Cover story -- Remaking a diocese
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Issue Date:  May 12, 2006

Extreme makeover: the diocese

New bishop quickly discards programs, people

Kansas City, Mo.

Perhaps nowhere in America has the transition from a church focused on social engagement and lay empowerment to one more concerned with Catholic identity and evangelization been more dramatic, or in some ways more wrenching, than in the Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., diocese since the appointment of Bishop Robert Finn.

Finn has brought the diocese, for decades a model of the former category of church practice, to a screeching halt and sent it veering off in a new direction, leaving nationally heralded education programs and high-profile lay leaders and women religious with long experience abandoned and dismayed.

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Read NCR's editorial and the editor's note on this story:
  • Fr. Brad Offutt says itís a simple matter of the Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., diocese having an orange grove while the new bishop wants an apple orchard. Both will nourish, but the bishopís the bishop, and apples it will be. No rationale for upheaval in Kansas City.

  • The calls come with some regularity. Catholics wanting to know why a bishop or a pastor can come into a diocese or parish and upend what went before: Community and authority .
  • Here are more stories:

  • Bishop Robert Finnís promotion of traditional practices has been welcomed by many in the Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., diocese: An affinity for indulgences and Latin
  • .
  • Bishop Robert Finnís membership in Opus Dei became a matter of public record with the publication last year: Finn one of four Opus Dei bishops in USA.
  • The competing tensions in the U.S. church were outlined last year by Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of the Galveston-Houston archdiocese in an interview with NCR. In Fiorenza’s analysis, bishops in the past emphasized Gaudium et Spes, the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) document on the church and the world, while many of the younger bishops are emphasizing Lumen Gentium or Dei Verbum, Vatican documents on eccelesiology and revelation, respectively. In real life, of course, the split is never that neat, but practically it can mean a general refocusing of church efforts from large social issues and themes and concern about church reform to issues of Catholic identity, of catechesis, of adherence to stricter standards regarding liturgy and of faithful transmission of church teachings.

    Finn has not used those categories to explain his actions, but the contrast between what has been and what he is putting in place could not be more striking. If, as Fiorenza suggested, that transition is one of the more important dramas unfolding in American Catholicism at the moment, in Kansas City it’s occurring at light speed.

    Finn, 53, a priest of the St. Louis archdiocese and a member of the conservative Opus Dei movement, was named coadjutor of the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese in March 2004. The diocese comprises 130,000 Catholics in 27 countries of northwest Missouri. He succeeded Bishop Raymond Boland as ordinary on May 24, 2005. Within a week of his appointment he:

    • Dismissed the chancellor, a layman with 21 years of experience in the diocese, and the vice chancellor, a religious woman stationed in the diocese for nearly 40 years and the chief of pastoral planning for the diocese since 1990, and replaced them with a priest chancellor.
    • Cancelled the diocese’s nationally renowned 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 as vice chancellor to oversee adult catechesis, lay formation and the catechesis study a layman with no formal training in theology or religious studies.
    • Ordered the editor of the diocesan newspaper to immediately cease publishing columns by Notre Dame theologian Fr. Richard McBrien.
    • Announced that he would review all front page stories, opinion pieces, columns and editorials before publication.

    By most accounts, he reached these decisions without consulting any of the senior leadership of the diocese or the people in the programs affected. Virtually no one on the chancery staff knew of the changes until they were announced at a news conference two days after his appointment. Many parish staffs and priests would first learn of the changes when they read about them in the local or diocesan newspaper.

    On the last day of work for the dismissed chancellor and vice chancellor and two members of the ministry center, people from across the diocese sent flowers and chancery support staff wore black as a sign of solidarity -- and mourning.

    As his first year in office unfolded and as budgets were prepared for a new fiscal year, the new bishop’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.
    • Support of the Diocesan Bolivian Mission, a relationship established with the La Paz archdiocese in 1963, was cut from $50,000 annually to $10,000 annually. Fr. Michael Gillgannon, the diocesan priest missioned to Bolivia since 1974, learned of the cut while home on leave in April.
    • 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.
    • A separate Respect Life Office was established to handle pro-life issues and battle stem-cell research.
    • The diocesan-sponsored master’s program, administered for eight years by the Aquinas Institute of Theology, a Dominican school affiliated with Jesuit-run St. Louis University, was transferred to the Institute for Pastoral Theology at Florida-based Ave Maria University. Ave Maria is being developed by former Domino’s Pizza magnate Thomas Monaghan, who has funded a host of conservative Catholic efforts.
    • Finn upgraded a Latin Mass community, which has been meeting in a city parish, to a parish in its own right and appointed himself pastor. ( See accompanying story.) Later, he asked the parish that the Latin Mass community will be leaving to donate $250,000 of the estimated $1.5 million the Latin group needs to renovate the old church Finn gave them.

    The new bishop “came with an agenda,” said Fr. Richard Carney, a priest for more than 50 years and a respected leader in the diocese. “He didn’t ask us who we are and what we are about. He looked at it from the vantage point of a coadjutor bishop and made decisions of what he was going to do about us. … Well, we’re not used to that kind of authoritarianism,” he said. “It didn’t show much respect for prior bishops who established it that way,” Carney said. “We feel beaten up.”

