Editor’s note: In 1980, Bishop McElroy was ordained to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of San Francisco by Archbishop Quinn. From 1982-85, he served as secretary to Archbishop Quinn, and was appointed auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of San Francisco in 2010, before becoming bishop of San Diego in 2015.
For two generations of priests, religious, lay leaders and deacons in the Archdiocese of San Francisco and across the United States, a retreat led by Archbishop John Quinn on the theme of discipleship and baptismal vocation would always end with the reading we have just heard from the twenty-first chapter of the Gospel of John. For in its three central movements, the Johanine account of the encounter of the risen Christ with the apostles by the seashore points to the essential relationship of Christian discipleship, the experience of the resurrection, and the meaning of Eucharist.
The first of these movements is the call of the disciples to a renewed missionary commitment to the person and the work of Jesus Christ. The return of Peter and the apostles to the act of fishing symbolizes the moment after the death of Jesus when the twelve felt abandoned by God and returned to their former way of life. The call of Jesus from the seashore, the grace of the miraculous catch, and the heartfelt act of Peter diving into the sea symbolize the recommitment of the disciples to a life of mission which is reconstituted by and centered in the grace of the resurrection.
The second movement of tonight’s Gospel is the disciples’ gradual understanding of the resurrection experience itself. At first the figure on the shore appears to be a stranger, radically different from the man Jesus whom they had accompanied every day for almost three years. But then they comprehend it is the Lord. The risen Jesus is both earthly and ethereal: he is translucent and yet eats with them. He prepares their meal. Father Raymond Brown points to these dual realities of continuity and transformation as the essential elements of Christ’s resurrection and of our own. In the fullness of the kingdom our identities will survive, yet we will be radically altered. The experience on the seashore conveys to the disciples that both their own life in eternity and their new life of discipleship and ministry must be radically interwoven with the experiences of continuity and transformation.
Finally, the meal on the seashore points to the Eucharistic meal that embodies the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And it does so precisely as an act of continuous thanksgiving. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus at the moment of the breaking of the bread, when Jesus instructs the apostles on the seashore “Come and eat your breakfast,” they recognize clearly the presence of Jesus, risen from the dead, Jesus, who is their teacher, companion and friend. And in that recognition they are overwhelmed with gratitude to God.
In a very real way, these three themes of the Johanine encounter by the seashore – the continuing call to discipleship and priesthood, the experience of continuity and transformation, and unceasing gratitude to God – formed the life of John Raphael Quinn at its core and are the surest comfort and consolation for us at this hour of his death.
Priesthood, and the call to priesthood lay at the very center of John’s earthly mission. Every day he was profoundly grateful for the grace of his priesthood. And as seminary professor, rector, bishop and spiritual director, Archbishop Quinn echoed the voice of the risen Jesus calling to the disciples from the shore. At times this voice was one of exhortation and inspiration encouraging men to explore a vocation to the priesthood. At other times, it was a voice of consolation and solace, reaching out to priests who had lost their way or were experiencing suffering, which was overwhelming. He understood both the heroic striving and the great vulnerabilities of the human heart and spirit, and he understood how both that heroism and those vulnerabilities could be magnified in the priestly life. When he came to San Francisco, the archbishop told the gathered priests: everyone in this diocese has a pastor except you. It is my hope that in some real measure I can be pastor to you. And over the following forty years, he became such a pastor, mentor, spiritual advisor and friend to so many of us who had been his priests and to a multitude of bishops across the country.
Continuity and transformation – the contours of the resurrection we await in the next world and the contours of all discipleship, which is lived faithfully and effectively on earth. Two days before he was stricken in Rome, I had a long conversation with Archbishop Quinn. It was a poignant moment for the archbishop: participating in the consistory for his close friend Cardinal Cupich, speaking with The Holy Father with whom he shared so many commitments regarding the life of the Church and the world, returning to the North American College which had played such a pivotal role in his formation. That morning he had visited the room, which he occupied as a young seminarian more than sixty years before. The archbishop told me that this trip had been a time of recapitulation for him, embracing both the earliest foundations of his life and priesthood and the elements of growth and evolution which had emerged in his priestly life in a manner which he could never have dreamed of on the day of his ordination.
John Quinn was unceasingly a man who combined continuity and transformation, and in that identity lay his greatness as a leader in the Church in the United States.
It was this dual commitment, which led him to find in the death and funeral of Oscar Romero a shattering call to prophetic leadership in pursuit of justice for the poor and the oppressed in Central America and the United States. It was John’s ability to grow and to risk, which led him to challenge the morality of nuclear deterrence in the 1980’s and to begin the first major diocesan outreach to victims of AIDS when fear and prejudice against this terrible scourge were at their height. It was the ability to grow and change in deepest fidelity to the Gospel and the tradition of the church which led Archbishop Quinn to find in his role as pontifical delegate for religious life both an opportunity to create new pathways for collaboration between bishops and women religious, and a new birth in his own life of effective mutual relationships with women. Finally, it was in his comprehension of both continuity and doctrinal development in the life of the Second Vatican Council and the writings of Cardinal Newman that John Quinn found the inspiration for his witness to synodality in church structures, his call for an expansion of the role of the laity in Church governance, and the need for a rearticulation of Catholic teaching on responsible parenthood.
Continuity and change. It is the theme of our risen life in the Lord. It is the theme of any life of discipleship, which never ceases to listen attentively to the voice of the glorified Lord calling to us from the seashore. It was a theme, which animated and formed the discipleship of John Quinn every day that he lived on this earth.
The final great moment of the encounter of the disciples with the risen Christ at the seashore is the Eucharistic moment. It symbolizes the glory which John now enjoys in the kingdom of God. It symbolizes the unity of the church rooted in baptism which John Quinn always considered the most important grace that he had received in the whole of his life. It symbolizes the spirit of profound gratitude to God which continually characterized John’s appreciation for the gift of his family, his vocation, his education, his friendships, and yes even these past five months of illness which were for him a genuine opportunity to bind himself more faithfully to the suffering Jesus Christ who had died on his behalf.
It had been apparent for most of those past five months that Jesus was likely preparing the heavenly meal for Archbishop John Quinn, even to those of us who were desperately hoping that the Lord would bid John once more to take up his nets and launch back onto the sea in service to the Church. Now John Quinn is embraced by his Lord and Savior. The Lord bids him “come and eat your breakfast.” And John knows that he is truly home.