Soon after the Most Reverend John M. Quinn, AFSC, D.D., was appointed to serve as Bishop of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester in 2008, he was invited to visit the campus of Saint Mary's University of Minnesota. One of the students asked Bishop Quinn whether he would teach at Saint Mary's. Excited about the possibility, Bishop Quinn explained that he would first need to consult with the priests in the diocese. "I did not want the priests to think that I was teaching to avoid the work of serving as bishop," he said. Bishop Quinn remembers his council of priests telling him, "If you want to teach college students at eight o'clock in the morning, that is fine by us!"
Teaching was not a new experience for Bishop Quinn when he arrived in Minnesota. Even while he was still in seminary in Detroit, he taught American literature to juniors in high school. After finishing his master's degree at the University of Detroit Mercy, he taught sacramental theology at Madonna University. "This is where I developed my life-long love for teaching undergrads," he said. From 1990 to 2003, Bishop Quinn served as director of the education department in the Archdiocese of Detroit. He also served as an adjunct faculty member at Saint Heart Seminary for twenty years.
When Bishop Quinn began teaching at Saint Mary's, some faculty members were surprised to learn that he would grade his own papers, hold office hours, and accept the typical number of students. "When I'm here, I'm faculty. I don't expect to be treated any differently than my colleagues," Bishop Quinn said. After more than ten years at Saint Mary's, it's not unusual for faculty members to see Bishop Quinn in the classroom. "I notice him teaching and he is usually engaged in dialogue with the students," said Christopher Bobier, Ph.D., an assistant professor of philosophy. "I know one student who took Bishop Quinn's class twice just because she wanted to."
"Dialogue" is the way that Bishop Quinn describes his teaching style. "Education really comes down to a dialogue. Our relationship with God is also a dialogue," he said. Students are receptive to Bishop Quinn's dialogical approach. "Bishop Quinn is very intentional about creating an interactive classroom. I can tell he wants to make sure that everyone is learning and feels like they belong," said Sally Traxler, a senior theology major at Saint Mary's.
"Education really comes down to a dialogue. Our relationship with God is also a dialogue."
If students object or question a particular teaching, Bishop Quinn listens to them and works to understand their perspective, even when what the student is saying seems incomplete. "My answers are not always complete and I'm a pretty old guy," he said. "I don't know it all. I may know more than my students, but I realize that I'm always a beginner. Saint Mary's is a Lasallian university and the Christian Brothers refer to their schools as a community of learners."
As a high school student, Bishop Quinn said that his desire to become a teacher was clearer to him at the time than becoming a priest. Bishop Quinn recalls Mr. Larry Reeside, his favorite teacher from high school, who encouraged students to ask questions, listen to multiple sides of an issue, and learn to debate rather than simply memorize facts. Bishop Quinn continues to remain in contact with the Reverend John W. O'Malley, S.J., his history professor at the University of Detroit Mercy. "I have never had a professor as knowledgeable who could communicate that fire to students. He will always be my teacher and I will always be his student."
Over the years, Bishop Quinn has learned from his faculty colleagues at Saint Mary's that finding ways to encourage students to ask questions is key to pedagogical excellence. "The nature of all education is based on a question. What we impart to our students is only part of it unless we get our students to begin asking their own questions," he said.
Bishop Quinn described the goodness that he sees in today's generation of undergraduate students. "They are generous, altruistic, and compassionate. They have ideals, even though they sometimes struggle for consistency. They are very concerned about leaving someone out or being seen as divisive about religious teachings."
The local bishop is the authoritative teacher in the diocese. Asked about how his classroom teaching has influenced his teaching role as a bishop, Bishop Quinn describes the undergraduate experience as an important time of exploration for students. "I love teaching undergrads because I get to accompany them over the course of fourteen weeks. Do you know how many homilies that I would have to preach to have that much influence on these young people?"
The Diocese of Winona-Rochester comprises twenty counties in the southern part of Minnesota with a Catholic population of 132,825 and 107 parishes. Although his schedule is busy, Bishop Quinn takes time to read. "I ask my faculty colleagues what they are reading. I ask them what I should be reading and if they can send me a PDF of the article," he said. Over the years, Bishop Quinn has also invited his faculty colleagues to his house to socialize and discuss an article.
The Trinity is Bishop Quinn's favorite course to teach because he enjoys introducing students to the classic texts from Irenaues of Lyon, Athanasius, and Saint Augustine. "The course is really about the mystery of God's love. Theology is not something to learn or conquer," he said. "It's also about the heart." Andrew Beine, a sophomore philosophy major, described Bishop Quinn's clas as the most engaging of the semester. "Bishop Quinn's passion for Trinitarian theology is evident in the way he teaches, and he certainly passes this love on to his students."
In 2021, Bishop Quinn and the Very Reverend James P. Burns, IVD, Ph.D., president of Saint Mary's, co-presented at the fall meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Together they encouraged bishops and university presidents to speak directly and trust each other. Describing the many ways that the relationship between universities and dioceses can be mutually beneficial, Bishop Quinn said, "There is more common ground and opportunities for collaboration than people might think." As a member of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Quinn serves on the committee on Catholic education as well as the Catholic higher education working group.
Describing the many ways that the relationship between universities and dioceses can be mutually beneficial, Bishop Quinn said, "There is more common ground and opportunities for collaboration than people might think."
Bishop Quinn remains hopeful about the future of American Catholic higher education. Referring to the more than 200 Catholic colleges and universities in the United States, he said, "The complexity of the mission is truly amazing. We have schools of medicine, social work, architecture, and business. Some of our schools are doing really sophisticated research. And many provide an excellent undergraduate education. I am in awe of the good that has been accomplished."
Bishop Quinn was ordained to the priesthood on March 17, 1972 in Detroit. He earned a bachelor of arts in philosophy from Sacred Heart Seminary, a master of divinity from St. John's Provincial Seminar, a master's degree in religious studies and systematic theology from the University of Detroit Mercy, and graduate work in religious studies at The Catholic University of America. Saint Mary's conferred an honorary doctorate in pastoral ministry upon Bishop Quinn in 2012.
Bishop Quinn submitted his letter of resignation to Pope Francis having reached the retirement age of seventy-five, though he continues to serve as bishop until it is accepted. He also continues to teach students at Saint Mary's. "They keep me from growing old and crusty," Bishop Quinn said. "You can't be around undergrads and grow barnacles."
Editor's Note: Pope Francis accepted Bishop Quinn's retirement as of June 2, 2022, and appointed Bishop Robert E. Barron as his successor.
Michael Hahn, Ph.D., is the assistant dean of education at Saint Mary's University of Minnesota. Among his research interests is the future of American Catholic higher education.