    A lack of respect -- some say total disregard -- for what has been developed in the diocese during the past half-century was one of the foremost complaints among many in the diocese upset to find highly regarded structures and programs gone.

    In an interview with NCR, Finn declined to draw comparisons between his vision for the diocese and what he understood his predecessors’ visions to be.

    Many who work at the diocesan and parish levels -- lay, vowed religious and priests alike -- openly wonder what vision Finn has for replacing what’s been dismantled. The new bishop has spoken only episodically about why he is making a change and actually shies from talking at any length about a broader vision for the diocese.

    But much of what he has said publicly during his two years here would certainly fit the Dei Verbum mold. He has repeated one message in many settings: A bishop’s 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.”

    Among those who agree with Finn presumably are new members of the diocesan leadership team. While several initially agreed to interviews, they soon changed their minds, saying they would have to seek approval of the bishop. Finn said he would act as spokesman for the diocese. He agreed to a one-hour interview based on written questions submitted beforehand.

    Forming a team

    The final transition from Boland to Finn occurred about the same time the transition from Pope John Paul II to Benedict XVI was occurring in Rome.

    It was mid-April, and the annual round of pastor assignments was underway. Finn needed to pull two men out of that process, Fr. Brad Offutt and Fr. Robert Murphy, his picks for chancellor and vicar general respectively. Vicar general Fr. Patrick Rush had made it clear that he would leave with Boland. But Chancellor George Noonan and Vice Chancellor Sr. Jean Beste were to be let go. And the timing was awkward.

    Bishop John Sullivan, who preceded Boland, had hired Noonan in 1984 as director of the Center for Pastoral Life and Ministry. Noonan holds a master’s of divinity from Yale University. Boland made him chancellor in 1995.

    Beste, a Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, came to the diocese 40 years ago. She served 12 years as a school principal and then ran a nonprofit corporation for low-income housing and worked on neighborhood advocacy for insurance and against bank redlining. Sullivan hired her to handle personnel and diocesan planning in 1990. Boland made her vice chancellor in 1995.

    April 11, 2005, a Monday, about 5 p.m., Noonan was in his office preparing for a meeting he was hosting at 5:30. Finn came in and asked to schedule an appointment. Noonan was leaving the next day on a business trip, and Finn would be out of the office the following week. They decided to meet right then.

    “When we finally sat down, I didn’t know what he was going to say,” Noonan said. Finn told him that Boland’s resignation was imminent and that when he became bishop he wanted to name a priest chancellor. “He said he had nothing against a lay chancellor,” Noonan recalled, “but he wanted to assemble his team, and one area that he had been criticized for was not having very much experience as a parish pastor, so he wanted to have a priest in that role.”

    The meeting ended in 15 minutes. “That was the gist of it,” Noonan said. “We didn’t have a lot of time because we couldn’t find the time, but he felt he needed to move on this.”

    Three days later Finn asked to see Beste, who had been out of town. “I said, ‘Sure, my office or your office?’ ” she recalled asking. “He said, ‘My office.’ I went in his office -- this is not a direct quote but this is how I remember it -- he said, ‘There is no easy way to say this, but I’m restructuring and you’re not a part of it.’ ”

    Beste said the announcement did not surprise her. “I didn’t think he would keep a woman as a vice chancellor.

    “But,” she continued, “I just presumed that I would continue with human resources. But in the course of the very brief conversation, he said he was going to hire someone else” for that job, too.

    The meeting took about five minutes.

    Explaining his personnel changes to NCR, Finn said he wanted for chancellor and vicar general people who knew the diocese well, were respected and “would help me to keep a good, honest and authentic contact with primarily what was going on with the parishes.”

    “The chancellor didn’t have to be a cleric or even a man. But in the end I, in considering different people, I decided on two pastors,” Finn said.

    As late as April last year, Finn said, he didn’t know if he would have a vice chancellor. “But I felt I was growing closer to the fact that we had to assess this whole area of evangelization and catechesis,” Finn said. “I thought [of] having a kind of overseer for this very big issue, which is … vital to the mission of the church.”

    He said he spent “quite a few hours discussing the possibility of a vice chancellor” with Offutt, Murphy and “some other people.”

    He continued: “I had met Claude [Sasso] a number of times and I actually had asked him to help me evaluate some things and look at some projects.” After some time, Finn decided to appoint Sasso as vice chancellor to oversee catechesis and evangelization.

    Finn concluded that he named people to his staff based on “their own merit or own worth not to just get away from something else or change something else for the sake of change.”

    ‘Award-winning center’

    The Center for Pastoral Life and Ministry was the dream and vision of Bishop John Sullivan, bishop from 1977-93. He opened it in 1979. Under the direction of George Noonan and Denise Simeone, the center gained a national reputation for its formation programs for lay ministry.

    “You can call it an award-winning center,” said Christopher Anderson, executive director of the National Association for Lay Ministry, a 1,200-member organization. The association developed the national standards for the certification of lay ecclesial ministers that the U.S. bishops’ conference approved in April 2003.

