The servant shepherd
Many of us know the story well by now. But Bishop Michael Olson can recall it down to the tiniest details.
Five years ago, then Monsignor Olson stepped into his office at the University of Dallas. He noticed a voicemail had been left and picked up the phone. It was a message from the apostolic nuncio to the U.S. — someone who’d never called him before.
Several minutes and prayers later, Msgr. Olson’s life was changed forever. The nuncio passed along the news that Pope Francis had appointed the seminary rector as Bishop of the Diocese of Fort Worth.
In the weeks before his installation (Jan. 29, 2014), Bishop Olson did what he continues to do today when faced with big decisions, challenges, or opportunities: Pray, seeking the will of Our Blessed Lord.
“I took a lot of time going to churches — mostly churches in this diocese — and praying. Just that the Lord give me wisdom and patience and understanding and fortitude to do what He asked of me for the good of the people of God here.”
Now, five years have flown by — years that have seen Bishop Olson visit every parish and school (often more than once), meet with leaders, laypeople, committees, and experts, giving priority to being close to his flock — a shepherd “living with the smell of [his] sheep,” as Pope Francis exhorted.
But these have been years of transition and renewal, with the bishop spearheading and overseeing the impetus, growth, and changes needed to serve a rapidly growing and ever-diverse Catholic population cast over 28 counties, 90 parishes, and one mission.
At a distance of five years, we felt it proper to highlight the many developments that have taken place over this time.
VOCATIONS AND DISCERNMENT
An approach of intentionality and concerted effort on fostering a culture of vocations has been the hallmark of the diocesan vocations program.
To make that a reality, in 2017 Bishop Olson appointed a team of vocations liaisons to the task of vocations — rather than one single vocation director, as in many other dioceses. Father Jonathan Wallis, director of seminarian formation for the diocese, called it revolutionary.
The approach allowed the priest liaisons more time to accompany and guide discerning men, so that by the time a discerner is ready to enter seminary, he has built a network of support and friendships. It’s helpful in a diocese covering 23,950 square miles.
Five priests are currently appointed to that task, including Fr. Wallis, who helps oversee and guide the formation of seminarians while serving as Dean of Students at St. Joseph Seminary College in Covington, La.
The approach placed greater emphasis on formation, prayer, and catechetical teaching.
If the recent “Come and See” visits to St. Joseph Seminary are any indication, it’s been quite the success.
“We consistently have had the most — by far — men participating,” Fr. Wallis said. “Sometimes we’ve had upwards of 50 discerners come for that, so that’s been a huge success.”
The past two years, the team has kept busy, hosting various discernment opportunities like St. Andrew’s Breakfasts and Dinners, where young men interested in learning about the priesthood attend Mass and afterward share a meal and discuss discernment; seminarian visits to Catholic schools; and twice-a-year “Come and See” visits to the Louisiana seminary. This spring, Father Maurice Moon, chaplain of Nolan Catholic High School, will kick off a weekend retreat at St. Joseph Seminary, giving junior-level boys the chance to see life in the seminary.
Fr. Wallis explained he and Bishop Olson emphasize to discerners early that “a vocation is really a call to service. It’s a call to prioritize our lives by Christ, others, and then ourselves.”
The last five years have also seen 12 men ordained as diocesan priests and the reopening of the permanent diaconate formation program. Two classes of future deacons (2020 and 2022) are currently in formation. Once ordained, they will bolster the ranks of 85 current permanent deacons in the diocese.
GROWTH AND DEVELOPMENT
From 2014 to this year, the diocese has seen a boom in self-identified Catholics from 720,000 to more than 1.1 million. Director of Real Estate and Construction Steve Becht points to an urbanization trend and a shifting job market as key factors. Growth has been especially heavy in the north and northeast regions of the diocese.
“It’s a real opportunity to evangelize them and get them going to church on a regular basis,” Becht said.
The diocese, under Bishop Olson’s guidance, has taken the bull by the horns.
“Basically, [Bishop Olson] said ‘We’re going for it.’ We’re going to build this thing and we’re going to serve the population and serve our mission which is the salvation of souls,” Becht explained. “He recognizes that to accommodate the growth and population, we’re going to have a lot of construction by necessity.”
