Interview: Bishop John Keenan of Paisley
Dennis Jarvis / Flickr
Interview: Bishop John Keenan of Paisley

Interview: Bishop John Keenan of Paisley

John Keenan was ordained as Bishop of Paisley on 19 March, St Joseph’s Day. The 49-year-old was previously the Catholic chaplain to the University of Glasgow. He was also vocations director for the Archdiocese of Glasgow. Bishop Keenan’s episcopal appointment is the third in Scotland to be made by Pope Francis.

Editor: Congratulations on your appointment. So what’s your vision for this new job?

Fr John Keenan: When I heard St Paul in that second reading on Sunday say “I didn’t come to you with any philosophy or knowledge”, I thought to myself that in modern times you’d be saying: “I never really came to it with any strategy, just a sense of the power of God.”

So I don’t really have any kind of programme or strategy or plan. I’m not frightened about that because I’ve got the confidence to know that every morning I get up, I say my prayers and, as the prophet says, “every morning he wakes me to hear and I listen like a disciple”. And I know that he’ll then say to me: “This is what to do today.” And I’ll work very hard that day and go to bed at night and then get up the next day early and we’ll do it all again; and gradually I’ll watch his design emerge. So I think that’s the underlying thing for me.

Then I am anxious to be a priest with my brother priests. I want to make them happy, to make sure that they are as happy and joyful as they can be. Many of them are older than me. So I want to be, at least for very many of them, a real brother who is looking after their welfare while they are looking after the welfare of their parishioners. I think, probably, as things go on, I’ll grow into the idea of being a father to them as I get older, but just now I feel more a brother with brother priests.

Beyond that, if there’s one idea that I want to really get across to the diocese, it’s the great joy of being Christian.

Tell us about the events of the past few weeks?

Two weeks ago I was in spiritual direction and I noticed my phone was ringing. As I drove home I looked at the number but didn’t recognise it. So I just left it. Two minutes later, however, a text came through saying it was the nunciature and could I call them. Well, at that point I thought: “I’m either really in very big trouble here or they’re going to ask me to be a bishop!”

So I went down to the nunciature a couple of days later and met with them. They were very friendly, very pastoral and they just informed me that Pope Francis had appointed me as the Bishop of Paisley. So I knew 10 days before it was announced. That was nice as it meant I had time to think about it myself, pray about it, speak to my spiritual director. So by the time it was announced I was already quite familiar with the idea. What overwhelmed me, though, was this tidal wave of well wishes and support that I’ve had.

''From our point of view, you’re really free when you can give yourself absolutely in love, for life. That means you’re really free when you can get rid of virtually every other choice and possibility in order to give yourself to the one choice or possibility. So we’re at odds with the establishment about what freedom means.''

There were over 500 texts and 500 emails that came in within two days. You know, it’s lovely to feel that, but it’s also kind of humbling and almost unnerving to think that you could be the cause of all of this excitement and all of this joy. That also gives a great sense of the responsibility, as people do look to their bishop to be a source of hope.

So although the job is daunting, when you are surrounded by all of this good will and support it is almost as if the job is shared, the task is shared. It is all those people and their prayers that are holding me up.

So, in that moment when you were asked to be the Bishop of Paisley, what were your emotions?

I think it’s the same as for everyone else, which is not just a notional sense of unworthiness, a spiritual sense of unworthiness. It’s more than that. It’s a concrete sense that “I really don’t know that I can do this”.

The nunciature were very kind and pastoral. They’ve been through all this before. They’ve seen every single man who’s been chosen to be a bishop sitting on the sofa with them and having that same kind of experience. So the conversation that I had with them was profoundly reassuring to me, and I would say spiritually reassuring. I felt that there was a grace in the conversation, a grace of reassurance.

In your new role, what would you say are the biggest challenges that lie ahead?

My first thought is to listen an awful lot. You could say that the list of challenges facing each diocese in western Europe is well-rehearsed: the secularism that we’re fighting, inside and outside the church; the pressures on families; the pressures on education; engagement with the young; the problems caused by a kind of poverty that just alienates people from life and also from the Church. I’m sure every one of them applies to Paisley but I feel that I want to go and really listen to what the nuances are in Paisley.

You’ll be installed on St Joseph’s Day. What’s the significance of that day to you?

The nunciature recommended an installation before Easter. So there were two feast days that would have been really fine. One was the Annunciation, as I’ve got such a spiritual dependence on Our Lady.

