KANSAS CITY, Mo. — After just one year as bishop of Kansas City - St. Joseph, Bishop Robert Finn has made it clear that he takes his teaching role seriously.

Not only has he emphasized that role publicly, but he has also revamped the diocesan office responsible for adult faith formation.

He is no stranger to education. He taught at St. Francis Borgia Regional High School in Washington, Mo., for six years and spent seven years as administrator at St. Dominic High School in O’Fallon, Mo. He was appointed director of continuing formation of priests in the Archdiocese of St. Louis in 1996 and continued as such in 1999 when he was made editor of The St. Louis Review, the archdiocesan newspaper.

Bishop Finn became bishop of the Diocese of Kansas City - St. Joseph in May 2005, after spending a year there as coadjutor. During that time he assessed the distinct needs of the diocese. Not long after his appointment in Kansas City, he established two commissions to examine diocesan catechesis and evangelization.

“I asked my vice chancellor to take a zero-based approach,” explained Bishop Finn. “Assume if we didn’t have any programs at all, what would we need? What do people and pastors want?”

One commission surveyed the diocese, sought the assistance of others, such as Claude Sasson, a history professor who had a decade of experience developing catechetical programs, and ended up replacing the Center for Pastoral Life and Ministry — the diocese’s 27-year-old lay ministry program — with the Bishop Helmsing Institute, a faith-formation model aimed at adults.

“He cleared out that part of the diocese that was supposed to be the teaching part and was wholly inadequate,” said local civil litigation attorney Martin Meyers. “He’s uninterested in creating lay people as neo-clerics but is more interested in teaching people about their role as laity.”

“One of the focuses of the other group was preparing the diocese for when we didn’t have enough priests,” said St. Francis of the Holy Eucharist Sister Connie Boulch. Sister Connie serves as director of the Office of Consecrated Life, which Bishop Finn just started. “He has turned that around and wants a priest in every parish.”

“We needed to see if the program still fulfilled the particular needs it once took care of,” said Bishop Finn. “At over 20 years old, it was pre-Catechism of the Catholic Church. Whatever we do will take a strong lead from the Catechism. People don’t want to hear just sharings of the faith. They want more content so they can explain and defend their faith in the midst of the culture.”

When Pope Benedict XVI met with the Canadian bishops in May, he stressed the importance of adherence to the Church’s teachings.

“You must take care over the catechesis of children and young people,” said the Holy Father. “Pay renewed attention to its adherence to the truth of Church teaching on theology and morals, two inseparable aspects of being a Christian in the world.”

This article continues the Register’s series exploring how some bishops are finding the voice to address the issues that most bishops, priests and deacons have tended to avoid.

Among others, it will feature Bishop Samuel Aquila of Fargo, N.D., Bishop Robert Baker of Charleston, S.C., Archbishop John Myers of Newark, N.J., Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Colo. and Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker, Ore. The series previously featured Bishop Victor Galeone of St. Augustine, Fla. and Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix.

Offering Clarity

Civil litigation attorney Meyers said he cannot recall a public encounter with Bishop Finn where he hasn’t been a teacher.

“He sees himself as a teacher first,” said Meyers. “Not that he is unmindful of his role as pastor, but the climate here is such that he has properly concluded that our diocese needs a teacher first.”

Bishop Finn views his teaching role as preeminent, especially given the challenges facing Catholics in the culture at large.

“There are cultural challenges about relativism and the rejection of any notion of objective or transcendent truth,” said Bishop Finn. “These views are challenging when they are presented among us by Catholics. Sometimes the varieties of points of view are defended under pluralism or tolerance.”

He sees clarity as the key to responding to such challenges.

“What our society needs more and more are clear references to what the Church teaches, both in doctrinal content and in moral principles,” said Bishop Finn. “The bishop is called to explicitly apply those principles to the world around him.”

Bishop Finn attributes his desire for clarity to Pope John Paul II. While a deacon, and in preparation for his final year of studies for the priesthood, he stood in St. Peter’s Square as Pope John Paul II first came onto the balcony after his election in October 1978.

“I consider myself a John Paul youth,” said Bishop Finn. “We have been inspired by the likes of John Paul II and the ways that he taught us about the value and importance of trying to speak the Gospel with clarity and with love in the midst of our culture. He reminded us that we are in a culture of death and darkness, and we have to promote a Gospel of light and life.

“The youth have told us straight-forwardly that they want to know the authentic teachings of the Church and want to try to live them,” he continued. “The New Evangelization is a kind of re-evangelization of people like myself and others who were baptized Catholic or Christian. In the new millennium, I think we have to be very basic.”