Already footprints of that growth can be seen across the landscape. In Denton, St. John Paul II Parish has broken ground on a 300-seat church that will serve a growing Catholic student population at University of North Texas and Texas Woman’s University.
Farther south in Denton, St. Mark Parish is nearly done paying off the construction of its parish hall and will begin construction of its formal church.
St. Andrew Parish in Fort Worth and Holy Cross in The Colony are both expanding. St. Philip the Apostle Parish has acquired property in Flower Mound to build a church that will eventually seat 1,800. St. Thomas the Apostle in north Fort Worth finished building its new church — with capacity for more than 1,000 — in December 2016. One of two new parishes established during Bishop Olson’s episcopate, St. Martin de Porres in Prosper has a new 18,000 square-foot worship space for its parishioners to call home. The other new parish, St. Benedict in north Fort Worth, celebrates the extraordinary [Latin] form of the Mass.
It’s fast growth, but growth with strategy and purpose. To that end the diocese has consulted growth and planning experts like the Buxton Group and Meitler Consultants to guide the process of when and where a parish should be established.
“We want to make sure we don’t exclude any group by the placement of a parish, most especially the economically disadvantaged,” Bishop Olson said in a 2014 NTC interview.
The past few years have seen an uptick of five percent in weekly financial contributions, said Renée Underwood, associate director of the Advancement Foundation. Additionally, “there’s hardly a week goes by that I’m not working with one or more new individuals who are making provisions for a parish, school, or the diocese, in their estate plans.” Annual Diocesan Appeal efforts continue strong, she added.
Underwood has noticed a growth in generosity diocese-wide. How much of that can be attributed to the many innovations made by the Advancement Foundation is impossible to know. But she likens their efforts to “little stones” being thrown in a body of water “and creating a ripple effect…in the end only God can measure the immense ripple effects we’re having.”
One of those “little stones” has been the creation of a stewardship program (directed by Diana Liska), which helps parishes create a culture of discipleship, gratefulness, and generosity of time and treasure.
Another has been the revamping of the Bishop’s Guild, which became the St. John Paul II Shepherd’s Guild in August 2018. Guild members help cover the costs seminarians incur during their seven-to-nine years of formation at an average annual cost of $52,000. But the change in title also brought with it a greater priority on education and prayer.
“Because [Bishop] wants people to understand the journey of discernment that these men are going through, and we accompany them on that walk in prayer and in knowledge,” Underwood explained.
To keep up with digital trends, the Foundation has also developed Text to Give, increased its presence on social media and through email, while, of course, providing a lot of face-to-face interaction. It’s an embrace of best practices.
“He’s been a real champion of new ideas,” Underwood said. “I think he realizes while we have a common faith, technology allows us to better serve our diverse people. He’s been a real champion of that.”
The past five years have seen numerous triumphs across the diocese’s Catholic schools.
A priority on making schools accessible to everybody, whether that’s financially, socially, or academically, has guided many of the changes, like the diocese’s hiring of two full-time learning specialists that reach out and provide support to students across the diocese.
Cristo Rey Fort Worth High School at Our Mother of Mercy opened its doors to its inaugural freshman class August 2018, providing a quality, college-preparatory education to many disadvantaged youth in the area. On Fort Worth’s North Side,
All Saints Catholic School expanded its dual language program and now more than half of the school’s 141 students are learning English and Spanish. In near south Fort Worth, Cassata Catholic High School is serving disadvantaged youth at a higher rate and now has a waiting list. Toward the east side of Fort Worth, Nolan is in the midst of a $40-million renovation that includes improved security, a new front entrance, two outdoor learning areas, upgrades to the auditorium, and a new chapel with seating for 2,000. Enrollment has increased at many schools.
Bishop Michael Olson greets students after Friday morning Mass at Cristo Rey Forth Worth High School at Our Mother of Mercy, Aug. 10, 2018. (NTC/Ben Torres)
Since assuming the diocesan school superintendent post in April 2015, Jennifer Pelletier has made Catholic identity a greater priority in the academic environment.
“Conversations happening in the classrooms are happening with that understanding of the Catholic faith,” she said. “They’re not talking about history and then going to English and then going to math and then going to theology class. Religion is infused in all the things they’re doing and why they’re doing them. The teachers are actively and intentionally making that happen.”