    The center received the 1998 Tribute Award given by the association for contributions to lay ministry. “We have other awards that we give out to big-name people and bishops, but this is really the peer recognition that I think adds a lot of respect to the members and staff there,” Anderson told NCR.

    Anderson said the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocesan center “has been well represented in our projects. Denise Simeone particularly. She worked with our products and services committee and has served as a consultant to other dioceses on lay ministry formation on our behalf.”

    The core of the center’s formation efforts was New Wine, a program it had been developing since the mid-1980s. The New Wine curriculum, published by Paulist Press, has listed the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese as its author since 1994. The Paulist Press catalogue describes New Wine as “a flexible and proven ministry formation program for Catholic laity that provides participants with a basic foundation of theology and pastoral skills that they will be able to use in a parish diocesan agency or ministerial situation.”

    New Wine is a three-year curriculum with courses in scripture, sacraments, church history, ministry communication and leadership skills. Classes meet two and half hours weekly throughout the school year. Prayer, liturgy and retreats are included in the program. Each student must complete a ministry paper or project.

    Anderson said, “Their New Wine program definitely made a contribution nationally to lay ministry formation. [It] was well respected and well received and picked up and used as a model by many other dioceses across the country.”

    About six years ago, Spanish-speaking Catholics in Kansas and Missouri asked the center to develop a Spanish language program for lay formation. The result was Nuevo Vino, a New Wine adaptation for instruction in Spanish.

    NCR contacted five dioceses that have adopted the program as their core curriculum for lay formation.

    Four and a half years ago when Yvonne DeBruin became director of ministry formation for the Joliet, Ill., diocese, she looked around for a curriculum that would fit the newly approved National Certification Standards for Lay Ecclesial Ministers.

    “I felt that [New Wine] fulfilled and at times exceeded these standards,” DeBruin told NCR. She said that she has 78 people in six New Wine groups. The first New Wine class graduated in November 2005, another class completed course work after Easter this year. Her New Wine students are already making a difference in the diocese, DeBruin said, taking leadership roles in ministries to the homebound, the catechumenate and small faith communities. One New Wine graduate has begun a ministry to families of autistic children and another is preparing media education courses.

    Pueblo, Colo., is a vast, largely rural diocese. When Dominican Sr. Betty Werner became director of its Department of Pastoral Life two years ago, she needed to design a decentralized lay formation program.

    “I needed to have a prepared curriculum, which New Wine had, a guide I could give to teachers,” she said. She now has 45 students in four groups. The first group graduated recently. They have already begun serving as certified catechists, coordinating parish schools of religion and serving on parish councils.

    Werner had been in contact with staff of the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocesan center, especially Simeone, as she put her program together. Their departure “is certainly a loss to the church,” Werner said.

    More than 700 Kansas City-St. Joseph Catholics have completed New Wine since it was adopted in 1986. The last group will finish their course work this month under the supervision of adjunct faculty.

    But the work of the center and its staff extended far beyond these formal programs.

    Over the years, the center became a key resource for parishes and other diocesan offices. The staff offered support groups and resources for parish directors of religious education, parish catechumenate programs and staff, parish staff, small Christian communities and evangelization programs. They maintained a media library.

    Completion of New Wine became the prerequisite in the diocese’s diaconate program.

    The center staff became known for teaching other staffs the process of decision-making and collaborative ministry.

    They ran catechist certification programs for teachers in parish schools of religion and Catholic schools. They gave days of reflection and workshops on discernment for parish councils and pastoral staffs. They offered annual orientations for new pastoral staff.

    The center staff “really worked in an incredible number of areas and were supportive of other offices,” Noonan told NCR. Acknowledging that as a former director of the center he was somewhat biased toward it, he said he still believes that “from a structural standpoint, the center made sense because you had people working in a collaborative fashion across diocesan offices. It was working quite well.”

    New emphasis

    At a news conference in late May 2005, Finn introduced Claude Sasso as his new vice chancellor. Sasso was basically unknown among diocesan staff. A retired Army officer with a doctorate in history, he was an adjunct professor at a community college and a small Baptist college in a suburb north of Kansas City. He also ran Catholic Faith and Reason, an association of lay Catholics that teaches courses in Catholic apologetics. Sasso declined to be interviewed for this story.

    At the news conference, Simeone learned as did the rest of the diocese that Sasso would be conducting a needs assessment for adult catechesis.

    Immediately after that news conference, Simeone and Finn met for about 45 minutes. With little preface, Finn told Simeone the center’s diocesan allotment of $523,000 would be cut in half for the 2005-2006 fiscal year, which would begin in five weeks. Simeone said a cut that size meant cutting personnel.

    “He said that there is something else,” Simeone continued. “I want your office to discontinue the New Wine, Nuevo Vino and Aquinas programs with the exception of the groups who were in their final year.”

    Simeone asked why. “He said he had consulted and that is what he had decided,” Simeone said. He had not consulted Simeone; she was hearing this for the first time.

    The center was the diocese’s largest office, with seven teaching staff and two support staff. To meet the new budget, half would be gone by September. Simeone left her job at the end of December 2005. By March 2006 all had resigned.

    In the July 22, 2005, issue of the diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Key, Finn explained his actions at the center in terms of mission and money.