St Joseph’s Day appealed to the heart, too, as it’s also a Marian feast of sorts, given it’s the feast of the husband of Mary, but also because my late dad’s name was Joseph.

In the past few couple of years, I’ve often reflected upon how much of my personality is now like my dad’s. My dad was an enormously loving man; he just had an enormous capacity to love. I certainly felt that he loved me. A lot of the way that I now find I’m expressing my priesthood as a father is very much according to the fatherhood that I experienced from my dad.

What’s your message to your priests, the priests of the diocese of Paisley?

That I can’t wait to be working with them, as a brother priest. That I can’t wait to be with them in the brotherhood of their priesthood and I really want us to enjoy ourselves as priests. I know that there is a good sense of joy in the Paisley priests already. It’s really just the sense of the joy of working in the Lord’s vineyard together with them.

And you see yourself more as a brother than a father?

Initially, yes. I mean, I think you grow into fatherhood, but I do see myself initially as a brother priest with them.

What’s your message to the lay people of the diocese?

My message to the lay people is to rejoice in the Lord – to rejoice that we are baptised, that we are a people of salvation and, no matter what troubles come and go, that nothing ever undermines the profound joy of the Gospel, the joy of being a member of the Church and the joy of being in the Kingdom of God. So I want them to rejoice in all that and be happy in their faith.

You’re becoming a bishop just over a year since Pope Francis was elected to the See of Peter. What influence will his lead have upon your episcopate?

The profoundest. From the moment of his election I felt a real joy and a spiritual connection with him and I’ve really been overjoyed with him so far. I went to World Youth Day in Rio and it was a delight to be with him and all those four million youngsters. It was just the most wonderful experience. Coming back home, we then had the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. I started reading that slowly, day by day, and when I’d finished it, unusually for me, I just went back to page one and started reading it again.

I think he’s an amazing man really. I think in his interface with the world he’s got this incredible Franciscan simplicity about him that has really engaged the world. Behind that Franciscan simplicity, however, there is enormous Jesuit subtlety and genius. So I’d like Evangelii Gaudium to be the Magna Carta for the Diocese of Paisley. I’d love to see it as the principal means by which we understand the Gospel and understand the Church.

So where stands the project of new evangelisation?

I think the project of new evangelisation, for me, has been given a definitively more fascinating and exciting depth because of Evangelii Gaudium. I think those ideas of Pope Francis’s were also there in Pope Benedict and in Pope John Paul, but they seem to have been given a dramatic turn with his idea that we have to be a Church on the margins, a Church on the outskirts, a Church which is for the poor.

There’s a lovely part in the document in which Pope Francis says he prefers a Church with shoes that are dirty and messy, because they have trod the back streets of the world, to one whose shoes are shiny because it has stayed within itself. And I think that is just enormously exciting. I mean, it’s a challenge. The thing about it is that it’s not at all obvious how we get from here to there, but the idea that that’s where we need to is so hopeful, isn’t it? We can be confident to go out with the belief that there are many more people who are waiting for us to come than there are opposed to our coming.

So do you think that the Catholic Church is destined to shrink in numbers and become “a creative minority” within western society?

I don’t think there’s any inevitability about the size of the Church. That’s in our hands, and it’s obviously in God’s hands too. However, I think we should have at least the confidence to hope, to assume, that the Gospel should always be growing. The Kingdom of God is always growing and even if that doesn’t always mean it has to numerically grow I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a default presumption that, provided we are fervent in our faith, then we will become increasingly attractive to the population.

What does your experience as a university chaplain tell you about the future of the Church in the world?

Well, what it tells me is that when young people have priests and sisters who are very close to them and to whom they are very close, those young people become the solution for the Church, not the problem for it. Because they are full of enthusiasm, they’re full of idealism, they’re full of fun, they’re full of joy. That’s not to say that they’ll be saints, but they have got a great trust in going to confession.

They have a great natural trust: they can be open and honest, confess their sins and be forgiven. They also have more time on their hands, so they’re much more able to be involved in the pastoral work of the Church as they don’t usually have the commitments that a husband and father, wife and mother, have with family and children.

They also want to know what Catholics believe and why they believe. It’s a danger to young people not to know what they believe and why they believe it, because they are much more sensitive to the accusation of hypocrisy that “you are in a Church, and you don’t understand what it believes”. So when we leave them not knowing what they believe and why they believe it, we leave them in great danger of abandoning their faith or of succumbing to worldly values.

