Bishop Finn: Opus Dei has strengthened my spiritual life
By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY - Though he didn't summon a press conference to announce his connection to Opus Dei, Bishop Robert W. Finn insists he didn't keep it a secret, either.
Bishop Robert W. Finn
Those listening carefully at his May 3, 2004, Mass of consecration as bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph would have heard the name of Opus Dei's founder, St. Josemaria Escriva, intoned at the bishop's request during the Litany of Saints. They might have noticed an unfamiliar priest, Father Jay Alvarez, a priest of the Prelature of Opus Dei, serving as an attendant, whom Bishop Finn introduced to all who asked as his spiritual director.
And when asked first by John Allen Jr., author of a new book about the controversial Catholic movement, and later by Kansas City Star reporter Bill Tammeus, Bishop Finn readily admitted that he was a member of the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross, the organization for diocesan priest "associates"of Opus Dei.
Far from the secret society of sinister monks and assassins portrayed in Dan Brown's best-selling novel, "The Da Vinci Code," Bishop Finn said Opus Dei is nothing more - and nothing less - than a path to a spiritual completeness in connection to the Holy Spirit that he called "vital in the root meaning of the word: It deals with matters that are necessary for life."
"My spiritual life is the most important thing in my life," Bishop Finn told The Catholic Key. "I cannot hope to be a priest or a bishop who is worth his salt unless I am growing spiritually."
Bishop Finn said he began attending monthly "days of recollection" that Opus Dei was conducting for archdiocesan priests in St. Louis, and began receiving spiritual direction from an Opus Dei priest not long after that.
He decided to become a "cooperator" with Opus Dei, then applied to be an "associate," or member of the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross in January 2004.
"I had made a decision at our January retreat that I was going to apply as an associate," Bishop Finn said. "On March 1, I got a call from the nuncio (Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo) appointing me as bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
"When I went on retreat before my consecration (as bishop), I revisited my decision to apply as an associate with my spiritual director," he said. "I asked him that if I moved to Kansas City and there wasn't an Opus Dei house here, will it work? He asked me, 'Do you want to continue?'
"I said that I needed spiritual direction now more than ever, so in April, I decided I would apply," Bishop Finn said.
Twice a month on Tuesdays, Bishop Finn travels to Columbia to meet with Father Alvarez, or another spiritual director if Father Alvarez is not available.
"He is a faithful, knowledgeable priest to whom I tell what's going on in my life, good or bad. He helps guide me through that from week to week," Bishop Finn said.
"Every priest needs a spiritual director," he added. "The best spiritual director is one who is knowledgeable in the faith, who knows you, and who will challenge you to become a better, holier person."
His own membership in the priestly society does not make him an Opus Dei priest, Bishop Finn said.
"That's not how they do it," he said. "You can only become a priest of the Prelature of Opus Dei if you first become a numerary (a single lay member who pledges lifelong celibacy), and they have to ask you to be ordained as a priest. To my knowledge, there has never been a diocesan priest who became a member of the prelature."
Because the mission of Opus Dei, translated literally as "The Work of God," is to transform the world through the sanctification of daily, secular work, religious order priests, brothers and sisters are not eligible to join, Bishop Finn said.
In fact, he said, Opus Dei remains very much a lay-driven, lay-inspired movement that predated Vatican II's call for active lay involvement in the transformation of the world by some 40 years.
"Christ calls everybody," Bishop Finn said. "The mission of Opus Dei is to help people get to heaven, and not just its members. The mission of Opus Dei is to transform the world through Christ. That's also my mission in the diocese."
Bishop Finn said that Opus Dei teaches a spiritual path that sanctifies ordinary, everyday work into a means of transforming the world by dedicating all work to God.
"They don't try to influence how I administer the diocese," he said. "The whole meaning of Opus Dei is to be in the world. We don't just do good works. We should do it grounded in the sense of God's life within us through holiness."
When St. Josemaria launched Opus Dei in 1928 as a movement for lay men, and later lay women, to unite their daily work to God, he was greeted with skepticism, Bishop Finn said.
"When he started talking about married men and women and single men and women being called to be holy and saints in the world, he was told that maybe in 100 years, it would fly," the bishop said.
"But I think he greatly influenced the documents of Vatican II," he said, noting that several prelates conferred with the future saint frequently during the council.
Bishop Finn said the spiritual direction he has received from his association with Opus Dei has changed him in many ways. One of the ways, he said, is that he now goes to confession once a week instead of once a month.
"No one can be serious about growing in spiritual life without using the Sacrament of Reconciliation," Bishop Finn said. "Jesus Christ gave it to us to be a sacrament that is used frequently, not occasionally."
Bishop Finn also said he practices acts of corporal mortification, though far from the bloody, self-inflicted spectacles that Brown wrote of in "The Da Vinci Code."
"And it is only done under the careful guidance of a spiritual director," Bishop Finn said.
He said the mortification that Opus Dei members practice is similar to the fasting practices all Catholics are called to do during Lent.
"Corporal mortification has long been a part of church ascetical practice," he said. "Pope Paul VI wore a hair shirt. Pope John Paul II once told a group of priests who asked him about mortification that when he sits down at his desk to work, he doesn't sit back in his chair for the first 30 minutes."
Bishop Finn said corporal mortification in Opus Dei is a self-discipline practice is not unlike an athlete pushing his own body to the limit in order to become physically stronger.
"If your goal is to make yourself as comfortable as possible at all times, you are going miss the needs of others around you," he said. "Your life is going to become nothing more than a means for self-gratification.
"Jesus Christ slept on the ground and fasted in the desert," Bishop Finn said. "He put up with a lot of ridicule and persecution silently to the point of being falsely accused and crucified. It's purgation, a purification of the spirit," Bishop Finn said. "You can either do purgation now and purify yourself of selfish desires, or you can do it later in purgatory."
To him, the Opus Dei path has helped open his heart to the work of the Holy Spirit, Bishop Finn said.
"It's the Holy Spirit convicting our hearts," he said. "He pins us. If we open our hearts a crack, he is going to rush in.
"He is also the consoler, the paraclete, the counselor," Bishop Finn said. "He does all those things. He convicts our hearts to help us know ourselves, and then he helps us find the way.
"Some people are very influenced by St. Therese of Liseux," he said. "Some people have the Salesian spirit of St. Francis de Sales. Some people are influenced by the Jesuit traditions and spiritual exercises. Some people are very influenced by the Franciscan spirituality of simplicity and poverty, and by the Benedictines and the Carmelites.
"To say that Opus Dei is an influence on me in that way is true," he said. "But I think I am also more than that. I am a diocesan priest through and through with a priestly heart."