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Bishop Finn outlines vision, dreams
By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor

Joe Cory/Key photo
Bishop Robert W. Finn
KANSAS CITY - The goal of the church is nothing less than the transformation of the world, and it is up to lay people to accomplish that, Bishop Robert W. Finn told The Catholic Key.

In a wide-ranging, two-hour interview in which he discussed his vision and dreams for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph as well as his decisions to reorganize some agencies within the chancery, Bishop Finn said he hopes to build on the diocese's legacy of lay empowerment to energize Catholics in their love of Jesus Christ to live their faith fully in the broader community.

"Jesus Christ is going to save us," he said. "Bishop Finn isn't going to save us. Salvation is going to be worked out in the context of the church. Jesus Christ established the church for us to know and love him, and ultimately to get to heaven."

Echoing a theme he delivered last year at a Mass for Catholic school principals and teachers at the opening of the 2004-05 school year, Bishop Finn said it is the vocation of every member of Christ's church to become saints themselves "and to bring as many people with them as possible."

"You can't say it more simply or profoundly than that," he said. "Our goal is to get ourselves and everyone else to heaven."

Bishop Finn said that ordained ministers alone can't transform American culture.

"We are in a culture of death. Who is going to change that?" he said.

"I can stand up and preach about it, but that's only going to go so far," Bishop Finn said.

"We have to understand where the power of the laity is," he said. "It's in the family, the workplace, the marketplace. That's where it has to happen.

"We need lay people in church leadership. But only a very small percentage of lay people will be involved in that," he said. "Sometimes, we tend to focus on that very small percentage and forget about the rest of the flock.

"But if we are not serious about those laity who do not work in the church, then we are missing the whole thing. We have to keep broadening our vision."

Bishop Finn said the need to broaden the scope of adult education programs led him to his decision to slice the diocesan allocation for the Center of Pastoral Life and Ministry in half - from $500,000 to $250,000 - and to suspend its signature New Wine and Foundation ministry formation programs after classes that are now in process have graduated.

He pointed to the Family Life Office under the direction of Deacon Ken Greene as one area that needs to be beefed up.

"Deacon Ken Greene does a great job, but look at what is under his umbrella," the bishop said. "The Family Life Office also has the Pro-Life office, the Cursillo movement, marriage preparation and Natural Family Planning, as well as the National Black Congress under its umbrella. It's a one-man office with a part-time secretary, and it has a budget of around $100,000.

"One might think that Family Life should encompass a major aspect of the life of the diocese, since 90 percent of what happens in the diocese happens in families," he said. "I'd like to see that office divided into two or more different agencies, but I'm not ready to do that tomorrow."

The three-year New Wine program, he noted, has graduated about 700 people in its 21 years.

"We might have 100 people taking it in the course of a year," he said. "The program has served the diocese well over its 21 years, but that's $5,000 a head from the diocese."

Bishop Finn did not rule out a new version of New Wine in the future for lay ministry formation. That depends on the results of the year-long study of adult education needs across the diocese that he commissioned his vice chancellor, Claude Sasso, to conduct.

"Could there be something like New Wine? There could be. But the problem with New Wine was the way it was set up. It required a big budget with a set staff that you were paying full-time," he said.

"We had eight dedicated, well-educated people (in the Center for Pastoral Life and Ministry)," Bishop Finn said. "For all the good it has accomplished, can we really afford to have that much of our resources to do the work of the Center? We've got to do it cheaper."

Bishop Finn acknowledged that the Foundations component of New Wine was a key part of the formation program for permanent deacons. But he stressed that the diaconate program will move forward.

"We will be looking at the diaconate formation program overall," he said. "Conception Abbey has asked me to consider their academic program for deacon formation which is currently offered as the basis for deacon formation for the Diocese of Des Moines.

"Also, the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas is in the process of looking at options because they want to start a deacon formation program. Perhaps we will collaborate," he said. "Meanwhile, there are ordinations planned for next year, and candidacy will go forward," he said.

Bishop Finn said that whatever adult education programs are developed after Sasso's study, they should be sensitive to the busy lives lay Catholics lead, and be portable to parishes in the diocese.

"Having worked in rural parishes for half my priesthood, I am aware of the strong sense of family and faith that come out of those areas, as I am aware of the richness in city parishes as well," he said.

"The diocese has a broad array of parishes. I think that sometimes the people in the city areas tend to forget about the people in the rural areas," he said.

Bishop Finn said the adult education program will have components that are short in duration, and will be deeply rooted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, both of which encompass 2,000 years of church tradition.

But Bishop Finn noted that the polarization of the American political system is strong among lay Catholics.

