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Unless You Become Like Little Children

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Just in time for his 90th birthday in September, Jesuit Father Thomas Kennealy, SJ had another reason to celebrate: the publication of his new book about a fellow Jesuit who he describes as “one of the greatest inspirations of my life.”

Unless You Become Like Little Children focuses on the life and legacy of Father Francis Finn, a much-beloved figure at Xavier University and well-known author of a popular faith-based novel series for young people. A St. Louis native, Father Finn entered the Society of Jesus in 1879. Ordained to the priesthood in 1891, he spent time at Marquette University before serving at Cincinnati’s then-St. Xavier College. As St. Xavier Church’s associate pastor, he helped local immigrant families, and in 1904, he was appointed the first director of the St. Xavier Commercial School for girls, which offered a two-year course of study in office skills, including bookkeeping and stenography.

“He was a real innovator and became known as a social apostle,” Father Kennealy said. “He became very involved in helping the poor and the needy, and, in time, became one of the most loved preachers in Cincinnati.”

An avid reader since childhood, Father Finn believed strongly in literature’s influence on young people, writing stories with relatable characters, plenty of adventure, and emphasizing the importance of prayer and keeping true to one’s values. Father Kennealy recalls being particularly inspired by those stories during his high school years.

“Father Finn’s approach was remarkable and very subtle,” Father Kennealy said. “He wrote exceedingly interesting stories that appealed to the adolescent mind, but also contained an underlying spiritual message that you weren’t even aware of. All of his characters had a very deep faith. They modeled purity, loved the Church, and, of course, loved Christ. You went away from his books thinking ‘this is the kind of person I’d like to be.’ I think my vocation, to some extent, came from his writings. Other Jesuits have told me the same thing.”

When he retired two years ago, Father Kennealy began working on Unless You Become Like Little Children. As Xavier’s former historian, he found a wealth of information about Father Finn in the university’s archives, including his memoirs, letters, original manuscripts and reviews of his novels.

“I thought I could compile this into a biographical sketch, then it turned into a book,” Father Kennealy said. “The title of the book fits in very well with the work Father Finn did and the talent he brought to preaching. He appreciated the innocence and idealism of children. And, it’s what Jesus meant: that we should emulate the faith, hope and trust of children.”

Father Kennealy was gratified when the Xavier University Library expressed interest in publishing his work. They used the Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library’s Espresso Book Machine to print on demand.

“This a unique opportunity for the Xavier University Library to take an unconventional step into the traditional role of publisher,” said Ken Gibson, university library director. “Several staff contributed to the success of the project, including one of our librarians, who provided significant editing and who worked with the Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library to print the book. We also saw this as a chance to help bring forward a piece of local history in a way that highlights the value of the library’s university archives in supporting Xavier’s institutional identity. It was a joy to work with Father Kennealy and to assist him in publishing this= book on the life of Francis Finn.”

The university library marked the book launch and Father Kennealy’s 90th birthday on Sept. 22 in the McDonald Library. Looking back on his life and ministry, he said, “I’ve had many good friends and colleagues, and have been fortunate to live a long life filled with many, many blessings from God.”

This article appeared in the November edition of The Catholic Telegraph Magazine. For your complimentary subscription, click here.

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