WASHINGTON – Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmsted said he was honored to be a featured speaker Tuesday at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast because it gave him a chance to “speak to the Catholics, especially the leaders all across the United States.”
And when he spoke, he spoke directly: Olmsted told a packed hotel conference room that abortion is “an unspeakable crime,” that leaders must open their hearts to Jesus Christ and that there is a “weakening of marriage” in the U.S.
It looked like any other gathering of advocates in Washington, with supporters crowding a packed hotel ballroom for breakfast and a chance to listen to speakers and administration officials talk about the cause.
But this gathering featured a “Make America Holy Again” hat. And nuns, priests and a backdrop to the stage that featured the U.S. and Vatican flags crossed behind a pair of hands clasped in prayer.
The 15th annual prayer breakfast featured eight speakers, including White House Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, and an audience of about 1,400 people that included other administration officials and members of Congress.
Mulvaney is just one of many high-profile politicians to speak at the event, which hosted former House Speaker Paul Ryan last year, Vice President Mike Pence in 2017 and former President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2008.
Mulvaney told the crowd that religion is a constant topic in the White House, where President Donald Trump lets administration officials “take their faith and work it into our policies.” He also said Trump often presses foreign leaders telling them, “‘You’re not doing enough to take care of the Christians in your country,’ or ‘Thank you for helping the Christians in your country.’”
He added that Trump’s State of the Union remarks against abortion included some last-minute additions in direct response to Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s defense of a proposal to strengthen abortion protections in that state.
Abortion was one of the main topics of the day, with Olmsted saying he has spent his time as a priest “walking in the dark shadow cast by the infamous Supreme Court decision,” Roe V. Wade, that recognized a woman’s right to an abortion. He called it his “pastoral duty to speak witness to the gospel of life.”
Olmsted addressed sexual abuse crisis in the church, saying the laity is “justly angered.”
“Your concerns are just and need to be answered with both sacrifice and actions that are wiser than despair,” he said. “Please pray for us.”
Olmsted also criticized what he called the weakening of marriage in the U.S., quoting his own 66-page pastoral letter from last year during his 20-minute address.
“We Christians, then, must stand up for this reality of marriage today, in our homes and in our public square, despite the real risk of persecution for doing so,” Olmsted told the crowd.
The bishop insisted he was preaching a religious message, not a political one, but other speakers were not so reticent.
Leonard Leo, president of the breakfast and executive vice president of the Federalist Society, praised the Trump administration for its actions to defend religion, including actions to reverse part of the Affordable Care Act that required business to provide contraception. He praised Trump’s judicial appointees, who he said are “committed to the Constitution as it’s written.”
Afterward, Olmsted said events like the breakfast are important because Catholics should “not only … be living our faith privately, but we should be living it in every dimension of our life.”
“I was honored to be chosen to come,” he said. “It was really encouraging. A lot of these are elected officials or others who are leaders in government or in commerce or in different ways in society, and yet their Catholic faith is important to them too.”