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Issue Date:  May 12, 2006

No rationale for upheaval in Kansas City

Fr. Brad Offutt says it’s 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 bishop’s the bishop, and apples it will be.

With the analogy running to the horticultural, permit us some latitude. We suggest the diocese was a garden, actually a rather diverse and magnificent garden built up and tended over years by paid and volunteer workers under the watchful eyes of a series of master gardeners. Over the years, things were added, some things taken away, others modified. But always within a plan that was the product of wide discussion and discernment. People from near and far marveled at the garden, and more than a few asked if the gardeners from Kansas City could help them develop a similar garden in their own cities.

When the newest master gardener showed up, he didn’t add, subtract or modify. He didn’t talk to the workers. He just ripped it all out. There’s little left of the old garden, and no one seems to know what he plans to plant in its stead. And those who might know the plans apparently aren’t talking about them.

Analogies, of course, work only to a point.

We’re not talking apples and oranges or flower gardens, but programs and ministries developed over years to do the work of the church.

It would be reasonable to expect a new bishop just taking charge of a diocese to want to show that he has new ideas and new initiatives. Leaders are expected to do that, to bring new life and infuse the community with new enthusiasm and energy, to bring a new vision.

Correspondingly, it is understandable that members of a community, especially those with vested interests in how things are done, are fearful of new leaders and the change they might symbolize.

Those tensions are inevitable. Change is unsettling.

It is reasonable to presume that in the course of 40 years or so, certain elements of church life and practice would have been emphasized and others ignored. One might reasonably make the case in any community that maintaining balance demands constant vigilance -- and change from time to time.

But what has happened in Kansas City-St. Joseph is beyond reason. The wholesale dismantling of so much that existed is the work of a campaigner, not a pastor.

From administrative decisions -- the dismissal of Sr. Jean Beste, whom the bishop and her replacement tried three times to lure back to diocesan employment -- to the disassembling of nationally renowned adult education programs, there is little evidence of pastoral prudence or consideration for what went before.

The comparison that best sums up what has happened is the kind of purge conducted by a new corporate CEO charged with turning around a dying company.

But such a move is a last ditch effort to save an entity that has been badly mismanaged and is on its last legs.

There is no evidence of such a condition in Kansas City. Quite the contrary. For a medium size Midwest diocese, Kansas City-St. Joseph has contributed significantly to the local culture and to the national church. Unfortunately there exists no mechanism to hold accountable a leader whom the people had no role in choosing, or for seeking a justification for such extreme and radical treatment of a healthy community.

The bishop himself would not go into such detail and has issued no broad plan or justification for undoing so much of what has been built before or for firing those with a history of competence and replacing them with lay and ordained persons who have little experience in the areas for which they are now responsible.

Some might speculate that his motivation springs from his ties with Opus Dei and convictions, peculiar to the movement, about the lay vocation, or as one of a group of young Dei Verbum bishops who see as their mandate to redirect church life and bring a balance to past emphasis on social engagement and lay empowerment.

It’s been only a year, but evidence suggests that Bishop Robert Finn is inspiring neither excellence nor balance in a diocese that has exemplified those qualities in abundance.

Perhaps there was a hint of rationale when the new head of adult catechesis and evangelization for the diocese proclaimed at a meeting: “I just wanted to say that Christ came to announce a kingdom. A kingdom is a hierarchical structure. A kingdom is not a democracy.” There is a certain logic to the claim. We’d like to be generous here, but if that is the sort of interpretation of scripture to which students -- in whatever new courses of instruction develop -- will be treated, the lament over the changes becomes all the more keen.

We have learned through difficult experience in this country that bishops are, indeed, monarchs. What regard they have for the culture and tradition of the local church they are appointed by secret process to lead is finally a function of individual personality and interest.

We have learned that while the power to cause the kind of wide upheaval that has occurred in Kansas City is easily available to bishops, the legitimate exercise of leadership and authority are quite other matters.

Such things cannot be exercised by fiat; people can’t be made to become a faithful community by controlling them. The qualities of true leadership and authority accrue to those who have a deep empathy for the people they serve; who understand in profoundly human ways their hopes and aspirations as a people of God; who place compassion above the need to dominate; and who understand that relationships, not rules or rubrics or even revered devotions, are the essential thread of the fabric of a community living out the Gospel.

National Catholic Reporter, May 12, 2006

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