Bishop Robert Finn, age 57, grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. He was one of five children. His father was a businessman who died of cancer at age 40. Robert attended Catholic schools, and around the seventh grade the seed of a vocation begin to grow in him, cultivated by the example of a young parish priest and the nuns who educated him.
He started his priestly studies in St. Louis, and then continued at the North American College in Rome. He was ordained a priest in 1979, and a coadjutor bishop to the Diocese of Kansas City- St. Joseph (in Missouri) in 2004. He became the ordinary of the diocese in 2005. About the time he became a bishop, he joined the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross, an association of clergy active in the Opus Dei movement.
He recently spoke to CWR about his time as bishop and the issues that confront Catholics today.
How did you get involved in the Opus Dei movement?
Bishop Finn: I did not know much about it for the majority of my priesthood. In 1996, Archbishop Justin Rigali, head of the Archdiocese of St. Louis at the time, assigned me to be the director of continuing formation of priests. A priest with Opus Dei asked me if I would advertise a monthly day of recollection for diocesan priests, which I agreed to do.
I started going to the days of recollection myself, along with other diocesan priests. They included holy hours, instruction, an opportunity for confession, and lunch. After I participated for a couple of years, I asked one of the priests of Opus Dei to be my spiritual director. He agreed.
I started going on retreats in Valparaiso, Indiana, where Opus Dei has a retreat center for diocesan priests. As I got to know the Opus Dei priests, they told me about the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross, which is the particular way diocesan priests can belong to “The Work.” Eventually I joined, just before I became a bishop. If you want to become involved with Opus Dei, there’s one basic requirement: you have to want to get to heaven. That’s a good goal.
What appeals to you about Opus Dei?
Bishop Finn: It stressed the basics of the spiritual life, including daily Mass, which I was doing; daily prayer, to which I needed to make greater commitment; and spiritual reading. It was also a great opportunity to meet with other priests, to pray, talk, and have lunch together.
What advice would you give Catholics to help them improve their spiritual lives?
Bishop Finn: Stay close to the Church and the sacraments. Attend Mass every Sunday, or more frequently if you are able. Go to confession frequently.
Confession, in fact, is one of the lost sacraments in our Catholic culture today. The average person should begin with the commitment to go at least once a month. Typically in The Work, people go every week or twice a month. It’s a way to stay in tune with God’s grace. There is a crisis of grace because some people are involved in some pretty serious sins: not attending Sunday Mass, use of contraception, use of pornography, and other serious, objectively mortal sins. And then, they don’t go to confession. We cannot be an instrument of God’s grace without his life of sanctifying grace within us.
I’d also recommend good spiritual reading, including the writings and biographies of the saints, the papal encyclicals, and the Magisterial teachings of the Church. I’d recommend daily mental prayer; this is in addition to the Rosary, and I do recommend the daily Rosary. Mental prayer is serious time set aside in which we’re trying to speak to Almighty God, to welcome him into our lives, and to become more and more aware of his presence in all the daily things we do.
This is the simple genius of Opus Dei. In everything we do, our daily work can be sanctified. It can be a source and a help to holiness. If we’re offering it to God, we want to do the very best that we can. We can grow in holiness not just through “churchy” things, but through our everyday responsibilities at work. It is a great path to holiness.
When you became ordinary of your diocese five years ago, what were some of the changes you made?
Bishop Finn:When I was named coadjutor, I had the luxury of knowing I was going to be taking over in a year. During that year I observed a lot and had many conversations, both public and private. I tried to find the strengths of the diocese, and what needed to be re-examined and renewed. I used that year pretty well.
The vicar general told me he wanted to become a pastor, so I knew I’d need a new vicar general. There were some key changes on the central staff, including the positions of chancellor and vice chancellor. I started an Office for Consecrated Life to be a liaison to the many religious in the diocese. I started a new Pro-Life Office.
But probably the biggest change was in our program of catechesis and evangelization. It had been around for about 20 years and needed an overhaul. I brought on a new vice chancellor, Dr. Claude Sasso, to oversee the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis. He spent a year reviewing the program. We founded a new catechetical institute to replace the old one, and named it the Bishop Helmsing Institute, after one of my predecessors, Charles Helmsing.
There was a substantive change in content between the two programs. The old program had no incorporation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no inclusion of any of the Magisterial documents of Pope John Paul II, and no real references to the Fathers of the Church. Our institute does not offer graduate degrees, but the basics for the Catholic faithful wanting to know the authentic teachings of the Church. We try to present them in ways that are persuasive, and that will help them become better apologists, allowing them to explain their faith better.
How has the new catechetical program been received?
Bishop Finn: We’ve had our growing pains. It touched a nerve in the diocese, and many of the people who were associated with the old program quit. Some of our pastors and parishes had trouble accepting the new program.
On the positive side, many have received it well, including some in our Hispanic community. Our [institute’s] last graduating class included about a dozen Spanish-speaking Catholics. It’s great to have native Spanish speakers become good catechists and assist pastors in the work of evangelization.
What did you do to encourage more vocations to the priesthood and religious life?
Bishop Finn: We prayed about it; we talked about it. We discussed having a culture of vocations. I appointed a priest to be a full-time vocations director. We need him to have the time to visit parishes on Sundays, and help people discern their call.
