Remembering Bishop Quinn: "He was our bishop, our shepherd, our friend"

The following is the text of Father Steven Avella's homily delivered at the funeral Mass for Bishop Francis A. Quinn celebrated at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Sacramento April 1. Father Avella is a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and professor of history at Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI.

“Be clothed in sincere compassion, in kindness and humility, gentleness, and patience…”

“Love God, love one another.”

This moment of official farewell to Bishop Quinn is a difficult one for all of us. This beloved and good man has returned to the God who created him.  What was promised to him in baptism has now come to fulfillment.

But we will miss him — his smile, his generous gift of his time, and his self-deprecating humor. His departure leaves a big hole in our local church, in the hierarchy, and in the hearts of us here today. He was our bishop—our shepherd—our friend.

But it is precisely in this moment of loss that we proclaim our faith in the surpassing power of Jesus’ resurrection. That baptismal power now at work in him that “can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” Bishop Quinn now sees what we only believe. Christ is raised in his mortal body. One day, we shall see him again.

The passing of a bishop requires a particular type of memento.

Our tradition tells us that these men are chosen to be over-seers — epi-skopos — men who view the big picture, successors to the Apostles and teachers of sound doctrine. They are the public face of the church. They try to hold together the fragile unity of this entity called a diocese. They embody the work of the Spirit among us—they teach by word, but mostly by example.

By virtue of his office, Bishop Quinn held a special place among us.

Francis Anthony Quinn was born in Los Angeles, grew up in Napa with his widowed mother and brother, a wonderful ethnic mix: half Italian, half Irish. He stands in the line of six predecessors in this California See. Each of them left a thumbprint on the local church.

Patrick Manogue, who built this magnificent cathedral — placing it deliberately one block north of the majestic state capitol.

Thomas Grace, a product of All Hallows Seminary which, like other Irish seminaries, sent so many good and generous men from Ireland to serve in rugged Northern California. He was the first bishop to be consecrated in this cathedral — beginning a line that included Alphonse Gallegos and Myron Cotta. A kindly man, unafraid to minister to God’s people where ever he found them -- from the Siskiyous to Sonora and to the middle of Nevada. It is said that he kept the business of the diocese in his hat band — and telephones out of the bishop’s house!

Patrick Keane, Irish-born pastor, the first bishop to come to here from the Archdiocese of San Francisco: a builder who erected schools and one of the first to reach out to Mexican Catholics in the city -- before he died prematurely of cancer

Robert Armstrong, the bluff, red-haired pastor from Yakima who pitched horseshoes in the rear of the cathedral; took his friends to the northern mountains where they fished from a rubber raft called the Maid of Connemarra. He started a minor seminary in Humboldt County to attract local boys to serve as priests. Some of us here are graduates of that seminary

Joseph T. McGucken and Alden John Bell — two men from the Southland — builders and managers in the brick and mortar style of Archbishops Cantwell and McIntyre. McGucken’s first visit as a bishop was to Sacramento’s Mexican community. The handsome Alden J. Bell, almost ordered up from central casting to be a bishop, went to Vatican II and rode the sometimes turbulent waves of societal and church reform.

Francis Quinn stepped into this moving stream of Sacramento Catholic life — and left his imprint as well. But it was not buildings or administrative structures (as important as they are)—but a gift of kindness, gentleness, and at the same time a firm resolve to defend the dignity of the human person — especially the poor and forgotten.  

It may have been hard for this San Francisco priest to adjust to life in Sacramento, but he became a citizen of this community, living in the city, not on it, knitting himself into its fabric. He walked its streets, traveled the distances to Yreka, Corning, and Galt to meet and charm God’s people.

He made it abundantly clear in so many ways that he genuinely loved us — and we knew it.  In his last interview he said: “I love everybody. I love Protestants. I love Muslims. I love atheists. I love Donald Trump — but I think he needs a dog...I even love the Los Angeles Dodgers.”

His life was an arc from the pontificates of Benedict XV through Pope Francis, a remarkable swath of church history. Ordained with 22 others on June 15, 1946, his classmates were a veritable Irish-American phalanx, including Bishop Norman McFarland, and Monsignors Eugene Boyle and Raymond Rolf. He was an educator, a newspaper editor, briefly an auxiliary bishop, and then he came to us in Sacramento. His selection disappointed some at first, who hoped that a Hispanic bishop would acknowledge the growth of this community. Bishop Quinn heard this concern, moved quickly to respond to this need. Not long after he ordained Venerable Alphonse Gallegos as Sacramento’s first Hispanic auxiliary.

Over the years, it became evident that behind his sunny visage, and accommodating personality was a man of keen perception. It was clear that Vatican II, that great outpouring of the Spirit in the 20th century, was the meridian of his ministry. It provided the blueprint for his work as a bishop. He embodied the optimism of Gaudium et Spes — Joy and Hope. Francis Quinn valued the things that really mattered and left the rest behind.

Long before Pope Francis rejected the Apostolic Palace, our Francis knew the evangelical power of a life of simplicity. He decided to take up his residence in the old housekeeper’s quarters of the cathedral rectory—dark rooms in the basement — hearing the collection counters every Monday morning. (When I wrote this up for a brief diocesan history I had him inspect the pages for errors — he wrote in the margins: “be sure to tell them that the housekeeper moved out!”)