    “We have to understand where the power of the laity is,” [Finn] said. “It’s in the family, the workplace, the marketplace. That’s where [the transformation of society] has to happen.

    “We need laypeople in church leadership. But only a very small percentage of laypeople 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.”

    He told the paper that about 700 people graduated from the three-year New Wine program in 21 years. “That’s $5,000 a head from the diocese.”

    Many people interviewed for this article cited the “$5,000 a head” figure -- apparently derived at by dividing the center’s annual budget by the number of people in New Wine every year -- as evidence that Finn misunderstood the center’s work as exclusively the New Wine program.

    “What Bishop Finn never grasped or chose not to grasp,” Noonan said, “was that the center was more than one program.”

    Fr. William Bauman, a retired priest and pastor who 27 years ago laid the foundations for what would become the Center for Pastoral Life and Ministry, said, “The center had become very much a support system for the people it had educated.”

    “For instance, people would take some courses and then get interested in the [catechumenate] but then when they became RCIA directors for their parish they needed a support system diocesan wide, and they needed people who could recommend how they could train the people who were going to help them.” They found that support at the center, he said.

    Controlling the newspaper

    About the time in 2005 that Finn informed Simeone of changes to be made at the center, he called Albert de Zutter, editor of the diocese newspaper, into his office. De Zutter had been expecting it for a year.

    Since 1993, when de Zutter began to edit the paper, The Catholic Key has received 46 Catholic Press Association awards for news, features and columns as well as for advertising and promotion. From 2001 to 2004, the association honored de Zutter with three first place awards, two third place awards and one honorable mention for editorials he had written. In 2006, the association awarded its Bishop Ireland Award, which honors Catholic publishers who promote press freedom, to Boland.

    In May 2004, Finn, while still coadjutor, called de Zutter into his office to complain about a column by Notre Dame theologian Fr. Richard McBrien. He had called bishops who wanted to bar politicians from Communion “a tiny number of extremist U.S. bishops” and “zealous, but theologically unsophisticated.” He included Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis, Finn’s former boss.

    De Zutter recalls: “Finn became quite incensed.” Finn said McBrien’s columns were “generally offensive,” the comments about Burke “hurtful,” and he wanted the columns stopped. But the paper continued to run McBrien’s columns while Boland remained bishop. Once in charge, Finn declared that “McBrien would never again appear in the paper,” de Zutter said.

    “Finn told me that I could run letters regarding his decision to drop McBrien for two issues, then no more,” de Zutter said. “He stipulated that the letters had to be proportionate to the number of pro and con letters received. ”

    Finn told NCR, “Everybody seems to make a big deal out of canceling Fr. McBrien’s column.” He said, “Quite honestly, it was fairly a no-brainer for me.” The column did not match what he thinks the mission of the Catholic press is, Finn said, namely, “to help people understand the message and the teaching of the church.” He has also said the “Catholic press should be true, not ‘fair.’ ”

    In a July 22, 2005, article in the Key, written by associate editor Kevin Kelly, Finn explained further. “Fr. McBrien likes to stir the pot,” 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.

    Finn also told de Zutter that he would review newspaper copy before publication. De Zutter said Finn kills some stories outright and cites as examples two stories about the Catholic peace group Pax Christi and one about a Vatican astronomer’s views on intelligent design, which seemed to contradict comments made by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna.

    Rich Heffern, formerly a staff writer for the Key and now editor of newsletters for National Catholic Reporter Publishing Co., said that when he wrote an article about a visiting theologian who called Jesuit Fr. Karl Rahner the greatest Catholic theologian of the 20th century, Finn inserted the words “who some say was.”

    In the fall of 2005, Finn read in The Kansas City Star that Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan was coming to town to receive an award from the American Bar Association. He ordered de Zutter not to cover the Georgetown University law professor.

    For five years, Finn was editor of the archdiocesan St. Louis Review. In 2002, he turned down an ad for a lecture by John Allen, NCR Rome correspondent, at St. Louis University. Recalls Allen: “His stated reason was that he and NCR have very different visions of the church.”

    The purpose of the Catholic press has been a common theme in Finn’s homilies, and in his weekly newspaper column. In his homily launching the diocese’s golden anniversary year celebrations March 19 this year, he said Catholic publications must be “dependable in their fidelity.”

    De Zutter told NCR, “Bishop Boland must have said a hundred times, ‘If you want a catechism, go buy a catechism. A newspaper is not a catechism.’ ” De Zutter said he can recall only one instance when Boland tried to influence coverage in the Key. “At his birthday celebration, Feb. 8, 2005, he was wearing a silly hat and had a flashing neon ring on his finger. I took his picture, and he said, ‘I have never censored the paper, but I hope you don’t plan to put that in the Key.’

    “It was true. In 12 years, he had never censored the paper,” de Zutter said, and then added, “I did not intend to put a silly picture of him in the Key.”

    The new agenda

    With the center staff reduced by half and more leaving over the next year, some work the center did had to stop or be picked up by others. Days of reflection for parish staff were canceled and support services to parish councils were discontinued. The annual workshop for Catholic school teachers was contracted out.

