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The Bishop Takes to the Streets : Activist Head of Sacramento Catholic Diocese Is Revered by Parishioners for Whom He Struggles

Associated Press

He is the bishop in black Reeboks, swapping fraternal handshakes with 13-year-olds, drinking a little beer with the folks and steering a small, dirty four-wheel-drive through the streets of Sacramento.

He is the bishop who has been known to sleep outdoors with the homeless and says he won’t be comfortable until women are bishops in the Catholic Church.

He is the bishop who struggles with himself to overcome selfishness and who, after nearly 10 years on the job, is still startled by adulation.

He is Francis Anthony Quinn, 67, white-haired, slim and endowed with a measured manner of speech that packs a delayed wallop: Lulled by the grandfatherly demeanor, listeners may miss the impact of his words until later.

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The seventh bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento, he earns $450 a month plus the admiration from every kind and description of person.

“I’m proud to be his friend,” said Rabbi Lester Frazin of Congregation B’nai Israel. “He is well aware of issues of concern to the Jewish community and takes them into account.”

“We love him very much,” said Father Joseph Hoan Nguyen, pastor of the Vietnam Martyrs Catholic Church east of Sacramento. “He really loves the Vietnamese people.”

Mario Obledo, Sacramento attorney and former state secretary of health and welfare, had been pushing for the appointment of a Latino bishop when Quinn was chosen.

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“Initially I was very disappointed,” he said, “but as I got to know him . . . in his heart, he’s Hispanic.”

But on a recent Saturday, Quinn was concerned with the Vietnamese, driving out to dedicate the new building of the 2,000-member Vietnamese Martyrs Catholic Church on Jackson Road.

He was a sight to attract double-takes, garbed in black robe and crimson skull cap, driving his white Suzuki Samurai. He bought the four-wheel-drive for wintertime visits to parishes in his 20-county, northeastern California territory.

When Quinn arrived at the Vietnamese church, a band struck up a song, and older people knelt to kiss his ring.

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At 6 feet tall, he towered over them.

“They’re not showing respect to Frank Quinn but to the office,” he said. “If I went out there in a suit and tie, they wouldn’t even notice me.”

Still, he said, there is a danger that the attention could go to his head. Children did their part to keep him humble, however, giggling when he pronounced the benediction in Vietnamese with a heavy American accent.

Public Relations Sense

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“He has a very fine sense of PR (public relations),” said Father James Murphy, pastor at St. Anne’s Catholic Church. Quinn was an editor, media director, educator and pastor before becoming bishop.

In a conversation at the church office, which sports worn green linoleum, thin red carpeting and a “Bless this mess” plaque on the wall, Quinn answered every question put to him.

Yes, church finances are weak. No, there aren’t enough priests. Yes, alcoholism is a problem for priests, although less so as avenues for expressing gripes have opened for them.

And yes, there are priests with a homosexual orientation, but no more so than in the general population. With the emphasis on chastity, he said, he would hope the incidence of acting it out is less.

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Because he is minister to the ministers, Quinn is concerned that societal attitudes toward sexuality and the larger role of lay people have made priests wonder whether they made the right choice.

“This is a very difficult time for the priests,” he said. “So we need a strong spiritual life. It sort of charges the batteries; otherwise you’re running on empty.”

To keep his own battery charged, he rises at 6 a.m. for devotions, including 40 minutes of prayers and perhaps a private Mass in his room in the rectory next to the cathedral at 11th and J streets. He also says the Rosary daily and tries to pay a visit to an altar.

After toast and Postum, he begins duties at about 8:30 a.m. at the office behind the cathedral.

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Variety of Demands

He meets with department heads to check on progress of his 10-year pastoral plan for the growth and health of the church. He meets with parish delegations wanting to describe the kind of priest they want. He deals with insurance problems and financial needs. Recently, he met with individuals offering a place to feed the poor during the holidays.

He meets with representatives of the nuns and brothers in the diocese. He listens to sisters’ frustration that women are barred from the priesthood.

“Some people feel a great deal of pain. Some find the church very male-dominated,” he said. “The hierarchy is male. A large part of the work is done by women, but they are restricted from levels of authority where they make decisions.”

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Although the church has spiritual wisdom that he is lacking, he said, “I think it’s very difficult in human terms to disqualify women from full participation in ministry.”

Known around the diocese as liberal, progressive or left-of-center politically, Quinn considers himself to be in the middle of the pack among bishops, although some may not engage in activities as he does. He has joined peace marches, cooperated in interfaith social efforts and spoken to groups about nuclear disarmament.

Not a political activist in earlier years, he found himself influenced beginning in 1970 by the strong ethical standards of his parishioners in San Francisco. Even more, he said Father Keith Kenny, a former Sacramento priest, grabbed Quinn’s arm when he first came to Sacramento and steered him toward action.

“I wasn’t used to that kind of thing,” he admitted.

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Criticized as Too Nice

He has his critics. One parish priest said many priests believe Quinn is too easily swayed by those coming to his office with a complaint or demand.

“He’s a nice guy--that’s the trouble. He’ll help them and hurt another. Some priests feel he doesn’t support them if there’s a conflict with a lay group.”

The priest said Quinn refers tough issues to committees rather than making a decision himself, perhaps the result of his expressed reluctance to impose his point of view.

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Father Edward J. Kavanagh, who serves on the diocesan finance committee, also faults Quinn for being too nice.

“He wants to help everyone. He’d give away the house--that’s his weakest point. We have to watch him.”

Still, even while criticizing him, people call him saintly--a gentleman, approachable, generous with his time, a friend to people of other faiths.

But as bishop he is responsible for the diocese’s people, buildings and money.

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“It’s difficult to be a good Christian and a good administrator,” one parish priest said. “He’s too good a guy to be in charge of an operation.”


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