Obituary: Fr James Quinn SJ

Fr James Quinn SJ

Fr James Quinn SJ

The funeral will take place tomorrow of a Jesuit priest, described as “one of the finest writers of hymn texts of our time”, who died last week at the age of 90.

The hymns of Father James Quinn SJ are found in almost every contemporary English language hymnal, taken from the collection New Hymns for All Seasons which was published in 1969 and his later work Praise for All Seasons (1994). They include such well known and frequently sung works as ‘Christ be beside me’, ‘Forth in the peace of Christ we go’, ‘I am the holy Vine’ and ‘The bread that we break’.

James Quinn was born in Glasgow on 21 April 1919. He was educated at St Aloysius’ College and Glasgow University, and joined the Society of Jesus in 1939. After studying at Heythrop College, Oxfordshire, he taught at St Wilfrid’s School in Preston before being ordained in 1950. He also taught at Wimbledon College in South London, and served in Sacred Heart parish, Edinburgh.

In the 1960s, Fr Quinn worked on the cause for the canonisation of St John Ogilvie who, in 1976, became Scotland’s first saint for more than 700 years and the only Scottish Jesuit to be canonised. He was an observer at the 1964 assembly of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches in Frankfurt and a consultant to the World Council of Churches’ Faith and Order conference at Louvain in 1972.

A member of the Scottish Religious Advisory Committee of the BBC (1973-1976) and a participant in various ecumenical dialogues for the British Council of Churches, Fr Quinn also served as a consultant to the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (1972-1976). Between 1976 and 1980 he was spiritual director at the Beda College in Rome. From 1980, Fr Quinn served as Secretary on the Scottish Commission for Christian Unity, being appointed seven years later as Episcopal Vicar for Ecumenism in the Archdiocese of Edinburgh.

In 1998, the Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians praised “Fr Quinn's ability to articulate the orthodox aspects of Christianity in new and fresh ways”, commenting particularly on his texts “with Celtic influence”. Describing him as “one of the finest writers of hymn texts of our time”, his publisher, Selah, said the words of his hymns “help us better understand the mystery and presence of God in our world today.” Many were paraphrases of the psalms and other parts of scripture, as well as hymns for the Liturgy of the Hours and translations of such Marian prayers as the Salve Regina.

Fr James Quinn SJ died on 8 April 2010 at St Joseph’s House in Edinburgh, where he had spent the past ten years. These years were marked by a gentle acceptance of the changes brought by age and illness, and though he stopped writing hymns he took to writing jokes – and sharing them with all who came to visit him! He remained intensely interested in developments in Church life and liturgy and subscribed to many journals that kept him informed and updated. His hymns are still being reprinted and republished, and remain a great resource for the Church, reflecting the importance of his theological and ecumenical work in Scotland and beyond.

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