    Center staff had met regularly with parish coordinators of adult formation. After the budget cuts, this group was never called together, even though Sasso was conducting a study of adult catechesis.

    The Office of Worship stepped forward to hold some discussion sessions for parish catechumenate staff. Their first meeting in the fall was like a wake or grief counseling session, according to people present. People spoke of being hurt and angry. Although they had been affected by the closing of the center, no one had approached them to explain what had happened and why. All they knew was what they had read in the diocesan newspaper. Most times the parish priest had as little information as the laity in the pews.

    Although Finn told NCR that he had planned to hire a full-time human resources person, Beste remembers the few weeks after Finn’s succession as confusing. She believes that it was not until she began to turn over tasks to the new administration that they realized the scope of her work.

    “I had planning, I had personnel. I had priests’ retirement. I had pastoral administrators. I had parish-based ministries. I did a lot of stuff and they were beginning to realize all this stuff that no one was picking up,” she said.

    Moreover, it was the peak time for new hirings and contract renewals for diocesan offices, parishes and schools. In mid-June, Finn asked Beste to stay through mid-July. Beste said she couldn’t because she had planned a home visit in July and couldn’t change airline reservations.

    Shortly after, Beste recalls, “Brad Offutt came in and said, ‘I heard you told the bishop you weren’t able to stay a month longer. If I asked you, would you be able to do that?’ ” Beste again said no. He asked if after vacation she would work two days a week for three months, and Beste said she couldn’t answer him right then. A day or so later, Offutt returned with another request: If I asked the bishop, would you stay another year? She said she answered: “ ‘No, Brad, I could not work here another year.’ That was out completely.”

    She told NCR, “You know, if they are asking me to stay one more month or to come back for a year, do they plan well?

    “No,” she answered. “I figured, it was their loss.”

    In August 2005, the diocese announced it had hired a laywoman as director of human resources.

    Six months after the Key stopped running McBrien’s syndicated column, de Zutter told NCR that about 100 readers had canceled their subscriptions because they missed McBrien and about 30 people had taken subscriptions because McBrien was gone.

    First impressions

    One of Finn’s first public introductions to the people of the diocese was a Mass at St. Elizabeth Church, the parish where he lived in residence as coadjutor. This was May 2004, primary season in a presidential election year. Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Colo., also a former St. Louis priest and friend of Finn, had written a pastoral letter that said Catholic politicians who advocate abortion, illicit stem-cell research or euthanasia or promote same-sex marriage and Catholics who vote for these candidates “may not receive Communion until they have recanted their positions and been reconciled with God and the church in the sacrament of reconciliation.” Finn read from this letter and endorsed Sheridan’s position.

    Within weeks of Finn’s arrival, a priest hosted a private dinner party for Finn and about eight other priests of the diocese. The priests, a mixture of young and senior clergy, wanted to tell Finn about the culture of the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese, which differs greatly from Finn’s St. Louis home diocese. It did not go well.

    One priest who attended the dinner and requested anonymity as a condition of the interview, described the evening as “very unusual” and said that “voices were raised a couple of times at the dinner. Some guys were really upset.”

    “If you suggested anything to him, such as, ‘Well, bishop, we need the priests working together with you,’ his response was ‘That will come in time.’ ” Other times Finn would respond with “Well, that isn’t what the catechism says.”

    “In other words, anything that was suggested was kind of put aside or put down. And the whole evening was like that,” the priest said.

    Another dinner guest told NCR, again on the condition of anonymity, that he had the impression that “Finn could not hear, was deaf to” what they were saying about the differences in culture between the dioceses. “We got nowhere,” he said, “and then we got into the Communion issue.”

    “Finn was adamant: Abortion is the holocaust of the modern world, it’s all in the catechism.” This went on for some time until a couple priests revealed that they planned to vote for John Kerry. “Finn just kind of turned and walked away,” the priest said.

    After about two and half hours, Finn left, the first to go, according to the first priest. “The rest of us sat around. We couldn’t believe what had gone on.”

    Rush, former vicar general, couldn’t think of an action or event that signaled for him a change in direction for the diocese, but he said, “There was an overall sense that this man had a very different agenda and very different priorities and very different skill set than Bishop Boland had.” Rush clarified that by “having an agenda” he did not mean that Finn came with “a master plan for the diocese.”

    “People surmise that maybe he was told by [Cardinal Justin] Rigali [now of Philadelphia but formerly of St. Louis] that you go over there and do x, y, z. I think that is hogwash. ... I certainly believe he came with a vision, an ecclesiology, his own biases and prejudices, but I doubt he came with any kind of master plan. ”

    Beste saw glimpses of Finn’s agenda in the homilies he delivered at the first Masses he celebrated in the diocese’s five regions just after his appointment. ( See accompanying story.)

    She said, “I heard nothing about pastoral relationships or pastoral work but I heard rules and regulations. That clued me in.”

    Since 1990 Beste had led the diocese’s personnel and planning efforts. After going through the experience of closing 10 percent of the diocese’s parishes in 1991, Beste began working with pastors and parish leaders to develop for each deanery a long-term plan. The goal was “about how we could keep our parishes open and have Eucharist every Sunday,” Beste said. That first set of plans was completed in 1996, but it was under nearly constant revision.