However, when we teach them the faith, we see them having a real confidence. That’s especially true when we teach them the faith as a proposition, as the most reasonable explanation of the world as it is; when we tell them that faith doesn’t mean that you forsake reason, that faith is far and away the most reasonable proposition that explains the world as it is. If you give them that sense that their faith is reasonable, that it has an internal consistency, if you give them a vision – then they lap it up, they love it and they’re only too keen, then, to go out into the world of their peers and to pass on those truths.

You touched briefly upon family life. There’s been much debate in recent times across all the countries in the UK as regards marriage and the family. What can a diocese do to help build up a culture based on marriage and the family?

Well, yes, that’s a very good question. I think, first of all, we need to give families a particular pastoral ministry in the dioceses and in parishes. It can be as simple as families getting together once a month for a pot-luck lunch and, perhaps, some activities for the children so that the parents can just socialise together. I think if parents are given the opportunity to socialise together, to befriend each other, to become friends, that then provides a very powerful sense of belonging.

That’s quite important because in any parish set-up there are all different sorts of family and home arrangements. There are some which would be of the traditional kind of families, you know married with children, but there are lots who wouldn’t fit into that but they’d still be very Catholic and very much belong to the parish church.

So what can unite them all together? It’s a sense of belonging and friendship because in friendship we accept everyone as they are. And I think if we can provide something for that, then gradually, bit by bit, we can look at what it means to be a family and what the Gospel tells us about family life today.

Marriage preparation is also very important – having a really thrilling vision of what marriage and family is, in order to put that to couples in their engagement period. It’s something that the Archdiocese of Glasgow has done a lot of work on recently and it looks as though it’s of great benefit.

And then there’s schools. We’ve moved away now from talking about “sex education” to talking about relationships and moral education; but, essentially, the Church refers to such education as “remote marriage preparation” because the vast majority of those young people in school, you’re going to hope, are going to get married.

You’re also known as a supporter of the pro-life cause. What can dioceses do to help build a culture of life?

The profundity of a culture of life comes from a stable culture of love, doesn’t it? It comes from a stable culture of family love. To an extent, a lot of these problems in regard to life stem from a kind of fear of abandonment.

Take, for example, a young woman or young man who doesn’t feel a strong culture of love surrounding them. They can too easily get involved in sexual relationships outside marriage, and then – when, as so often happens, life comes out of that – they feel: “I’m isolated, I’m on my own, I’m afraid.” They don’t have a strong culture of love and so can often make the wrong decision.

Our political and cultural establishment still seems determined to define freedom as “the permission to do what you want, when you want, as you want and how you want”. They still have this ideology suggesting that to be free means to have a maximisation of choices and then, if you make the wrong choice, to be able to get yourself out of the wrong choice.

 ''I feel no less surrounded by the love of a family. That sustains me – that really sustains and keeps me going.''

From our point of view, you’re really free when you can give yourself absolutely in love, for life. That means you’re really free when you can get rid of virtually every other choice and possibility in order to give yourself to the one choice or possibility. So we’re at odds with the establishment about what freedom means.

So we need to have a close, pastoral care for the vulnerable; but we also have to have a patient, consistent dialogue with the establishment to try and get them to see that their idea of freedom is not correct.

When you look across the British Isles, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the Church?

I’m optimistic. I would say that Pope Francis has given me a new sense of optimism and excitement not to principally see the Gospel as under attack, in such a way that we have to put up the defences, but rather to have the confidence to go out into the world with that Gospel. That way we’re much more likely to find a positive response from very, very many people on the ground than we are to find a negative one.

How do you, or how will you, sustain yourself in terms of your own spiritual life, in terms of your own relationship with Jesus Christ, as you embark upon this new stage in your life as the Bishop of Paisley?

I’ll just continue to have the same priestly spirituality and plan of life that I’ve always had, and continue to hope to deepen it all the while. In the last 13 years at the university in the chaplaincy, and also at St Patrick’s Church, I’ve found that the love of the people is so important too. Real people, real faith, real names – they really become brothers and sisters, they become a part of a family. That I do really feel.

I’m no less part of a family than if I were married and living with my own family. I feel no less surrounded by the love of a family. That sustains me – that really sustains and keeps me going.

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