Things have improved. When I came we had six seminarians; this year, we have 28. We ordained four priests this year. We’ve also had some people apply for membership in religious communities. We’re getting there.
I’m grateful for all those who have helped promote vocations, including our Serra Club members and Mission Possible, a group of mostly young family men who help raise money to support our seminarians. The Knights of Columbus help us, too.
Additionally, we have an Our Lady of Fatima apostolate that prays for us. And I brought to the diocese the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, a group of religious who pray and sacrifice for the sanctification of priests. We have other religious who pray for us, too. They bring a lot of spiritual resources to help our efforts.
So-called “gay marriage” has been a big issue in the news this year. What are your thoughts on it?
Bishop Finn: The central unit of human society is not the individual, but the family. This is Catholic teaching. So, the core unit of human society, and the Church as well, is the family. The family rests on authentic marriage. The meaning of marriage is defined in various places, first of all in the natural law. Males and females come together and are capable of bringing life into the world. An exclusive, life-long relationship is the best context for that human life to be nurtured and brought to its fulfillment.
God’s law is clear. In the Sacred Scriptures it says that God made them male and female and intended them to be together faithfully and exclusively for life, and to bring children into the world. The Church’s law affirms that. It’s seen in the New Testament as a sacramental relationship, a real participation in the life of Christ.
But marriage between two persons of the same sex doesn’t work. It’s the fundamentals of nature. I don’t intend to be crass, but if you’re breeding animals, you have to have a male and a female. This is the way of the natural law.
God’s law builds upon and perfects nature. Christ’s law carries it even further in the means of sanctification and holiness, not just for the couple themselves, but for the children they bring into the world who are destined for eternal salvation.
If we continue down this path toward same-sex marriage, we will see the foundations of society teeter and crumble, and much of what is beautiful and good threatened.
Is this why you say Catholics are involved in a war?
Bishop Finn: We are in a spiritual warfare. The devil does not want the truth to survive. The devil is the father of lies. We have to be prepared not to be fooled by these lies, such as this phony notion of [gay] marriage.
Can we have friendship? Yes. But we know that the virtues call us to chastity and purity and that the meaning of our sexuality and reproductive systems is exclusive to marriage and for the sake of bringing children into the world.
Some suggest that society’s concern right now should be jobs and the economy, and divisive social issues should be set aside. What do you say to this?
Bishop Finn: Our decision-making has to rest on certain principles, on certain core beliefs. Some people make decisions, such as our elected officials, but don’t have a basic sense of why they are doing those things. What’s good and lasting? The inviolable value in nature of human life and its essential importance in everything are good and lasting. And so is the dignity of the human person.
If our elected officials make decisions about the economy or marriage or the unborn or capital punishment or immigration and are not acting on these core beliefs about the central value of human life and the dignity of the human person, then they don’t know why they’re making decisions anymore. They’re making decisions to get elected, or perhaps to satisfy a constituent who has helped them get elected. They should act according to basic truths and principles and apply those principles to circumstances and situations.
The Church is the most extraordinary expert in this area. She understands these underlying truths about the nature of society, about the value of human life and the dignity of the human person. The Church doesn’t have a political position, but a profound and transcendent truth to proclaim.
You’ve complained about those who misuse the documents of Vatican II for their own agenda. Can you explain?
Bishop Finn: Many people do not read the documents of Vatican II or understand the profound truths that were affirmed and built upon and applied. Many people have a vague sense of Vatican II—that it allows us to do whatever we want, to exercise our individuality apart from the Church … They believe that conscience is totally subjective, and as long as an individual is doing what he thinks is right, that it is always defensible.
The Council never said such a thing. The Council affirmed that freedom must be grounded in the truth. We want to live fully with the freedom of the children of God, but we also want to observe the core of truth and the deposit of faith that underlie everything we do.
When you became the bishop, you established a Latin Tridentine rite parish in your diocese. Can you explain why you did that?
Bishop Finn: Within my diocese is the national headquarters of the Society of St. Pius X. This is a group founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre that unfortunately and sadly, in their love of the Church and the Holy Mass, is not in full communion with the Holy Father. I believed that if we provided some meaningful experiences for people in the Tridentine rite within the boundaries of what the Church allowed, it would lead to reconciliation with people who followed the Latin Mass but who had separated themselves from the life of the Church.
I entrusted to the care of the Latin Mass community [in communion with the local bishop] the beautiful, historic Church of St. Patrick, and asked them to build it up as a parish. I allowed them to have Mass and the other sacraments in the old rite. We recently celebrated the fifth anniversary of their taking charge of the parish. Little by little we’ve seen some of the separated individuals and families come back to full communion with the Church.
You helped establish a support group for men to help them break their addiction to pornography, and have written a pastoral letter on the topic. How has it gone?
Bishop Finn: We’ve helped some people, and we’ve tried to teach the virtues. We know that we can’t stop the presence of pornography. It’s huge and has been around for generations, if not hundreds and thousands of years. We’re never going to stop it all. Our approach is to strengthen people in the virtue of chastity and purity and focus on preventing the habit of pornography. We try not to think about how huge the problem is, because that’s discouraging. But we try to do something.
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