Fort Worth’s new bishop was surprised by appointment

11/23/2013 12:00 AM

01/29/2014 5:25 PM

Monsignor Michael Olson received plaudits as a brilliant priest with holiness and humor after the announcement last weekthat he had been chosen as the new bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth.

His father, Ronald G. Olson of North Richland Hills, joined in the praise but brought his son down to earth a bit.

“My father asked, ‘Did I get a raise?’” Olson said. “I had to tell him, ‘ I don’t think so.’”

Olson said his father and his mother, Janice Fetzer Olson, are very proud he’s been named a bishop and have been his staunchest champions, including his path to the priesthood, which began as a young seminarian in Chicago.

“I’ve been very blessed by very good parents and I’m very grateful they are still here to celebrate with me,” Olson said.

After 14 months of waiting for a new bishop, Fort Worth Catholics will have one of their own coming back to town, and he can’t wait to get started.

He‘s the first priest ordained in the 28-county Fort Worth Diocese to become its bishop.

“I am so grateful every day that God called me to be a priest,” Olson told the Star-Telegram in a historic building next to Fort Worth’s storied St. Patrick Cathedral. He talked about his life, his family and plans to move forward in a dynamic diocese that is drawing increasing attention.

Surprised by appointment

Olson, 47, said he had no warning that the Vatican had chosen him as the new bishop. He received a phone call Nov. 12, asking him to call the apostolic nuncio, Cardinal Carlo Maria Vigano, the Vatican representative in the United States.

“You don’t get a call from the nuncio every day,” Olson said. “And I’m not expecting that in the future. I knew it was a serious matter. It gave me a little time to think and to pray for whatever it was about.”

Olson will be consecrated as the fourth bishop of the diocese Jan. 29 at the Fort Worth Convention Center. He will succeed Bishop Kevin Vann, who became bishop of the Diocese of Orange, Calif., last year. Olson was vicar general when Vann was the Fort Worth bishop.

Olson said he never dreamed he would become bishop in Fort Worth.

“I never thought of that,” Olson said. “My discernment was to serve as a priest where there were a lot of opportunities and a lot of needs at that time.”

At a Mass on Tuesday at St. Patrick Cathedral, where he was ordained as a priest by the late Bishop Joseph Delaney 20 years ago, Olson asked his flock to pray for divine guidance in his leadership.

Standing at the altar with a mammoth stained glass image of Jesus on the cross in the background, Olson declared, “I ask you to pray during this transition that we become more fully the church and prepare ourselves in this new wave of our journey.”

Olson said he feels very privileged to be chosen to serve among many priests he has known and highly respected for many years.

“It’s kind of a local guy makes good,” said Peter Flynn, vice chancellor of administrative services of the diocese and executive director of the Catholic Foundation of North Texas. “He will be a great shepherd for our next chapter.”

One of the bishop-elect’s longtime acquaintances, Chuck Pelletier, a veteran whose helicopter was shot down in Vietnam, leaving him in a wheelchair, called Olson “a brilliant man, a holy man.”

“We are very, very blessed to have him,” Pelletier said.

‘It’s not enough to grow numbers’

One of Olson’s central goals is to find creative ways to help the diocese and its members to grow both in numbers and in Christian depth.

“It’s not enough to grow in numbers,” he said. “That’s bloating.”

Since 2009, the number of Catholics in the 90 parishes in the diocese has grown from 560,000 to an estimated 710,000 in the 28-county North Texas region. In 2011 the diocese announced plans to invest $50 million to add parishes and schools to meet continued growth, which the diocese projects to reach 1.2 million by 2030.

Olson plans to consult with priests, deacons, nuns and laity to develop strategies.

“We want to reach out to the poor, the marginalized, including immigrants,” he said.

Pat Svacina, a diocesan spokesman, said one of Olson’s biggest strengths is that he is familiar with the Fort Worth Diocese.

“He knows us,” Svacina said. “There’s no learning curve. He can jump right in. Something the pope has talked about is having the shepherds in the flock to lead the flock. It looks likes he’s picked one of the priests out of the flock.”

The Rev. Tim Thompson, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Denton, has known Olson for years.

“He’s smart. He’s a good guy. He’s a lot of fun,” Thompson said. “He’s somebody people will be excited about following.”

‘I’m so grateful every day’

Olson, a native of Park Ridge, Ill., near Chicago, said he was called at an early age to be a priest.

“At times I entertained other things. I thought about teaching. I thought about the law or public service,” he said. “But I really felt that the only thing that could answer my call with happiness was to become a priest.

“God is very good,” Olson said. “He calls us when it’s best for us. He uses everything to help serve people. I’m so grateful every day that he called me to be a priest.”

Olson said his priest/teachers at the north Chicago seminary prep school where he received his high school diploma were big influences. He learned from the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, then leader of the Archdiocese of Chicago. “He was very supportive of my move to Fort Worth,” Olson said.

Olson’s parents moved to Fort Worth when he was 19. Both parents worked for the phone books section of the GTE telecommunications company, which transferred to Fort Worth from the Chicago area.

He first stayed behind in the Chicago area to continue seminary. After he graduated from Catholic University of America, writing a thesis for his master’s degree in philosophy on how some of Augustine’s teachings relate to Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus, he moved to Texas to study for the priesthood. Olson also holds a doctorate from Academia Alfonsiana in Rome.

Bilingual, like most priests and bishops, Olson gave statements in both English and Spanish during a news conference last week. He showed touches of humor in thanking faculty and students he will be leaving at Holy Trinity Seminary in Irving where he has been rector for five and a half years.

“I am grateful to all the seminarians who are out there watching this on live stream but should be studying,” Olson said.

Thankful to Bishop Vann

Olson will become the second-youngest bishop in the United States. The youngest was one of Olson’s classmates at St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston, Bishop Oscar Cantu, leader of the Diocese of Las Cruces, N.M.

One of the people most proud of Olson’s appointment is Vann, his immediate predecessor.

“I worked with him several years,” Vann said in a telephone interview from California. “First of all, Michael is a man of great faith. He’s wonderful with people. He’s got a lot of experience. He is very bright, he’s witty and has great compassion. He inspires people and he‘ll bring all those qualities as the Fort Worth bishop.”

Asked whether Vann had contacted him about his being bishop-elect, Olson replied, “Every hour on the hour.”

Olson has requested that Vann assist in his consecration, which will be led by Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller of San Antonio. Also expected to attend is Cardinal Vigano, the apostolic nuncio.

Vann said he’s rearranged his schedule to attend.

“After 71/2 years, Fort Worth was home for me,” he said. “I hope to touch base with many of my friends.”

Olson said he’s known many good priests in the Fort Worth Diocese — past and present.

“I feel privileged to be part of their legacy, and now to be their bishop and, in a sense, as their pastor,” Olson said. “I‘m very much looking forward to coming back and working with them.”

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