Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: Bishop Quinn looks back, questions celibacy for priests

Francis Quinn, seen in his care site room, has written a book, “Behind Closed Doors: Conflicts in Today’s Church.”
Francis Quinn, seen in his care site room, has written a book, “Behind Closed Doors: Conflicts in Today’s Church.”

It’s been more than 20 years since Francis Quinn was bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento. One of the more beloved public figures in the Capital City is now 94. He gets around in a wheelchair that he propels with his legs, scooting down the long hallways of the assisted living facility he has called home the last eight years.

A spiritual leader in the winter of his life, Quinn is physically frail and far removed from the robust man who was once ubiquitous around the region in the 1980s and ’90s. Everyone still calls him “Bishop.” He’s treated with affection and respect in the building where he lives. He presides over daily Mass for his senior citizen neighbors, though the nuns won’t let him stand during the service because they fear he will fall.

Figuratively, Quinn falls all the time like the rest of us. Despite his training, education and a lifetime of preaching the Gospel, he still has questions about his own life. He wonders about eternal mysteries, such as why the God to whom he dedicated his life has kept him around for so many years. His is not a restless kind of wondering. Quinn doesn’t ask existential questions laced with regret or rancor.

He usually was smiling when he tended to Catholics from Vallejo to the Oregon border from 1980 to 1994. He’s smiling now. His tiny apartment is full of whimsy. How can you not love a guy whose poster of the San Francisco Giants is right next to a portrait of Pope Francis and his 49ers clock?

Yet the drip, drip, drip of time and its echoes of love and loss have delivered Quinn to an emotional and spiritual reality he confronts every day – a reality some of us might fear. Don’t we all have some anxiety about reflecting on past choices that shaped our lives? Don’t we all wonder about the person we might have been had we walked through doors different from the ones we did?

Quinn might have been a journalist. He might have married one of the eighth-grade girls he remembers from his youth in Napa. He might have fathered children. Instead, in a practice largely discarded by the church, Quinn went into a seminary as a ninth-grader. He was just 13 when he left his family and dedicated his life to the service of God.

He was barely going through puberty when he committed to a life of celibacy. The spiritual leader was set on his path by a child who really didn’t know what he was doing. “I had always admired the priests we had in Napa,” Quinn said. “I got to know them and thought this was as good a vocation as I can think of. That was the reason. It really wasn’t a spiritual awakening.”

His service and ascension within the church – being hand-picked to be bishop of Sacramento by Vatican aides to the pope – is all the more remarkable considering his origins. Quinn’s life came together at the intersection of the American dream and Christian beliefs grounded in the spiritual power of the humblest among us. Each time Quinn rose in the church, from parish priest to bishop, he was the most surprised.

It’s not psychologically healthy for a priest to be celibate just because the church requires it.

Francis Quinn, former bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento

But none of that foreshadowed the surprises he shared recently with a national audience. Last September, Quinn wrote an op-ed for The New York Times about how Pope Francis might renew the church by shaking it up even further than he already has. It was a graceful piece that hinted at the journalist Quinn might have become. He found himself advocating for his church to ease up on the requirements that all priests be celibate.

Church leaders often have to go abroad – to the Philippines, Mexico, Africa – to find priests because fewer Americans and Europeans are taking vows of celibacy. He believes the church would benefit from priests who have lived lives that more closely mirror the people sitting in the pews on Sunday.

Maybe there would be a reversal in the shrinking numbers of American and European men seeking the priesthood if celibacy were an option but not a requirement?

“It’s not psychologically healthy for a priest to be celibate just because the church requires it,” Quinn said. “The church used to put young men in a closed seminary when they were in puberty, away from their families, where they only go home at Christmas and in the summer. In its wisdom, the church has closed most of its high school seminaries.”

When asked how Quinn’s life might have been different had he gone into the seminary when he was older than 13, he paused. His eyes welled up. His voice dropped to barely above a whisper. “If I hadn’t gone to the seminary at 13, I would have never gone in,” he said. “Once I was in high school, I think I would have met a nice girl.

“I think God thought, ‘If I’m going to get this guy, I better get him now.’ 

Quinn wept softly and briefly as he imagined the life he believes God chose for him. Then he sounded like the spiritual leader who was so well known in Sacramento. “Not that I regret it because I could say it’s been a happy life,” he said. “Very happy.”

Quinn’s eyes did not convey remorse as he looked back on his life. Through the church he obtained an impressive education at the Catholic University of America and UC Berkeley. He became the editor of his diocesan newspaper in San Francisco. He coached freshman football at parochial schools in the Bay Area. He led thousands of Catholics in Sacramento. He was an esteemed figure who is still remembered fondly.

He also has doubts like the rest of us. He doesn’t have the answers his former flock might have assumed he has. Quinn isn’t different from any of us seeking meaning in our lives. He wore a priestly collar. He was a church leader. But the path that led him there was not completely within his control.

Quinn wants priests to marry because he couldn’t. He doesn’t think it will happen soon, but he’d also like his church to consider ordaining women as priests. He wants the church to stop denying the Eucharist to divorced Catholics who have remarried.

These were thoughts he never had when he led the church in Sacramento. “When you’re a bishop, you barely have time to think,” he said.

Now, with nothing but time to think, Quinn wants “ a church where all the people are together.”

He smiled at the thought of it, a smile that reveals an inner peace from a life of serving others – a life that kept him from being sad or lonely. It’s why people love him in Sacramento, the accidental spiritual leader.