Archbishop John Quinn in Interview


John R. Quinn was archbishop of San Francisco 1977-1995 and president of the U.S. national bishops’ conference 1977-1980. He is the author of the 1999 book The Reform of the Papacy: The Costly Call to Christian Unity, which was inspired by the encyclical Ut Unum Sint on church unity by Pope John Paul II. Cardinal Bergoglio (later Pope Francis) told Quinn, “I’ve read your book and am hoping it will be implemented.” In May 2013, shortly after the election of Pope Francis, Quinn’s book Ever Ancient, Ever New: Structures of Communion in the Church appeared. Archbishop Quinn was in Collegeville and visited with Pray Tell’s Anthony Ruff, OSB.

How well do you know Pope Francis?

I first met him in May, 2012 when I was in Rome for the ad limina visit. I was having coffee with a friend whose wife is Argentinian, and he knew Cardinal Bergoglio. We were having coffee on the Via della Conciliazione. Cardinal Bergoglio came and my friend introduced us. He told me then that he had read the 1999 book. That was the only time I had met him.

How did your last book come about?

I wrote it over several years. I had hoped that it’d be out for the synod in fall of 2012, but it wasn’t until the spring of 2013 that it came out. This was the time of the election, so I sent a copy to Pope Francis. He wrote me a hand-written thank you note. He didn’t comment on the contents of book but thanked me for sending it to him.

Pope Francis is interested in your reformist ideas. Do you have high hopes for him?

Certainly he proceeding in a very vigorous manner. Everything he is doing and saying is profoundly rooted in the tradition of the church and the conciliar tradition, also including Vatican I.

The worldwide enthusiasm with which this pope is being greeted by Catholics and others, and that what he is saying and doing is being received so enthusiastically, is a great dramatization of the need for the papacy in the church. He is taking hold and setting a direction.

You say that the Synod of Bishops should be given true deliberative power. Do you think Francis will move in this direction?

I think he’s clearly moving in that direction. I think he intends to have the synod be the fruit of the common act of the pope and bishops. The pope is a bishop and part of the episcopate though he’s the head.

But the synod ground rules are still the same this time, it is only advisory to the pope.

I suppose that’s true, but I think that we don’t know since it hasn’t taken place yet. Everything seem to point to the fact that when the synod gathers and deliberates, it will be more than handing over recommendations to the pope. They will make decisions which the pope will ratify, similar to an ecumenical council – though of course it isn’t that. I think it will be a synodal act and not just a papal act. Of course a synodal act includes a pope. The pope will be embedded in the synod as its head.

Is the Roman curia reformable?

The aim of this pope is not a cosmetic reform. He clearly wants a thorough, deep reform of the curia. People are impatient that nothing really substantial has come out. But it has. He’s created this new body for disciplining of bishops who don’t take proper steps dealing with sex abuse. Has already reformed the financial wing of the Vatican city state and the Holy See. But the overall reform of the curia itself takes time, unless if it’s going to be superficial. He’s doing it correctly, I think, in that he’s taking time so that it’s thorough and not just superficial.

I think Francis is different from any of the preceding popes in that he’s tackling the longstanding need to reform, reshape, and recalibrate the Roman curia. That would be the distinction. The others have made attempts at making some changes but they’ve really been inconsequential organizational changes.

You expect it will be more than that this time?

Oh yes, definitely.

If we decentralize the church, how great is the danger that we would split apart like some Anglican and Protestant churches?

Well you see, that is the danger. That is a risk and danger that must be addressed and we must be conscious of that. The risk is national churches. That is a great danger that can’t be overlooked. That brings into play the great role of the papacy as the minister of unity in the church. It underlines something that many Protestants and Orthodox don’t want to countenance: a true authority. He has to have real authority to see to the unity of the church. That is not to say that he has to be the minister of unity in an absolute, sovereign way. He can also do it in conjunction with a synod of bishops, for example. There could be a synodal ministry of unity, with the pope always having, when it was needed or a crisis called for it, the ability to intervene by his authority. But the ministry of unity could be exercised, even in a disciplinary way, in a more synodal manner.

For example, we could imagine that there could be a big crisis in a country such as the U.S. The pope might issue a decree to the conference that they have to follow. But he might proceed in a different way and call them to meet and deliberate and he expects certain things to be addressed and provided for. And then he could approve that and the crisis could be ended. Some crises require rapid intervention. So it could be handled in different ways.

The primacy could be exercised in different ways and still be a primacy of authority. And that doesn’t have to mean a submerging or taming of primacy.

What are your thoughts on liturgical translations?

I think, first of all, I would raise the question why we need translations. Why is it not possible to have liturgical books fashioned in the country itself? Now I realize that in a world of rapid travel there have to be some common formulations that are used, and that certainly should be kept in mind. But I don’t see why, for example, the prayers of the Mass (e.g., the Collect) have to be a translation of a Roman prayer. They could be formulated in the language of the country. English speakers could prepare their own prayers. If we have to have translations, they should be done and approved by the English-speaking episcopates themselves.

What do you think of our new 2011 missal translation? What are its strengths and weaknesses?

Well I myself, and it is my personal view, think it is not English as we use it. It’s too complicated, it’s very difficult to speak. People can’t understand what is being said, I don’t think. I don’t know that is has any strengths. I find it hard to think of its strengths.

My idea of translation is that you take something in a text and say it the way we say it in English, not that you try to retain the style and structure and flavor of another language.

Let’s talk about inculturation of the liturgy. Greater freedom since Vatican II has sometimes led to mistakes and even silliness. Do we need more centralized control to maintain seriousness, or rather more room for local initiatives?