As part of Bishop Olson’s impetus that Catholic educators teach students to cherish the “transcendental goods of truth, beauty, and goodness,” Pelletier has overseen a diocese-wide push toward classical Catholic education — an approach that heralds back to basics: reading, thinking, and speaking — skills referred to as the classical trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric.
Part and parcel of that is a two-week New Teacher Formation Institute familiarizing teachers with the philosophy of classical education, its five essential marks, and teaching methods. And so is a new catechesis program developed specifically for faculty by the St. Junipero Serra Institute. Currently in its first year, the weekend classes and certification are a requirement for “everybody from the janitor to the [school] president,” Pelletier said.
The culture of vocations extends to schools as well, Pelletier said. Students in diocesan Catholic schools have enjoyed visits and talks by seminarians — and Bishop Olson.
“The whole point is to make vocations a part of the conversation,” Pelletier said.
By the time Bishop Olson’s tenure began, a safe environment program had been established in the diocese for more than 10 years.
The safe environment program requires clergy, staff, choir members, catechists, teachers, seminarians, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, lectors, cantors, ushers, principals, school teachers, coaches, parents, and volunteers, as well as the bishop, are trained to protect our children by learning the signs to identify child sexual abuse.
On annual safe environment audits, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops noted the diocese’s excellent compliance.
However, the bishop was concerned that familiarity breeds complacency, so he charged the Safe Environment Office to enhance the program.
In July 2018, the Safe Environment Office implemented Protecting God’s Children®, a more robust training program with a three-hour, face-to-face training that is renewed every two years. Criminal background checks became even more intensive, checking national databases of individuals who have been removed from youth-serving organizations and those who have had professional licenses suspended or revoked.
The Diocese of Fort Worth has trained almost 175 facilitators who hold training sessions at every parish and school in the diocese. To date, more than 34,000 adults are current in their safe environment training.
CATECHESIS AND LAY MINISTRY
Lay ministry and catechesis is thriving after a period of transition.
The first two years of Bishop Olson’s episcopate saw youth ministry revamped “with more of a focus on teaching, evangelization, and catechesis,” said Marlon De La Torre, department director of Catechesis and Evangelization.
In 2017, the St. Junipero Institute was created to respond to the many faithful in the diocese wanting to learn more about their faith. With its various tracks and faith topics, the institute brings to adults a comprehensive understanding of Catholic doctrine and history.
The St. Francis de Sales Institute remains a resource for training catechists to be effective witnesses of the Gospel by familiarizing them with catechetical concepts, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, lesson planning, and more.
In-services for directors of religious education and RCIA directors have seen increased attendance across the board, De La Torre said, and a partnership with Franciscan University in Steubenville has “been a blessing.” Through the collaboration, the diocese receives additional online courses for catechists, hosts presenters throughout the year, and brings in events like the upcoming Family Encounter Conference and Steubenville Lone Star Conference for youth.
De La Torre said Bishop Olson also “stressed the need of bringing communion and covenant to everybody” — therefore catechesis is available in English and Spanish.
De La Torre said Bishop Olson’s emphasis on nurturing the family has resulted in a “family model” approach to children’s catechesis. Multiple parishes, large and small, have adopted the model, which encourages parental involvement in handing on the faith. Typically, parents or guardians are invited into the classroom setting to assist in teaching their child the faith lesson for that month. Results have been positive so far, and he predicts within the next five years the majority of parishes will have integrated the model.
In September, the diocese hosted the National V Encuentro on Hispanic/Latino Ministry, which brought more than 3,000 Hispanic Catholics to Grapevine. More than 50 local delegates and 800 lay volunteers took part in the four-day event that drew participants from 159 dioceses.
In the wake of Encuentro, De La Torre said the diocese is drafting a revamped pastoral plan for Hispanic ministry, to replace one that is more than 20 years old.
In the five years that Bishop Olson has been the shepherd of the Diocese of Fort Worth, the flock has witnessed multifaceted growth. But while balancing the many concerns of a diocese nearly the geographic size of West Virginia, he has maintained the importance of unity.
Bishop Olson expressed his hope and prayer for the diocese: that local Catholics will see their identity in Christ “as the whole diocese and not just our individual parish. . . . That we will be as Christ desires us to be — one. That’s my hope.”
Susan Moses contributed to this article.