Q&A with Bishop Quinn: His book, the pope and life as beloved leader

Video: Sacramento Bishop Francis Quinn talks about his new book

The 94-year-old prelate spent five years writing his first novel. Video by Randy Pench. The Sacramento Bee
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The 94-year-old prelate spent five years writing his first novel. Video by Randy Pench. The Sacramento Bee

Bishop Emeritus Francis A. Quinn, who once headed the Roman Catholic Diocese in Sacramento, is a first-time author with the publication of his book "Behind Closed Doors: Conflicts in Today's Church."

The retired bishop, still quick with a joke delivered with a sly grin, lives today at Mercy McMahon Terrace retirement housing in East Sacramento. Quinn, 94, is remembered by many as a beloved leader with a gentle touch.

He served as bishop from 1980 to 1994. Quinn was known as the basement bishop for eschewing the old bishop’s mansion and living in an apartment below the cathedral.

He ministered to the poor, immigrants and the jailed. But he was criticized by some Catholics for allowing girls to be altar servers and for his strong support of gay Catholics. He also was criticized for not responding aggressively enough to allegations of sexual misconduct by a priests.

After retiring as bishop, Quinn left California for Arizona. Living in a a donated, 24-foot motorhome, he said Mass and performed baptisms, serving the spiritual needs of American Indians on the Yaqui and Tohono O'odham reservations before returning to Sacramento in 2007.

Quinn, not a stranger to writing, was known for his well-crafted homilies and he once served as editor of the archdiocesean newspaper in San Francisco.

His model was his patron saint, St. Francis of Assisi. The present-day pope chose his papal name in honor of St. Francis.

On a day that Pope Francis was visiting the United States, Quinn sat for a few questions and answers about the pope, his book and his life:

Q: Why did you want to write a book?

A: At first I starting writing it because I just wanted to give Catholics and non-Catholics an idea of what a priest does, what his day is like. They only see him from Sunday-to-Sunday. They must wonder what he does all week. Maybe they believe he is writing his homily all week? That is not the case. Often he is writing his homily as he is walking over to the church Sunday morning.

Q: Did your focus change while you wrote?

A: It turned into a novel. I used a lot of fictional names for real people.

Q: How long did it take to write?

A: About five years. I was down in Arizona while writing most of it. I had time at night.

Q: Did you write long-hand and have your trusty secretary Jean Tamaki transcribe it?

A: Most of it was done on a hand-held dictating machine. In those days I would give the tapes to my secretary and she would transcribe it.”

Q: Why did you choose to write fiction?

A: I felt no one would read it if it was simply the life of a bishop. Fifty percent of one of the characters is myself, 40 percent of another is myself and 10 percent of the other is myself. The rest is fiction.

Q: Describe the book’s content.

A: It’s about three boys who become priests. It goes into the training at the seminary and through their lives as priests. Then it goes into political intrigue.

Q: David Carmichael, one of the priests, is clearly a version of you. He grew up in Napa, edited a diocesean newspaper and became the bishop of a diocese near San Francisco – just like you.

A: How did you know that? It was the only story that I knew so that is what I wrote. The story is about me but sometimes I bring in what happened to other priests and bishops.

Q: David Carmichael had to go to Vatican City to account for his handling of the fictional diocese. Did you ever have to do that?

A: No, that was fiction. Rome questioned me on a number of things. But they never called me to Rome. I put him in that situation to make it more dramatic.

Q: What is life like today at Mercy McMahon Terrace?

A: It has never been better, really. They spoil me. I’m eating well, sleeping well.

Q: What’s your typical day?

A: I say a Mass each day right here in my room. I read the breviary, which is the prayer book that a priest reads for about 45 minutes, off my Kindle, these days. Say the rosary. I read the Sacramento Bee every morning because I try to keep up on the news. I’m not great at computers, although I’m learning. I get walk-ins by people. I still get a lot of mail and I work on that in the afternoon. The days go very fast.

Q: How’s your health?

A: It is remarkably good, although I have a cold. And I’ve been very tired so I have been eating in my room. I’m kept alive artificially with a pacemaker to regulate my heart and I take 25 pills a day.

Q: What do you miss about being a bishop and what don’t you miss?

A: I miss the collaboration with the priests, the sisters and others, including non-Catholics. The parts I don’t miss are financial problems and the challenges of personnel, although we had very few.

Q: What do you think of Pope Francis?

A: He is a breath of fresh air for the church. After he was anointed he gave me a telephone call and asked if he could use my first name. I said ‘Yes, Holy Father, but what’s in it for me?’ Of course, I’m joking.”

Bill Lindelof: 916-321-1079, @Lindelofnews