Vatican II encouraged a virtue that he had already honed in his years as editor of The Monitor of San Francisco — reading the signs of the times in the light of the Gospel. Writing was his gift: so far he’s the only bishop of Sacramento to write a novel.

He believed that the renewal of the church unleashed by Vatican II was thrilling if at times daunting. He wasn’t bothered deeply by the disagreements that erupted at the Council and even in the post-conciliar church. As all editors, pastors, and bishops, he took his share of slings and arrows. But he understood, with sound historical sense that it went with the turf of belonging to a church with a long and complicated history of vigorous discussion and disagreement. He wrote: “In the family of the church controversies will always be with us. This is how a living organism must be.” He valued that rich gift of collegiality that the Council embodied — he wanted to hear what people thought:  How the Spirit spoke in unexpected ways. He often suggested that questions of import had already built to a point in the universal church that we were now ready for Vatican III.

He scanned the horizons of contemporary society, looking for the signs of the times and was unafraid to say what needed to be said in the light of the Gospel. He lived to see the building momentum of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s — one of the greatest social movements of our time and he wrote: “Segregation is an illogical and intolerable barrier…” Refuting those who claimed the call for racial justice as going too fast, he said: "African Americans simply cannot be pushing too fast for their rights. This would be the same as saying that a man is pushing too fast to retrieve the money stolen from him by a thief…We must not be afraid to take our place with people who are speaking in behalf of civil rights…some problems in human history are solved only by vigorous dramatic action."

His social commentary was often quite elevated. But at other times he could be rather practical commenting in one Monitor column: “When you park your car, be careful not to take up parking space…thoughtless parking practices on Sunday morning do not further the ecumenical spirit.”

Quinn demystified the office of bishop by forswearing some of the court ritual of the office — he talked to people on the street, drove his own car, spoke in an idiom that his listeners could appreciate, and took his hand at understanding popular culture. His self-deprecating humor was always poised to pop the bubble of pride that status or office can give a person. When the short-lived high school in Palo Cedro was named Quinn High, he publicly quipped, “I can’t wait to hear the cheerleader’s chant: “Give me a Q-Give me a U…”

He was a bishop of the poor — never romanticizing their plight or the challenges they brought — but seeing the dignity of those who even now surround this cathedral, who live lives of desperation, disability, and public scorn. “Our family suffers disappointments, loneliness, alienation, poverty, and oppression,” he noted on becoming a bishop. “The concern of every bishop and every Christian is to try and ease human suffering.”

Because he listened, he understood the important changes taking place in the role and place of women. He not only brought women into leadership roles as his chancellor and liturgy office, but publicly speculated about the role of women in ministry.

He modeled service — a service based on love — a service that put him in a camper purchased by the generosity of the priests of this diocese and sent him, after his retirement, to the Sonoran Desert in Arizona to minister to native peoples. “When any man/woman begins to live an unalloyed life for others and for the love of God, he or she is sooner or later recognized, trusted and loved by others.” In the end, ‘love summed it up, he told Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton in his last interview, his time was short — he was just going to love people. Nothing was more important.

Quinn left a legacy of hope and faith upon his retirement. His successors inherited a Catholic community filled with good will and the spirit-filled service of its priests, religious, deacons, and lay ministers.

Bishop Quinn eulogized many people in his writings — including Marilyn Monroe, charitably (as was his way) urging his readers not to judge this troubled actress too harshly.

But his most touching words came on the death of a venerable San Francisco priest, Monsignor Thomas Millet. Of Millet he wrote in words that could apply to him:

"He was a gentlemanly priest and a priestly gentleman. If ever it can be said of anyone that as so he lived so he died…For months he realized that he could die at any instant. But with an inner equilibrium born of nature and supernature -- indeed of grace perfecting nature — he put the final seal of his deep faith in Christ Jesus and his Blessed Mother on his life.

"As he did not flee from life, but met it with calm and poise, so he did not flee from death. There was an unfailing good humor which bespoke a soul at peace…in the manner of Pope John XXIII: 'My bags are packed, I’m ready to go.'”

Finally, here in his cathedral, he was loved — at the memorable Jazz Jubilee Masses, at the ecumenical gatherings, at the ordinations of priests and deacons. His presence always a source of joy tinged by humor and reverence.

One who treasured him deeply was Lola Krist. This lovely lady sang in this cathedral for 40 years until she passed to glory last year and joined the heavenly choir. She and I often shared our admiration for Bishop Quinn. My last communication with her was a text that expressed her feelings for Bishop Quinn — a sentiment many of us share today. She wrote; “I can’t imagine a world without his gentleness and love.”

Yes, dear Lola, you were so right. We will miss him as we miss you. But we shall see you both again—in that place where there will be “no more tears, no more crying out.” With him and with you, we will all be transformed “from glory to glory.”

We will miss you Francis Quinn. Pray for us.

In photo above, Father Steven Avella, historian and professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee, delivers his homily during the funeral Mass April 1 for Bishop Francis A. Quinn. Photo by Jose Luis Villegas