    “I used it all the time,” Beste said of the long-term plan. Boland “would come down and say, so and so is retiring. Would you look at that deanery and see what we need to do? So then we would plan again for that deanery. That was constant. There were always changes because people would get sick or retire. I would go out and talk to the people and say this is happening now in your deanery because of this and this and this. So I did a lot of that.”

    Part of the strategy for keeping parishes open with fewer priests was appointing laypeople and religious women as pastoral administrators. When Finn took over, about five parishes were led by nonordained persons. Rush was the canonical pastor for these parishes.

    As part of the education process the leadership team was providing for Finn in his coadjutor year, Beste sent him a paper about lay administrators that explained why and when they would be appointed and the qualifications one needed.

    At the meeting to discuss the policy, Beste recalled, Finn questioned the legality of the pastoral administrators under canon law. Beste told him that the appointments were covered by Canon 517, Paragraph 2, which says if he lacks priests, a bishop can entrust the pastoral care of a parish to a person who is not a priest.

    “He said, ‘I’d like priests in every parish.’ Right away, that told me a lot,” Beste said. “I thought to myself, ‘Well I don’t know where he is going to get the priests from.’ You know. I said, ‘Bishop, we don’t have them, so you might have to close parishes then if you want to have a priest in every parish, and we are not going to have them for awhile.’ ” The issue was left unresolved.

    Finn would tell The Kansas City Star in a September 2005 interview, “Only a priest can hold the title of pastor or administrator. You can have lay pastoral administrators in an emergency. The bishop can assign certain duties to laity. As far as worship, teaching and governance, laypeople can have a role, but parishes need a pastor.”

    Noonan said he thinks Finn found “a lot of our system was foreign” and “I don’t think he ever adjusted to that.”

    Whom did he consult?

    Around all the critical decisions Finn made early in his time at the diocese, the question that came up again and again and went unanswered was: With whom did he consult?

    In May 2005, when Finn told Simeone the New Wine and Aquinas programs would cease and the center would lose half its budget, he said he had consulted with people who were dissatisfied with the programs and who had left the programs.

    Simeone told him, “Of the hundreds who have gone through the program only a handful have left or been dissatisfied.” Simeone said that she knows of no one in the formation programs whom Finn consulted, and he never consulted with anyone in her office.

    At Boland’s request, Finn met with Beste, Noonan and Rush nearly every week. Beste said Finn never asked questions and offered little input. Rush and Noonan concurred with that description.

    When Finn was new, Noonan waited some time for him to ask for briefings on what was going on. When no request came, Noonan arranged departments under his care to make presentations to the new bishop. Finn attended the sessions but people said he asked few questions and no follow-up meetings were requested or held.

    On certain topics raised in the weekly meetings, Beste said, “he [Finn] told us that his ‘consultors’ told him about this and that. We don’t know who his consultors were. You would think that he would come to the leadership team and ask them. He never did.”

    Asked if he knew who gave input to Finn about the Center for Pastoral Life and Ministry, Rush said, “I don’t. He did not consult me.” Noonan said the same: “He didn’t ask my opinion.”

    Neither Beste, Noonan nor Rush was consulted on the appointment of Claude Sasso, who came in a virtual unknown.

    Sasso’s pastor from his home parish in Parkville, Mo., Fr. Mike Roach, called him “a dedicated member of this [parish] community,” but he was surprised by the appointment. He learned of it as the rest of the diocese did.

    “Bishop Finn seemed to have a plan in place and Claude seemed to be part of that plan,” Roach told NCR.

    Finn talked to NCR. About making these personnel changes, but he prefaced the discussion with “I have to be careful because I don’t want to betray confidences.”

    First he said, “My general thought is that when someone says that I didn’t consult, that they don’t remember me ever talking to them. But there is a big church out there, 150,000 strong. Some of it was a matter of listening.”

    Then he described “one little process” he used for consultation. Midway through his coadjutor year, he said, he asked some people -- mainly priests but one or two laypeople -- to write him a confidential letter and list people they thought of as key leaders in the diocese. “There were at least six or eight of those lists that I solicited,” Finn said. People who appeared on more than one list, Finn said, he took the next months getting to know better.

    In a written statement to NCR, Finn said he spent his coadjutor year doing “a lot of visiting,” almost 70 out of 100 parishes and many schools, and “spent time with [the] directors and staff of the diocese’s nearly 30 agencies and offices.”

    Seeing the change

    The first chance many parish staff and dedicated volunteers had to see the new administration at work came in the fall of 2005, when Sasso began a series of town hall meetings on adult education.

    About 300 people attended the first meeting in October at the chancery. The audience was clearly -- and about equally -- divided among people angered by the changes they had been hearing about and those who supported Finn’s decisions.

    Though the meeting was billed as a chance for Sasso and Offutt to listen to people’s concerns about adult catechesis, for most of those present this was their first and only chance to confront officials regarding the changes they had only heard about. Much of the discussion focused on that. Much was passionate, some of it heated.

    The inevitable question arose: How did Finn come to the decisions about the Center for Pastoral Life and Ministry?

