Archbishop Flynn in his own words

| Christina Capecchi | September 27, 2019 | 0 Comments
Archbishop Harry Flynn talking with people after dedicating a Mother Teresa of Calcutta Boulevard in St. Paul

Archbishop Harry Flynn talking with people after dedicating a Mother Teresa of Calcutta Boulevard in St. Paul in 2004. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Archbishop Harry Flynn was a beloved storyteller, but when asked to reflect on his own life, it became clear he was more interested in others’ lives. Still, he spoke of his journey with a keen self-awareness and deep gratitude.

He lived his final years in the rectory of the Church of St. Vincent de Paul in St. Paul, well attended to by golden retrievers and Mexican nuns. There he spoke about his life.

Q. You were orphaned at age 12. In some ways, even now — a retired archbishop from Minnesota — are you still the orphan from New York?

A. Yes. It formed me. It gave me a great compassion for others and the feelings of others.

Q. You’ve said that Catholic sisters stepped in for your parents and guided you through primary school.

A. They were wonderful to me. They were very interested in our social life. I don’t know where the Church in the United States would be without the women religious. We need to celebrate the leadership that has been given to women religious.

Q. You went on to study English in college and graduate school. You’re a lover of language. Did that draw you to the poetry of prayer and of the Catholic liturgy?

A. Yes. I taught English for five years at Catholic Central High School in Troy, New York. “The Scarlett Letter.” Shakespeare. Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” There’s a lot of Catholic theology going through that.

Q. Do you enjoy writing?

A. I’d rather be speaking.

Q. You’ve described your happiest years as the times you served as pastor of a parish.

A. I knew the people, and they knew me. I greeted them at every Mass and knew who they were and what they were going through. It’s the greatest privilege to be in the care of souls. If I had to do it all over, I’d live every life as a priest. Not as a bishop — every life as a priest. Administration was never my strength. I didn’t care for it — or meetings. It’s a treasure for people to invite you into their lives at moments of pain or joy. It’s a beautiful gift.

Q. You loved being of service to people. What does service do to a person?

A. It empties the heart of selflessness and then it fills it up with love, if you are open to that. One must be open to it. In the priesthood, you cannot look upon service as a drudgery. You look upon it as a beautiful opportunity of loving.

Q. Four, five decades later, you still remember the people you served as their pastor.

A. Mary Kerry was dying in a nursing home. She wanted a cold beer, and we didn’t have any beer in the rectory, so I went and got her a Ginger Ale. She said to me: “Don’t you know the difference between a cold beer and a Ginger ale?” There’s humor everywhere. She told me, “Father, I’ll pray for you all through eternity.” I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been in difficulty and I’ve thought of Mary Kerry — an elderly Irish lady in South Troy, her hands crippled with arthritis. Isn’t it strange I remember that Irish lady? She had faith, deep faith, in spite of the situation, which was horrible. Eight beds in one room. You wouldn’t leave your dog in it. But the deep faith came through. Faith is a gift, and it needs to be nourished. But we must always remember it is a gift. God gives it. And we can’t foresee how God is going to give that or how much he’s going to give. We can’t force it on anyone. It is a gift. We must live the Gospel and then let God do God’s work.

Q. Early in your ministry you were moved to Mount St. Mary Seminary in Maryland, where you served as rector for nearly a decade. Being head of a major seminary is no easy job.

A. It was a time of various changes in priestly formation, so different bishops had different ideas of how they were to be formed, and the vocation directors had different ideas. To maintain stability during those years was most challenging. There were two red chairs in my office, and the seminarians called them “the dreaded red chairs.” I would call them in there to have a heart to heart. (I’d tell them:) “Have common sense. People are human, they make mistakes.” A person who is in a position of leadership has to realize mistakes will be made. God is in charge. We’re not the only ones. They were men of parishes. They were in touch with reality. I think that was the secret at the Mount: They all had pastoral experience. When I was a seminarian, the human side of the priesthood was rarely stressed in our formation. And then I had the privilege of participating in the synod of 1990, which John Paul II called for, a synod for the formation of priests, and out of that came “Pastores Dabo Vobis,” “I Will Give You Shepherds,” and in that document, there was a part which stressed the humanity of a man becoming a priest — the warmth, the compassion. They were never mentioned before when I was going through the seminary, but now they are and they’re very important.

