Texas bishop wants to turn 'Hispanic challenge' into opportunity

Texas bishop wants to turn ‘Hispanic challenge’ into opportunity

Texas bishop wants to turn ‘Hispanic challenge’ into opportunity

Pope Francis greets Bishop Michael Olson of the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, during a meeting with 138 new bishops from around the world at the Vatican Sept. 18. The pope encouraged bishops to be as vigilant and courageous as sentinels keeping watch over the faith, and as forgiving and patient as Moses. (Credit: CNS.)

An exclusive interview with the host of the Encuentro, Bishop Michael Olson.

Léalo en español

FORT WORTH, Texas — Texas may be known as a state of “Lone Rangers,” but Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth is hoping the V Encuentro, taking place in his diocese this week, will be a chance to shed rugged individualism in the American Catholic Church for an embrace of a larger community.

The V Encuentro, which takes place today through Sunday, is the culmination of a four-year discernment process in parishes, dioceses and episcopal regions in the United States on the future of the Hispanic Church in this country.

In an exclusive interview with Crux, ahead of the event’s kickoff on Thursday afternoon, Olson outlined his hopes for the V Encuentro and the challenges facing the U.S. Church, including:

  • His fears of a dangerous individualism as a roadblock to community.
  • The risk of the institutional Church serving its own purposes rather than Christ.
  • The potential for this Encuentro to serve as a turning point for Catholic leaders who previously spoke of a “Hispanic challenge” — which he says is too often code for “problem” – to seeing it as an opportunity.
  • Why U.S. Bishops shouldn’t expect Pope Francis to solve all of the problems within the U.S. Church on sex abuse.

Crux: What does it mean to you, as bishop of Fort Worth, to be hosting such an important event for the life of the Church in the U.S.?

Olson: It’s an honor. When I was asked to be the bishop of Fort Worth I was a priest of the diocese, and the Holy Father, through the nuncio, conveyed that he was aware of how Texas, and in particular Fort Worth, given its growth and development, is very much an important part of the New Evangelization as a bridge within the one America.

To be asked to host this is an honor, but even more so, a point of gratitude, especially among the people of my diocese. This coming year we’ll mark the 50th anniversary since the establishment of the diocese. It’s my hope and prayer that this is a time of renewal in which we can really grow in a sense of belonging.

There’s a great zeal among the faithful and there needs to be a renewal within our family life and within our understanding of vocation and our sense of communion.

One of the great challenges we face is a rugged individualism, that I think really harms belonging, something the Holy Father has talked a lot about as a critical problem in our post-modern world. I see it every day. It’s my hope that something like Encuentro will foster a sense of people coming to get to know each other.

I think the focus of Encuentro as missionary disciples is important, but the Hispanic presence in mission is significant because it’s multigenerational here in Texas. The first Mass was celebrated in Texas in the late 1400s, so what is Baltimore?

There’s a very old Catholic tradition that is imbued in the culture just like there’s a new Catholic tradition. And my hope is that people coming from all over the United States will experience that multigenerational understanding of the Hispanic presence and mission.

There’s a sense of renewal within the Hispanic community, but remember, that is a very diverse reality, that I find is a generational challenge. There’s a sense of the Hispanic presence and influence that is primarily English speaking, and that is the most recent generation, where if the Church isn’t careful here, we’ll confuse culture with language, and religious expression and faith with language.

How would you measure the success of the Encuentro both at a local level, but nationally, one year out and even five years out? What does success look like for you?

I think success has to be measured differently than just simply by numbers, which is part of the way the dominant culture measures things, anything quantifiable. And I think for us here in Fort Worth that we’ll focus on our 50-year anniversary, looking forward and grateful for the past, but looking firmly in the present into the future, with a deeper sense of belonging, where the people lead our institutions, and not our institutions leading the way.

There’s a human tendency, especially in the dominant culture, where institutions can take on a life of their own but devoid of Christ, where we ask Christ to serve our agenda instead of serving his.

I’m hoping that it would lead us to have a more attentive experience of the faith, to listen to each other and to the lived tradition of the Church. I’m hoping it would approach a way of family catechesis that is also mindful of families that are extensive but fragmented, in the various forms that they exist: single mothers, cohabitating couples, and a way forward together.

I hope that is also measurable: not just problem solving, but with a more grateful heart on who we are and how we’ve been blessed, on who we’re called to be and who we’re called to serve.

How much of the Latino sense of “we are Church” that was felt during this four-year Encuentro process do you think has to do with a pope from the Global South, who’s emboldened the Latino population, and how much of that is homegrown?

There’s probably a “both/and” dimension. The reality in the diocese of Fort Worth that I can speak to is very diverse. There’s always been a very Tejano reality in Texas, of not only coexistence but also familial in a relationship, in the Catholic community.