    Offutt said, “Several times people have remarked to me about how this was done and ‘Gee, wasn’t that unfair?’ And I don’t mean this to be a cop-out. But it is a fair answer I think. Neither Claude nor I can speak to that. Only the bishop can speak to that. We were not consulted about the way all this took place.”

    Sasso said, “I don’t know. He was here for a year as coadjutor bishop. He talked to people all over the diocese, not just pastors but people all over the diocese. I would run into a friend on the street and they would tell me, ‘Well I spent an hour with the bishop last week,’ and I would say, ‘You did? Wow.’ So he talked to a lot of people.”

    Early in the three-hour meeting, Offutt defended Finn: “Bishop Finn is an idealist. He has many ideas and he has an obligation to pursue them.”

    Decisions about the center were not personal, Offutt said. The center was a valuable resource for the diocese and provided valuable service. “The bishop recognizes this and acknowledges this, but he wants to do something else,” Offutt said.

    Think of the center as an orange grove, he said. It bore much fruit and offered sustenance to the diocese. “Robert Finn doesn’t want an orange grove. The bishop wants an apple orchard.” The apple orchard isn’t an orange grove, Offutt said, but it will also bear fruit and give sustenance to the diocese.

    A longtime Catholic school teacher and principal, Birdie Miller, asked Offutt, “But what if the people don’t want an apple orchard? What if the people want an orange grove?”

    Offutt replied, “Well the people aren’t the bishop. It’s his prerogative to make these decisions.”

    Someone else from the audience said that it seemed like the bishop had already made up his mind about what he wanted. Offutt replied: “[Finn] has chosen an overall direction. He has not specified how he wants it put together. Even having this meeting can be flesh and blood indication that he is open, Claude’s open, to people’s ideas.” Then he invited Sasso to respond.

    “I just wanted to say that Christ came to announce a kingdom,” Sasso said. “A kingdom is a hierarchical structure. A kingdom is not a democracy. That doesn’t mean that we are not interested in what people have to say. If we weren’t, it would be silly to have two commissions. Instead of going through this process, we would just do it. ”

    Some audience members did offer suggestions for adult catechesis, things like:

    • Parish programs that would prepare lay Catholics to explain and defend the faith in the workplace when colleagues challenge them about “the hard questions of the culture” such as abortion, contraception and homosexuality.
    • Concern that too many Catholics do not believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.
    • Evangelization to “casual” Catholics.
    • Greater emphasis on eucharistic adoration
    • Making pro-life the keynote to the diocese’s messages on justice issues.

    There is a battle out there in our city, in our society, one man said. As Catholics we have to learn how to make our voices known, he said.

    As the clock ticked past the two-hour mark, Peg Eckert took one of the microphones. A pastoral associate in the diocese for 17 years, she said a couple things were disturbing her.

    “Implicit in much of the discussion tonight,” she said, “is that the center did not teach the magisterium, it was not balanced theologically and it wasn’t pastoral. That is what is implicit in the comments we are hearing tonight, and that is just wrong.

    “To imply such things is an injustice to the people who staffed the center for more than 20 years,” she said. “We have also heard tonight how valuable the center was and how good a job it had done,” she said. “But it has ended. That is a contradiction.”

    “What has been missing for the decision process is collaboration,” she said. Making decisions without consulting the people directly involved shows “a real lack of respect.”

    It is clear that Finn was dissatisfied with the diocese’s primary lay formation programs, New Wine, in particular. Finn told NCR, “The particular approach and the content and so forth of the flagship programs … did not reflect some of the magisterial teachings particularly of the time since the program was written.”

    The program had not been updated with the latest “encyclicals, different apostolic letters and things like that,” Finn said. The bibliography cited texts that were prominent 15 or 20 years ago “among some theologians, mostly American theologians, and they were not necessarily renowned for their defense of church teaching,” Finn told NCR.

    Finn also told NCR that he had a problem with “the style of the course, and I talked about this with some of the members of the center too.”

    Center programs, he said, “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 and so forth.”

    People today, he said, “want to be able to discuss and explain and even defend their faith intelligently with other people they encounter. ”

    Simeone told NCR that Finn never shared these concerns with her or her staff and he never asked them to update material or refocus the content of courses. “If he would have asked, we would have tried to meet his concerns,” she said. “But he never asked.”

    She added that the center updated texts when they could and when they couldn’t they offered supplemental reading from magazine and journal articles. “Just because some of the texts weren’t written in the last five years, doesn’t mean that their theology wasn’t sound,” she said. “It’s still Catholic theology.”

    She concedes that New Wine participants weren’t required to read the texts of encyclicals or other Vatican documents, but the instructors read them and referenced them in their course work.

    “We did not teach from the catechism,” Simeone said, “but we used it as a reference guide, which is what it is meant to be.”

    A progressive legacy

    “The Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese has a lengthy history of lay ministry and lay involvement,” said Rush, a priest of the diocese since 1970. “We have a deep bench on all of that.”

    The diocese traces its progressive roots to Edwin O’Hara, bishop here from 1939-56. He brought a whole progressive theology to this diocese in liturgy and social justice. He empowered laypeople in the Catholic Action movement. He had laypeople in top positions, a lay superintendent of schools and a lay financial officer, perhaps the first such appointment in the country. In 1940, his chancellor, Msgr. Francis Edward Hagendorn, resigned because he thought O’Hara was giving laypeople too much authority.

