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BY Wally Carew
When his life is over, his work on earth done, Father Richard Fineo hopes to meet the Lord totally exhausted, after having given his all, with just one question on his lips: “Did I bring enough souls with me?”
The good news, he's found, is that getting there is half the reward. In his assignment as parochial vicar at St. Mary's Cathedral in Fargo, N.D., Father Fineo ministers to 625 families in the heart of America's “big sky” country — where, most days, the view is as far as the eye can see. His outlook wasn't always so sunny.
“To love well,” he says, “your heart must be broken many times.”
Father Fineo remembers how he experienced his first heartache when he was only 13, having applied to a seminary prep school only to be rejected. Throughout his public-school education in his native Long Island, N.Y., the sense that he was being called to ministerial priesthood persisted. After high school, he entered the Passionists, studying with them for four years but leaving before taking vows. “I still wanted to become a priest, but I didn't think I was being called to community life,” he recalls.
During the next phase of his life, he held several jobs in the hospitality industry. At one point during his job search, he was advised that his rÈsumÈ was “too Catholic.” If he toned it down, he was told, it might be easier for him to get a job.
While working as a Catholic layman, he continued to discern a possible vocation to the priesthood, turning to the Blessed Mother for assistance. In fact, he made an extended pilgrimage to the major Marian shrines in the Philippines, Russia, Japan, Italy, France, Portugal and Israel. While in Italy, he visited the grave of St. Padre Pio, where he felt his heart drawing closer to the Lord. His yearning to become a priest intensified. There were nearly 1,000 people on the pilgrimage. As it happened, one was a friend of Bishop James Sullivan of North Dakota.
After returning from the pilgrimage and continuing to work in the secular world, one day he said he was stunned to receive a telephone call from that very apostolic successor. “Bishop Sullivan called and invited me to come out to North Dakota and become part of his diocese,” recalls Father Fineo. “I was flabbergasted. I was so shocked I couldn't even answer the bishop.”
Finding it difficult to express in words his feelings about this turn of events, he took action instead: He placed all his cares and concerns where he knew they would be safe — “deep within the Immaculate Heart of Mary.”
“In my heart,” he adds, “I heard Our Lady say: ‘If you try to walk away from the priesthood now, I will take the hinges off the door!’”
While on pilgrimage in Medju-gore, Father Fineo met Father Bill McCarthy of the Missionaries of the Holy Apostles. Under Father McCarthy's guidance, he entered Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Conn., to study for the priest-hood.
“I can't say enough about Father McCarthy,” says Father Fineo. “He is a great example of priest-hood. I learned so much just being around him.”
On June 1, 2002, Bishop Samuel Aquila ordained Father Fineo a priest for the Diocese of Fargo, where he felt he was being called to serve.
It's hard to say who's happier about the assignment — him or his parishioners.
“Father Fineo is a priest who has great passion for the Eucharist and for families,” says Dave Dahlin, who along with his wife, Marie, is raising 10 children at St. Mary's. “He's courageous, too. He came all the way out here from New York, giving up all traditional supports, to love and serve us.”
Soon after he arrived at St. Mary's, Father Fineo started a conversation group for young adults. The Dahlin daughters joined and are joyous members of the group, which they call “Kibbitz.”
“I am lucky and blessed to know Father Fineo,” says 19-year-old Laura Dahlin. “He shares so much about himself and his journey with Christ. He always talks about finding Christ in ordinary things and it has helped me so much to see Christ in all the little things that make up my life.”
Father Fineo has a twin brother, Robert. Another brother, Michael, narrowly escaped death from the 25th floor of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. His home parish is Our Lady of Peace in Lynbrook, Long Island. As for his move from New York to one of the country's most rugged and least densely populated regions, Father Fineo says simply: “I love it.”
And why not? To a priest, home is where the hungry souls are. “We have confession two, three times a week,” he says. “There are long lines, too. I often hear confessions before and after Mass and I have even heard confessions at a gas station and out in a ball field.”
Each morning, Father Fineo gets out of bed and greets a new day with hope in his heart for the people who look to find Christ through his help. “God is so good,” he says. “Every morning I ascend the holy altar and offer the holy sacrifice of the Mass, the source and summit of our faith. That is my greatest joy and comfort.”
And he doesn't shy from change. These days, he embraces it as the Lord's plan for his life.
That's a good thing, because, on June 25, his life will change once again: He's off to Fargo's Church of the Nativity and a new assignment as an associate pastor.
When his earthly ministry is through, will he have brought enough souls with him to Jesus? Only God knows the answer to that question — but, so far, things are looking pretty good.