Q. Did your time at Mount St. Mary Seminary help prepare you for the other leadership roles you would later assume?

A. I think it did. The basis we must always remember: Theology has to work. It’s not in a vacuum. It’s sterile then. Theology has to work with God’s people, real people.

Q. When you were bishop of the Lafayette diocese in Louisiana, they were dealing with one of the first cases of clergy sexual abuse to make national headlines.

A. It devastated the diocese. I visited families, I visited parishes and broke down those barriers. It was a time to rebuild trust with the understanding that God is God, and the providence of God works unto all things.

Q. Next came your assignment in Minnesota, which you have described as a sort of homecoming.

A. Minnesota would be similar to upstate New York, the mentality, and so it was like coming home. The priests and the people have been outstanding here — and the educational opportunities. How blessed we are to have St. Catherine University and St. Thomas University and The St. Paul Seminary.

Q. Your time here wasn’t without challenges. For instance, it must have been difficult knowing how to respond to the gay-rights activists who wore those rainbow sashes — to treat them with respect but to also ensure that they were not disrupting Mass. How did you strike that balance?

A. Pastoral practice is a balance. It’s a balance between telling the truth and doing it lovingly, without being judgmental. It’s something that’s refined over the years.

Q. You’ve said that friendship with fellow clergy helped you cope during stressful times.

A. That was a great solace for me. Go to dinner at The Lexington and not talk about it! A night of relaxation and recreation. Humor goes with faith. If we have deep faith, we’re able to see the incongruities in situations.

Q. You’ve advocated for the role of humor in the spiritual life.

A. Keep the sense of humor and keep praying — it gets us through everything. Laugh at yourself and laugh at things that go wrong — and they will go wrong — but keep walking in the Lord and all will be well.

Q. How did you go about making difficult decisions?

A. Gather information. Then pray and make a decision. You’re never absolutely sure. Timing is very important.

Q. You chaired the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse from 2002-2005. What was that like?

A. It was the most difficult period of my whole episcopacy because of the media demands and the tension of trying to come up with a charter in spite of the media demands. It was a huge charge. It’s a very complex situation and to simplify it is nonsense. It’s too complex. You have to think about the victims, you have to think about the perpetrators and also you have to think about the redemption that’s in every one of us no matter what the sin is.

Q. What did you learn from that experience?

A. I learned to listen, to listen to everyone. Listening is extremely important.

Q. When you look back, how do you feel about the charter you created, the zero-tolerance policy and the review board? Do you feel the right actions were taken?

A. I do.

Q. Another painful wave of clergy abuse broke in 2018. How are faithful lay Catholics to respond?

A. We are called to put on Jesus Christ, and we are to do that with our total being. And that’s the call for every human being: to put on Jesus Christ. The more we do that, the more we understand the failures of others.

Q. You’re known for being appreciative, for taking the time at a public event to thank everyone involved, right down to the smallest, most hidden roles — those who folded the napkins, who shoveled the sidewalks. Why is gratitude so important?

A. Gratitude is part of our spirituality. It’s a spirit of gratitude. It’s a habit.

Q. Your kind words to a young mom on a plane are an example of this. You once watched a mother dealing with a loud young child, and what did you tell her after the flight?

A. “You taught me a great deal about love and patience.” Jesus said: “Let the children come to me.” It’s a beautiful sound.

Q. You addressed racism over the years, including your 2003 pastoral letter “In God’s Image.” Racial relations have been tense lately. What more can the Church do in this area?

A. The Church has done an enormous amount on immigration and racism. We need to celebrate what’s been done already and to hold that up as standard. For instance, the Church’s teaching on immigration has been outstanding, and we need to celebrate that more.

Q. What kind of clarity has come with age?

A. That life is a great mystery, and we can’t figure it all out. Lean into the mystery.

Q. What do you hope will be your legacy?

A. That I loved.

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