,” Phelan said. “It’s fertile soil for the family.
“The Church has to continue to keep marriage and family at the forefront, speak about the good news of marriage, because they’re constantly being assaulted by the general culture,” he added. “And yet, within the diocese, there’s great support to really live it, and that has come about largely as a result of his teaching and support of smart pastoral efforts.”
Diocesan NFP Coordinator Armida Escárcega said that Bishop Olmsted takes his obligation to prepare his flock for the sacraments seriously. The bishop’s understanding of documents like St. Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae or St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body impressed upon him the need to pass on a fuller expression of NFP, she said.
“Couples don’t have to use NFP, but they should know why we believe what we believe about conjugal relationships, about the gift of parenthood,” said Escárcega. “Bishop saw that this was very important, and he took that leap of faith, that teaching what the Church believes to be true, though it could be seen as a hurtle for couples was actually going to turn into something good.”
She noted that since NFP has been a requirement, couples have been asked to complete anonymous surveys before and after the training. The number of couples planning to contracept after the training dropped from 39 percent to 14 percent. The number of couples who planned to save sex for marriage was 42 percent after the training, compared to 88 percent of couples who had previously been sexually active.
The bishop’s fostering of family life has also led to an increase in vocations, something that’s seen directly in Escárcega’s life – her son Harold was ordained to the priesthood June 4 of this year.
“It all comes from God, but the family helps nurture that. It needs to be mindful. It needs to be you to not just leave it to chance,” she said. “You need to remind your children that as a baptized person, we have a mission. So, we tell our own kids, you need to look for where God is calling you, and we need to help develop that.”
Very Rev. Paul Sullivan, rector of Nazareth House Seminary and pastor of St. Gregory Parish in Phoenix, made similar observations when he served as the vocations director. He recalled the first conversation he’d had with Bishop Olmsted when the latter asked him to take that role.
“We agreed that ultimately it wasn’t about selling it like it’s a job. They come from families where the Gospel is seen and lived out,” Father Sullivan said. “When the Lord calls someone who’s seen the Gospel lived out, they can follow the invitation.”
Father Sullivan also serves as the diocese’s chaplain for men, a role he took on after Bishop Olmsted’s promulgation of “Into the Breach.”
“As we’ve seen the men’s conferences stay steady over all these years, we’ve been able to see a steady relationship with these men and their bishop, and they’re appreciative that their bishop has taken their own faithfulness and own growth to heart,” Father Sullivan said. “He’s really invested in that.”
The impact of the bishop’s exhortations have gone beyond the diocese. Both “Into the Breach” and “Complete My Joy” have been republished by the Knights of Columbus and distributed as a part of its “Building the Domestic Church” series of booklets.
“Bishop Olmsted was just faithfully trying to guide his own flock, and we didn’t expect it to impact places around the world like it has,” said Father Sullivan. “It’s one of those amazing things where Bishop is being faithful to his part role and service to his flock, and God used it elsewhere, and that’s just God’s work. Bishop was just being faithful; it was God who multiplied it.”
Reflecting on Bishop Olmsted’s masculine spirituality as expressed in “Into the Breach,” Father Sullivan said a major part of that is fraternity.
“Bishop has lived in a priestly fraternity his whole priesthood, and many of us priests live some form of fraternity, which is to say we don’t do it alone,” he said. “We have those who support us, and we support others, and we serve the Lord together. There’s certain blessings that come from praying in community with others. We own more deeply what we share.”
As part of his efforts in strengthening the family, the bishop has also given his support to pro-life ministries and pregnancy resource centers that are able to walk with women and men facing unplanned pregnancies.
“What Bishop Olmsted has really imparted is that every human being matters. The mother who comes to us, she matters. Her unborn child matters,” said Katie Wing, executive director of First Way Pregnancy Center in Phoenix and a parishioner of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Scottsdale.
“One of the criticisms that people in the pro-choice movement say is, ‘All you do is care about the baby.’ That’s not true. Of course, we care about the baby, but we care about the mother and father, too. Bishop Olmsted is the embodiment of that very thing.”
Wing described the kinds of services pregnancy resource centers provide include counseling women and men about options such as adoption and provide resources for them after their children are born. That holistic approach comes from the bishop, Wing said.
“The that is really powerful to me about him is that he genuinely loves,” she said. “He is truly a reflection of the love of Christ. It’s not just we have a great bishop and he’s wonderful. He genuinely embodies the love of Christ, and it’s a beautiful experience to be in his presence.”
Phelan said that the bishop was very supportive of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ “Walking With Moms in Need” initiative. Wing added that that support allowed for greater unity among the pro-life movement in the diocese. Phelan said he’s inspired by the bishop’s “childlike enthusiasm” for the family and life.
“He never made anything about himself, it’s always about the wonders God is doing. He always shared his sense of childlike faith,” Phelan said. “When good things would happen, Bishop was very childlike in his enthusiasm, and I always was blessed by that.”