    O’Hara was followed by Bishop John P. Cody (1956-61), who would become archbishop of Chicago and then a cardinal. Then came Bishop Charles Helmsing, a father of the Second Vatican Council. “Helmsing came back from the council afire with the spirit. He talked constantly of the council and the council documents,” Carney said.

    “He preached about it a lot, and talked about it a lot, so we would know Vatican II documents and the very important things like the church is the people of God.”

    Fr. Norman Rotert, for many years a pastor, now retired, said Helmsing was serious about the dialogue and participation the council called for. Helmsing assigned Rotert to establish a diocesan pastoral council, a synod of priests and diocesan councils for men, women and youth.

    Carney organized the first diocesan synod in 1966, which Rotert called “a great training and education process of lay leadership.” Under Helmsing, Rotert said, laypeople had positions of importance and significance. “They weren’t positions of authority, but they were consultative positions to the bishop and to pastors of the parishes.”

    Next came John Sullivan, the epitome of the pastoral bishop. “Sullivan could not not meet people,” said Carney, who would serve as his chancellor. It was Sullivan’s way of studying the diocese. After a year here, as he knew people better, Sullivan began to reveal his vision and talk about lay ministry. Carney recalls, “And all of a sudden it just started blossoming.”

    Rush said, Boland “came I think with a different vision, which was to say the local church has within its ranks the spirit and the wisdom to deal with its own challenges. So Bishop Boland encouraged people to self-activate.”

    Rotert echoed Carney’s critique of Finn’s approach as dismissive of the diocese’s culture. “It’s just wiping [past structures] all out as if there are no consequences and it was of no importance,” he said. “This whole study of adult education -- a zero-based study, as if nothing has existed before” is disrespectful, he said. “The justification for it sounds nice, but the reality seems different.”

    Carney won’t dismiss Finn’s actions as just a different personality from his predecessors. “Oh no,” he says, “It’s a clash of philosophy. It’s a clash of ecclesiology. He [Finn] lives in a hierarchical model of the church, and those three guys [Helmsing, Sullivan and Boland] took us out of that. Those bishops [Helmsing, Sullivan and Boland] they had a notion of coresponsiblity with them and we bought into that. Now we don’t know what happened to that.”

    At the April 17 interview, NCR asked Finn what kind of priorities he had in the next fiscal year budget, the first budget he would be solely responsible for.

    He said that the center (now renamed the Bishop Helmsing Institute) would be budgeted at $250,000. Without mentioning figures, he said the vocations office budget would be increased and new offices would be created for Hispanic ministry and respect life. He said he couldn’t think of anything else new. “It’s essentially the same,” he said.

    A few days later, NCR learned that the new fiscal year budget would cut in half the $197,000 diocesan subsidy to the Peace and Justice Office. Mercy Sr. Jeanne Christensen, director of the office since 2000, told NCR that the bishop told her about the cut March 3, when he told her that Fr. Frank Schuele, a longtime associate in the office, would no longer be available for office work.

    Schuele, who recently had been coordinating efforts on immigration reform, was subsequently assigned to a parish where the pastor was removed for allegations of sexually abusing a minor.

    According to Christensen, at the March 3 meeting, Finn said his priorities for the Peace and Justice Office were the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, Catholic Relief Services and rural life. She also said that the bishop had not discussed priorities and budgets with her until he told her of the budget cut.

    Christensen said she resigned her position in April because of the cuts and because of “differing philosophies on the future direction of this office.”

    “I don’t feel I could work in an institutional system that I felt was acting unjustly and moving in a direction I cannot support,” she said. “Part of the concern with me and with others is the lack of consultation in how to approach cutting budgets.”

    A time of change

    Christensen has taken a job with her community, which is reorganizing its six regional communities. In September 2005, Noonan became vice president for mission integration for the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth Health Care Systems, which has eight hospitals in four states. After leaving the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese, Beste and Simeone took sabbaticals.

    “I think that ultimately people have experienced an open church here,” Noonan said. “I think there will be a lot of visceral reaction to the closing down of things. Now it might not play out in direct opposition but I think people are discouraged. I think people are looking for other ways to live out their faith, as Catholics, but there are frustrations.”

    Rotert said, “[Finn] is the king. I heard Sasso said that at one of the listening sessions. Jesus is a king and the bishop is king in his diocese. That hardly works as a leadership style today. People demand a voice. The people know as much about things today as the bishop does and sometimes more.”

    His great fear is that “instead of speaking up and holding bishops accountable, people will just gradually fade away,” a development he said would be “terribly, terribly unfortunate.”

    Roach said that among the pastoral leaders he is close to, “we’re kind of struggling to know where it is the diocese is going. What is the vision of the diocese? We want to support Bishop Finn and are certainly wishing him the best and hoping for collaborative working relationship.”

    But they are also struggling, Roach said. “There is a lot of loss. A lot of loss.” He paused, then said, “It is a time of transition and a time of change.”

    Dennis Coday is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is

    National Catholic Reporter, May 12, 2006

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