I do think that the subject of inculturation in the liturgy needs very careful attention. Because liturgy does have to belong to the culture, but at the same time, that’s not an absolute. All of the churches have to maintain, for example, the Hebrew dimensions of our liturgy. The Bible comes to us from the culture of Hebrew and the early Greek mission of apostolic times. We cannot set that aside. Inculturation has to be within the vectors of biblical and patristic tradition. Not just anything you want and all over the lot. It’s based on the Hebrew and Greek Biblical fountain of our liturgical life and our faith.

What about our rich medieval Latin heritage, is that included?

I would not include it as a necessary ingredient. I would include it as something we could recommend or encourage people to have some familiarity with. If all people knew how to sing some things in common in Latin at big gatherings, it would be a reminder of a long-standing custom of the church. But if you say that, then you also have to consider the Greek language of antiquity.

Doesn’t the liturgy also need to stand apart from every culture to witness to the heavenly liturgy?

I don’t know what that means because I’ve already said that it must be within the Hebrew and Greek vectors of the Scriptures.

But some say people, including Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict), say that the liturgy has become too casual, like a tea party, and should be more reverent.

I think it is always necessary to have reverence as an element of the celebration of the liturgy, because we are celebrating the mysteries of God, not just something merely earthly or human. There has to be an acknowledgement and expression that what we’re doing is transcendent, beyond everything earthly and human. It’s divine and there has to be that. How that is done and expressed is a different thing.

I think the key certainly to reverence, and a tremendous defect that happened in the reform of the liturgy after the council, is that very few places in the church attended to the council’s reform of sacred silence. That was very little attended to.

What else can we do?

We’ve given so much emphasis in the church to teaching. That’s part of the apostolic mandate. We have not paid sufficient attention to the apostolic mandate to make disciples. We put all our efforts into teaching without making disciples. If we really found a way to make disciples, that element would probably follow in a natural way, then the liturgy would be more reverent.

I think that the base communities of Latin American offer one way of deepening people’s discipleship so that they are really living a personal living faith, not a faith just derived from concepts, but a living faith which they have internalized.

Your most recent book exudes your deep love for the church, and your patient hope for church renewal. What would you say to those who are disillusioned and, sadly, are walking away from the Catholic Church?

Well, there comes to my mind the words of Gaudium et Spes that there are many things that change, but there are many things which do not change and have their ultimate foundation in Christ Jesus who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. That is the anchor that believers must be more conscious of. And not be shaken to the depths by less important things.

So you are hopeful?

Oh yes, I’m very hopeful because the Holy Spirit is clearly at work and the Risen Lord is walking among the golden candlesticks (Rev. 2:1).




6 responses to “Archbishop John Quinn in Interview”

  1. Fr. Jack Feehily Avatar
    Fr. Jack Feehily

    I am very pleased to say that I was ordained at the hands of Archbishop Quinn. I learned from him the liturgical virtue of noble simplicity that was first inculcated by the monks of St. Meinrad. This embodies the sacred silence to which he referred. Though his humility would eschew mere human accolades, I would love to see Pope Francis honor his service and writing by creating him a cardinal in the next consistory.

  2. Peter Kwasniewski Avatar
    Peter Kwasniewski

    This is very interesting:

    “I think the key certainly to reverence, and a tremendous defect that happened in the reform of the liturgy after the council, is that very few places in the church attended to the council’s reform of sacred silence. That was very little attended to.”

    The Council did not reform sacred silence — it simply recommended it, in continuity with centuries of custom. Low Masses and High Masses both featured considerable periods of silence. All that was chucked out (with a few shining exceptions).

    “I would not include it [the medieval Latin heritage] as a necessary ingredient.”

    Not sure how this is compatible with Sacrosanctum Concilium, or Catholicism in general.

    1. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
      Anthony Ruff, OSB

      @Peter Kwasniewski:
      No, Peter, you’re confusing two somewhat different things. One kind of silence is when the priest does all his stuff (some of it very important!) by himself and everyone else keeps silence. Another kind of silence is when all keep silence as SC 30 calls for – and this includes the priest. It is communal silence of all (including clergy) rather than the hushed awe of lay people in the presence of a clerical drama. Now the important stuff is said out loud and it is to involve the people more explicitly, e.g. by it being in their language, and by their singing acclamations such as the new Memorial Acclamation during the Eucharistic Prayer.

      The archbishop is correct – SC called for a reform. The reformed books, eg the introduction to the reformed lectionary, followed this lead.


  3. Anita Fischer Avatar
    Anita Fischer

    I had the pleasure of attending Mass (as cantor) two days this past week with Archbishop Quinn while our diocesan priests were on retreat. I was particularly struck by his presidential style. His unhurried, reverent pace helped me to slow my own thoughts and conscious participation in the Mass. He very much attends to the places where sacred silence is held by all during the Mass (but certainly not overdone). What a blessing to witness and participate in the “acknowledgement and expression that what we’re doing is transcendent” (quote from his interview above).

  4. Paul Schlachter Avatar

    Quoting the archbishop: “Why is it not possible to have liturgical books fashioned in the country itself?” I am grateful to PrayTell for transmitting this interview. In many dioceses including my own, and in many national organizations, we have a steady diet of cheerleaders for Romanizing translations. It is heartening to know that one bishop is willing to be quoted on this; who knows if there are others – yes, in formal communion! – who share his sentiments.

  5. Ed Nash Avatar
    Ed Nash

    He is an Archbishop who taught and thought like Pope Francis before there was a Pope Francis.

    We have taught without making disciples. As long as our teaching was parroted back to us, apologists may have believed they were successful. When we get more disciples, the liturgy will be supported by more reverence because the faith will be lived in all its joys, sorrows, and hope and fear and troubles and triumphs. Then according to Pope Francis and Archbishop Quinn, the Church will have been successful.


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