One way he hopes to reconcile that is by creating a separate Pro-Life Office to coordinate the work lay Catholics are doing on such life issues as abortion, embryonic stem cell research, euthanasia and the death penalty. That office, he said, should work in concert with the existing Peace and Justice Office.

If both offices can work in concert, it may offer a model of reconciliation, he said.

"Go back to the pre-election (of 2004)," Bishop Finn said. "'Pro-life' became connected to the Republican Party and 'Peace and Justice' became connected to the Democratic Party. It's supposed to be a seamless garment. It should be one Gospel. There shouldn't be friction and animosity between them."

Bishop Finn said people in both camps who use their faith as another political weapon should realize that both major U.S. political parties are flawed when measured against the Gospel.

"We have to come up with one common understanding of the Gospel and reach out to people who are impassioned about either (pro-life or peace and justice) issues," he said.

"I support the complete freedom of every individual to choose their political parties," Bishop Finn said. "I hope we as Catholics do so as the leaven that is supposed to redirect both of those parties. We have to make them better. That is the vocation of the laity, to transform society and culture by bringing our faith into the midst of it.

"Doing that will require a lot of prayer and a lot of fortitude," he said. "But we have to transform the culture so that what is true is held as sacrosanct. Every human being has dignity and an eternal destiny. If we don't recognize that, then what foundation are we acting out of?"

Bishop Finn said he wants The Catholic Key to be an important component of ongoing diocesan catechesis and evangelization, and an instrument of reconciliation.

For that reason, he said, he directed The Key to discontinue Father Richard McBrien's often controversial syndicated column.

"Father McBrien likes to stir the pot," Bishop Finn said. "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," he said. "We've got to give people hope and direction, and we don't have a lot of time and space (in the newspaper) to do that. I think we can do a whole lot better."

Bishop Finn said he will also continue to strengthen the diocesan Vocations Office, noting that programs launched by his predecessor, Bishop Raymond J. Boland, are bringing results with perhaps10 new seminarians scheduled to begin studies for the diocesan priesthood this year.

"If there is momentum, we want to keep it going," he said.

But Bishop Finn said lay Catholics have an important role to play in helping young men and women discern a call to religious life.

"If they have a call from God to the priesthood or consecrated life, they have a need to have that call fulfilled and fostered," he said. "That happens through climate, environment and culture. They should feel supported by their families, supported by their peers, and supported by the church."

He has already asked Father Stephen Cook to work full-time instead of part-time as vocations director, and retained Keith Jiron as full-time associate director.

Bishop Finn has also appointed Franciscan Sister Connie Boulch to the new Office of Consecrated Life. In addition to working with the vocations office in identifying women with a call to religious life, Sister Boulch will also serve as the bishop's liaison with the dozens of orders of religious men and women working in the diocese.

"There are things about the religious orders that I as a diocesan priest might not be aware of," Bishop Finn said. "We have to keep those lines of communication open."

Bishop Finn also said he chose Father Robert Murphy and Father Brad Offutt as vicar general and chancellor, respectively, because of their experience as parish priests.

He said he chose them after asking a variety of people to suggest candidates for those posts. He said the names of Father Murphy and Father Offutt surfaced repeatedly. He said he made appointments to talk to both priests before he made his decision.

"They didn't know they were being interviewed," Bishop Finn said. "But they were both pastors, and they both have a good knowledge of this diocese."

Bishop Finn said the experience as parish priests of his two top diocesan officers will help keep the chancery focused on supporting parishes.

"There is a danger among those who work in a chancery to think that this is the whole world," he said. "The impression I got from living 25 years in parishes (in the Archdiocese of St. Louis) is that many of the people working in parishes view the people in the chancery as sending plans to parishes that they want parishes to do for them. Father Murphy and Father Offutt are not chancery people. They understand the responsibilities of pastors and other people they have worked with in parishes. They both have a lot of credibility."

In another key appointment, he has named Benedictine Abbot Gregory Polan of Conception Abbey to be the diocesan director of ecumenical affairs.

"I am very grateful that he has accepted that," Bishop Finn said. "He will guide me and represent me in many cases. This is very important to me. We have to continue to grow in the relationships (with other faith traditions) that we have already established."

Bishop Finn noted that next year, God willing, he will preside over the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph from the former Diocese of Kansas City and the former Diocese of St. Joseph.

He expects that event to be a public celebration of diocesan unity.

"We have a multitude of good and faithful people," he said. "These are people trying to live their lives day by day, and they want Christ in their lives.

"What is clear is that the history and the demographic make-up of the diocese shifted, and that we are much more effective as one diocese than as two," Bishop Finn said. "I hope (the 50th anniversary) becomes an opportunity to celebrate our unity," he said.


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