Bishop Finn is a member of the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross, and as such, he is one of four U.S. bishops with connections to the personal prelature Opus Dei. He applied for membership just two months before becoming coadjutor bishop in Kansas City.

Opus Dei focuses on lay people being apostles in the midst of the world, striving to live saintly lives as they go about the sometimes mundane tasks of work and family life.

“We have to understand where the power of the laity is,” Bishop Finn wrote in the diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Key, last July. “It’s in the family, the workplace, the marketplace. That’s where [the transformation of society] has to happen.”

“We need lay people in Church leadership,” Bishop Finn said, “But only a very small percentage of lay people will be involved in that.”

Preaching and Teaching

Layman John Purk said that he has witnessed the bishop’s sincerity in teaching, specifically through his homilies.

“The first homily he gave to our community was on St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila,” said Purk, who teaches dentistry at the University of Missouri - Kansas City, and is a lay member of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity. “When I heard that homily, I knew we had a winner. We love to have a teacher who is in love with the [Church’s] magisterial teaching.”

Sister Connie agreed that Bishop Finn’s homilies are often teaching homilies.

“We just had three ordinations, and he gave a wonderful teaching on the priesthood,” she said.

In addition, she said that Bishop Finn teaches primarily by example.

“Bishop Finn is truly a man of prayer,” Sister Connie said. “I find him to be a very gentle, compassionate and humble man. That witness to the people is very strong. He preaches first with his life and uses words when necessary.”

As bishop, he has made use of written words in his diocesan newspaper, through a pastoral, and on the airwaves.

Bishop Finn’s addresses and talks are often published in the diocesan newspaper. He also writes a weekly column for the newspaper.

“I am aware of the fact that what you include and what prominence you give it in the Catholic newspaper is an important way of reaching people,” said Bishop Finn.

Shortly after taking office, he eliminated a recurring column in the newspaper by University of Notre Dame theologian Father Richard McBrien. Bishop Finn said he made the decision because Father McBrien often questions Church teachings such as lifelong priestly celibacy.

The decision drew criticism from some of the newspaper’s readers.

“Bishop Finn removed Richard McBrien’s column from the Catholic Key not because McBrien is out of line, but because he personally does not agree with him,” wrote Karen Stigers of Kansas City in the Kansas City Star. “His actions … bear comparison to a corporate housecleaning in a hostile takeover.”

Yet, Bishop Finn sees his role as a teaching bishop as one that has a responsibility for what appears in his own diocesan newspaper.

“I feel it’s an important exercise of my teaching ministry to not only, in a positive way, promote the priorities and express the emphasis of Catholic teaching with as much clarity as I can, but it’s very reasonable to try to remove obstacles, particularly within our own diocesan newspaper,” said Bishop Finn. “My approach includes the exercise of my prerogative to indicate that when someone is teaching in a manner which is consistently contrary, or somewhat skeptical or cynical about the magisterium and the teachings of the Church, people are free to find those things elsewhere.”

As a teacher, Bishop Finn takes seriously his role in bringing his faithful the Church’s authentic teachings.

“Our diocesan newspaper wants to be a dependable source of what will assist people in what is the authentic Catholic faith,” said Bishop Finn. “We want people to trust that what they are receiving is not contrary to what the bishop is trying to promote. I call that responsible editing.”

In October 2004, Bishop Finn co-authored his first pastoral letter on Catholics and political life with then-Bishop of Kansas City Raymond Boland.

“We wanted to give some direction to people about the priorities that they must make in terms of who they can support,” Bishop Finn said of the pastoral. “We were favorably inspired by similar efforts that we saw among some of the other bishops.”

Bishop Finn expressed some interest in working on a future pastoral that might look at rediscovering the sacrament of reconciliation.

His efforts are not limited to the written word. He also makes use of KXES, an independent AM Catholic radio station to teach.

He has used the radio station to address issues such as the divine mercy devotion, vocations, The Da Vinci Code, and stem-cell research.

Revisiting the Council

The clarity which Bishop Finn so desires comes as a result of his continuing study of the documents of the Second Vatican Council.

“Many of us have felt that we have to go back to the text of the documents,” said Bishop Finn. “We have come into a time of a more mature understanding of the Second Vatican Council.”

He said that his own study of the documents over the last 15 years has been more helpful to him than when he first tried tackling them while in seminary.

“Studying them at this moment in time has helped us to see that they say very profound things that are not always grasped or proposed by people who are quick to speak about the ‘spirit of Vatican II,’” said Bishop Finn.

“We have to live under the ‘spirit,’ but to get the ‘spirit’ we have to understand what the council truly taught,” he said. “I don’t know that that has always been a priority.”

Tim Drake is based in

St. Joseph, Minnesota.