Strong leadership: US bishop Robert Finn shows how

Strong leadership: US bishop Robert Finn shows how

AD2000 Report

A recently appointed American bishop has shown how strong, decisive leadership can help a diocese recover its Catholic identity and goals.

In just over 12 months, Bishop Robert Finn has changed the emphasis in the Diocese of Kansas City-St Joseph, Missouri, from an emphasis on social engagement and lay empowerment to one more concerned with evangelisation and the quest for holiness.

A priest of the St Louis Archdiocese, Bishop Finn was named coadjutor in March 2004, succeeding Bishop Raymond Boland on 24 May 2005 as leader of Kansas City-St Joseph's 145,000 Catholics.

Bishop Finn's oft-stated message is that his principal job is to help Catholics respond to their baptismal call to holiness, grow in the sacramental life and be closer to God, in short, to help everyone become saints. "You can't say it more simply or profoundly than that," he said. "Our goal is to get ourselves to heaven and take as many people with us as we can."

The long-held conventional wisdom is that bishops wishing to reform dioceses need to take things very slowly and gradually with caution and prudence and no boat- rocking. Bishop Finn, however, has thrown out the rule book

Within a week of his appointment he:

* Dismissed the lay chancellor who had held the position for 21 years, the vice chancellor, a religious woman stationed in the diocese for nearly 40 years, and the chief of pastoral planning since 1990, and replaced them with a priest chancellor.

* Cancelled the diocese's lay formation programs and a master's degree program in pastoral ministry.

* Cut in half the budget of the Center for Pastoral Life and Ministry, effectively forcing the almost immediate resignation of half the seven- member team. Within 10 months all seven would be gone and the center shuttered.

* Ordered a "zero-based study" of adult catechesis in the diocese and appointed a layman as vice chancellor to oversee adult catechesis, lay formation and the catechesis.

* Ordered the editor of the diocesan newspaper to immediately cease publishing columns by Notre Dame theologian and well-known dissenter, Fr Richard McBrien. Bishop Finn commented, "Everybody seems to make a big deal out of cancelling Fr McBrien's column. Quite honestly, it was fairly a no-brainer for me [sic]". The column, he said, did not match the mission of the Catholic press which was "to help people understand the message and the teaching of the Church".

Bishop Finn later explained, "Fr McBrien likes to stir the pot. He approaches things with a certain skepticism and cynicism. You can get that in a lot of places, so go get it somewhere else. We need clear expressions of the meaning of faith, why we believe and how we can inspire each other". Catholic publications, he said, must be "dependable in their fidelity."

To ensure this, he has made clear he will review all front page stories, opinion pieces, columns and editorials before publication.


As his first year in office unfolded and budgets were prepared for a new fiscal year, Bishop Finn's priorities emerged:

* The budget of the Office of Peace and Justice was cut in half. One of two full-time staff positions was eliminated, and the other may be reduced. In response to questioning of his commitment to justice and peace, he pointed out that abortion is the holocaust of the modern world.

* In this regard, a separate Respect Life Office was established to handle pro-life issues and battle stem-cell research.

* The Vocation Office went from a part-time priest vocation director to a full-time priest vocation director with a part-time priest assistant and additional support from the head of the newly established Office for Consecrated Life.

* The diocesan-sponsored master's program, administered for eight years by the Aquinas Institute of Theology, a Dominican college affiliated with Jesuit-run St Louis University, was transferred to the Institute for Pastoral Theology at the orthodox Florida-based Ave Maria University whose chancellor is Fr Joseph Fessio SJ.

* A Latin Mass community, which had been meeting in a city parish, was upgraded to a parish in its own right while Bishop Finn appointed himself as its parish priest.

Dr Jeff Mirus of Trinity Communications (see www.CatholicCul- commented, "What is most remarkable about these changes is that much of the longtime middle management of the diocese has simply been swept away. Career professionals over a period of twenty years, those who had been highly regarded by the previous bishop (and sometimes by his predecessor), the cognoscenti, the inner circle - in short, those who were always consulted before anything was ever done - were as so much chaff before Bishop Finn's new broom.

"The reality, of course, is simply that Bishop Finn didn't consult those who were accustomed to being consulted. Kansas City-St Joseph was the national leader in the formation of lay people as pastoral administrators to staff priestless parishes. The entire mindset of diocesan management seems to have been rooted in this vision of the Catholic future".

Bishop Finn, however, sought to move beyond the established circles and sound out "ordinary" Catholics in the pews. During his year as coadjutor, he visited 70 out of 100 parishes in the diocese, talking with and listening to a large cross-section of parishioners.

As for his "agenda", in a number of interviews and press sessions, Bishop Finn has made clear why he is making changes. While mentioning a number of these that are very important, he called vocations to the priesthood and religious life his "super- priority."

