By Bishop Patrick J. McGrath
Editor’s note: Bishop Patrick J. McGrath was ordained Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of San Francisco by Archbishop Quinn in 1989.
When I returned from canon law studies in Rome in 1977, I met my new boss, Archbishop John R. Quinn, who had just recently moved from Oklahoma City to his native California to become Archbishop of San Francisco. The last time I had been in the Archbishop’s office, it was inhabited by Archbishop Joseph T. McGucken, who had retired that same year. And what a difference there was!
Archbishop McGucken, of happy memory, was a chain-smoker; his office was always shrouded in a cloud of smoke, “the great cloud of unknowing,” as I called it. You were never quite sure where he was when you entered!!
But there I was standing in this new archbishop’s office, the same office that Archbishop McGucken occupied, so spotless, so clean, so sterile, that I thought he could perform open-heart surgery on his desk, and the patient would survive!!!
Then and throughout his life, Archbishop Quinn was soft-spoken, but when he spoke, whether in that office, in the pulpit or at a meeting, people listened. At meetings of the United States bishops in Washington, D.C., when Archbishop John Quinn stood to speak, the bishops listened, and they learned.
He was an insightful theologian, rooted in all of the classics he could quote in original languages, but he was a passionate advocate of, and adherent to, the Second Vatican Council. Bright, reflective and pastoral, what he wrote, even the pope read!
The Archbishop exercised his prophetic role as he joined with Catholic Charities to initiate the Church’s first response to the AIDS epidemic, which in the mid-1980s was taking its toll on San Francisco. His compassionate response became a model of concern and care to be emulated across the nation and around the globe.
He was deeply moved by the assassination of Blessed Oscar Romero and traveled to El Salvador for his funeral Mass, where he experienced the outpouring of love of more than 100,000 people for the late archbishop. He characterized what he witnessed that day as “this sacrilege, for this insult to humanity, for this unbelievable outrage” as government forces began firing on some of the mourners. Archbishop Romero was a friend to the poor, as was Archbishop Quinn.
Entrusted by Pope Saint John Paul II in 1983 with a delicate investigation into congregations of women religious in the United States, the Archbishop gained the respect and gratitude of the sisters for the fair manner of the investigation. What could have been a disaster for the life of the Church in this country instead became an affirmation of the charisms of the many religious congregations present in the United States. This was possible only because of the tremendous respect that this man had for all, including the sisters who were – and remain – the backbone of the Church.
In 1981, Archbishop John was the architect of the ‘split’ by which the southern county of the then four-county Archdiocese became the Diocese of San Jose, with his auxiliary, Bishop Pierre DuMaine as the first shepherd of this southern flock.
At that time, I was the Officialis, the head of the canonical office for the Archdiocese. When the Archbishop and Bishop Pierre announced on January 27 that all of the priests of the Archdiocese could decide which diocese they wanted to serve, I went into Archbishop John’s office and protested that this was not the way of the Church. When the announcement was made, all priests were to be ‘frozen’ wherever they were. Perhaps I was a bit selfish in my objection; the priest who was slated to replace me, so I could go to a parish, was one of the men who chose to leave the north in favor of this new Diocese. To my protest, the Archbishop responded, with that twinkle in his eye: “Sue me!”
Nearly twenty years later, when I was appointed as the second bishop of San Jose, Archbishop John looked at me and deadpanned, “Do you still want to sue me?”
In retirement, the Archbishop continued his dedication to social justice, to challenging the Church to re-envision and reframe how it exists in the world, and how the ministry of the Pope can be adapted in ways that Pope Francis is even now considering.
Ken Briggs, writing in the National Catholic Reporter, began his tribute in these words: “John R. Quinn didn’t need mitres, titles, tokens of authority to add to his stature. It was in his prior nature to be Christian. That charismatic center expressed itself through his priesthood, scholarship and archbishop’s role in San Francisco…”
The loss of Archbishop John Quinn is personal for me. He was my mentor and my friend. It was he whom Bishop Carlos Sevilla and I asked to preach at the twenty-fifth anniversary of our ordination as bishops in 2014, just as he had done the day he ordained us as his auxiliary bishops. It was he who would so often offer me encouragement during difficult and challenging times. He was a consummate man of the Church, a man of deep hope and faith in the Lord. I will miss him greatly. I already do!