There’s also been de facto segregation, especially punishment for speaking in Spanish. And I think that’s the experience of our older generation, and I’m reminded of Jimmy Carter’s book growing up as a child in the plains, where he was raised among black kids and he said, “We were taught that we were separate but equal, but we were neither.”

And, I think there’s a similar historical reality of the Church in Texas. The immigration experience of Hispanidad is something new to Texas, because as I said, the border has always been very fluid, ranchers know each other, go to Church together, and there’s a sense with an immigrant, in the dominant culture in the United States, that there was an obligation to not only learn a new language, but also forget an old language, which is very traumatic and destructive of family life.

Considering past Encuentros, what is different about this one is that the past can be summoned up in the bishops’ document of several generations ago, referring to the Hispanic challenge. Well, “challenge” I think was a light word for problem.

The focus of this Encuentro is really the experience of renewal the Hispanic experience brings, whatever language it’s in. Particularly, I’m hopeful of family life, in the sense of vocation, because there’s a particular understanding of the Church as a mother, which is a very favorite image of the Holy Father, a Loving Mother is one of the documents that he wrote, when he says that when the Church teaches, she does so as a mother. And she might not be very happy at times, but you don’t fire your father, you don’t fire your mother. And I think that is very true. And even when you do things that your mother wouldn’t be proud of, you don’t flaunt them around. And I think that without being simplistic or paternalistic, I think that is a very needed reality, in a Church that has been so institutionally driven, so much so that at times we’ve jettisoned the deposit of faith to keep institutions in name only.

You just mentioned that there’s been a de facto segregation of the Hispanic community. What is the risk of organizing an event like the Encuentro, on the Hispanic community for the Hispanic community? Shouldn’t the Church in the U.S. focus on how the Hispanic Church can influence the predominant culture, instead of focusing only on keeping that Hispanic culture together?

I think that’s the focus of this Encuentro, but also the struggle with this Encuentro, because there’s also a way of looking at things that’s “our time has finally arrived,” and it’s driven by power. This is very much a moment of Aparaceda, in keeping with the Holy Father’s sense of this, and I think that has been the focus, at least, our attempt to bring this to the broader experience of the whole Church. For us in Texas, it’s already here. It’s a matter of bringing intentionality to it.

It’s no secret that it’s been a tough summer for the Catholic Church. Do you fear the clerical sexual abuse scandals could overshadow this event?

I really don’t. I say that out of no sense of naiveté. Speaking first of the diocese of Fort Worth, we have been vigilant on these issues beyond just simply the limits of the Charter. We have responded to the issue of clerical sex abuse with transparency.

Since 2007, we’ve had the names of those clerics on our website. We have been actively vigilant and pro-active in protecting people through safe environment programs and broadening beyond the scope of the charter to vigilance beyond our volunteers, our staff, our personnel, and it’s an ongoing concern and it’s a societal problem that the Church has to be at the forefront of responding with the Gospel, and that’s been my approach as the bishop, and even more so, of my people and my priests, so this is not a lone ranger response.

I think that where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more, as St. Paul says. It’s my real hope that this is a moment of grace, particularly with laity, clergy, and religious all alike. It’s a time for accountability, but an accountability to Christ and the Gospel, and with integrity.

There’s also the issue of accountability with the hierarchy, especially in the United States, but not exclusively. It’s everywhere because it’s the human condition. This is a time for solidarity and community between all of us. We find that in Peter, and the successor of Peter, and in Christ.

As a bishop, and as Church, we need to do our part to help carry this for him, because in part, we helped put it on him. We have to do our part in prayer, but also in action. The way I look at it, it’s insufficient if we just simply pass off McCarrick to the pope because there’s plenty of responsibility here for us to address.

You just mentioned the importance of solidarity and communion with the Holy Father and among the bishops, so how do we guarantee that solidarity doesn’t get in the way of accountability? In recent months, in regards to McCarrick, many people have complained that they’re tired of hearing others say “everyone had heard the rumors.” Why didn’t anyone say something?

I’m tired of hearing that, too. Frankly, if you know something then why didn’t you say something? And what exactly did you know? If you know, then there’s accountability to find out more instead of leaving it in the destructive area of gossip.

As far as I think, the moment someone signed a check for a settlement in 2005, the misconduct stopped being gossip. That’s actionable at the very least. It’s what we can document. The “who knew what, when, and what did they do?” are facts that pre-date the Holy Father significantly, so this has to be systemically changed. For one thing, there has to be avenues of accountability of clear reporting, for example, of seminarians, for misconduct against bishops.

We have to be up front and responsible for reporting crimes to civil authorities, that is our responsibility in citizenship, let alone our responsibility as pastors for the vulnerable.

Crux’s Inés San Martín and Christopher White will be on the ground in Texas covering the Encuentro. Follow them on Twitter (@inesanma / @CWWhite212) and at CruxNow.com for ongoing coverage.

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