He explained this as follows:

"They are vital because without priests there can be no Eucharist, no Sacrifice of the Mass, which the Second Vatican Council described as the font and summit of the life of the church. Without priests, Jesus Christ's intentions for the supernatural life of the Church cannot be fulfilled.

"These priestly and religious vocations are a super-priority because we have experienced a shortage in recognising, welcoming and fostering these vocations in many regions in the church.

"These vocations are a super- priority because without them the authentic identity of the vocation of the laity is at risk. The vocation to the laity represents God's call to holiness for more than 99 percent of the Church. If we do not more carefully define the vocation to the priesthood, we will miss the true goal of the lay vocation to transform the secular world.

"With the exceptions of some religious orders, vocations to consecrated religious life have also become endangered. But there is no doubt in my mind that God is still calling men and women to this community life. They also are a super-priority.

"Vocations are a super- priority for us, because for a young man or woman to 'miss' their vocation is a super-disaster! We must do even more to help those whom God calls to hear him and say 'yes' with great trust.

"I am happy and encouraged with the work of our Diocesan Vocation Office and with the fine seminarians we have. Our new Office of Consecrated Life will help raise our awareness of these vocations. We continue to support vocations to the permanent diaconate that more often come at a later point in life."

In the short time since Bishop Finn has assumed leadership, the number of seminarians for the diocese has doubled from ten to twenty, according to the Director of Vocations, Fr Steve Cook.


Commenting on his educational priorities, Bishop Finn said that "we have to understand where the power of the laity is. It is in the family, the workplace, the marketplace." Very few lay people will ever be involved in parish administration, he noted. "Sometimes we tend to focus on that very small percentage and forget about the rest of the flock," who need to be able to explain the Faith in a hostile culture, especially concerning issues such as abortion, contraception and homosexuality.

He commented that previous pastoral formation programs "had been given birth during that period of time when there was a lot of emphasis on process and sharing and a little less on content." He wants lay persons to be well-formed lay persons and priests to be well-formed priests, but he does not want the two confused. As he told the long-time pastoral planner for the diocese, who had worked for years to supplement a shortage of priests with lay administrators, "I'd like priests in every parish."

Bishop Finn insists that the Catechism of the Catholic Church "must be a primary reference point for all catechetical endeavors", as must the recently released Compendium - "a particularly handy and less cumbersome instrument for utilising the Catechism, and recognising its essential elements".

He has directed that the methodology for religion teaching must be less "process" and more content, adding that this did "not mean that learning will not be interactive. Faith formation requires reflections and a dialogue of faith that strengthens our participation in the proclamation of the truth".

He said that a "needs assessment" on religious education that had been carried out in the diocese confirmed "to a significant degree" that Catholics wished "to become more knowledgeable of the deposit of faith". Apologetics, he continued, "properly understood as the practice of elucidating the articles of faith and explaining their authentic history and profound meaning, must find its rightful place again in Catholic education and formation."

In his charge to the new adult faith formation commission, Bishop Finn set out his plans in the wider context of the present-day Church.

"Forty years after the close of the Second Vatican Council we are in a time of a more mature self- understanding in the Church, than the period immediately following the Council. More than ever, the Council documents deserve careful reading and study. They have been used at times to justify experimentation that was interpolated on what has been sometimes called the 'spirit of the Council.'

"Now we must allow ourselves to see how they are an incentive for renewal in continuity with the Church's tradition. The Sacred Scriptures, interpreted by the Church, and illuminated by the Fathers and other anchors of Catholic Tradition, and the Magisterium, presented concisely in the Catechism and other teaching documents of the Holy Father and the Councils, are the 'sine qua non,' or the fundamental resources for our efforts. Our diocesan program must supply elements of a 'core curriculum' and a solid faith foundation which will help the faithful withstand the rather constant challenges of the secular culture."

Effective leadership

No doubt there will be more reforms to come in the Diocese of Kansas City-St Joseph. Dr Mirus comments, "It is too soon to tell how successful Bishop Finn's approach will be. If he succeeds in reshaping his diocese without losing a substantial number of the Catholics within it, this will upset all the conventional wisdom - the wisdom by which nearly every diocese and the Church as a whole has been governed for almost 50 years.

"It will become clear that quick, public, and decisive action constitutes effective leadership. It will force other bishops to question whether the only possibility is a slow war of attrition, often so slow that the objectives are forgotten.

"For this reason, it is difficult to think of a more important experiment in today's Church. Here comes a man steeped in Catholic tradition yet formed to engage the modern world. Undaunted by the obstacles in his path, he acts both boldly and swiftly. He neither courts the establishment nor worries about adverse publicity. He governs as if he believes his authority is the authority of Christ. And when asked why he acts as he does, he gives plain and simple Catholic reasons. Let us hope Bishop Finn is a harbinger of things to come."

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