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Bishop John takes joy in the vibrancy of faith

WHEN Bishop John Keenan informed me that he found the late Cardinal Thomas Winning’s motto, Caritas Christi Urget Nos (The love of Christ compels us), to be poignant and special, it made perfect sense given the energy he exudes while sharing his faith, wherever and whenever it takes him. What is equally unsurprising is the fact that growing up in a vibrant parish (above)—St Gregory’s in Wyndford—and among people with a great love for their faith helped him to eventually discern his own vocation. Engendering that vibrancy and strong faith have been key objectives in the parishes in which he has served as a priest and throughout the Diocese of Paisley during his time as their Bishop.

“Faith has always played a really big part in my life,” Bishop John said. “Growing up, in terms of school, parish and home were really one thing for me. Our parish was so vibrant. I wouldn’t have known how to distinguish between parish priest, teachers or my mum and dad—they were all just pieces in a Catholic world.

“My dad, who had his newsagents over in the Gorbals, would, more often than not, go over and serve the seven o’clock Mass in St Francis’. He knew all the priests who were there. He loved the Church and he loved the priesthood. My mum was very devout too, to be fair.

“Fr Gallagher was really close to our family too. He befriended myself and all my brothers. When I was in my late teens, it was just after Pope St John Paul II had visited Scotland and there was great renewal. Fr Gallagher let us do what we liked in the parish. He more or less handed it over to the young parishioners. That was tremendous because it let me get engaged in hands-on parish work from the point of view of being a lay person and parish life really began to absorb my mind.”

Vocation trajectory Yet, in spite of this local bedrock of faith, if you will, the fact that he attended the Salesians’ Junior Seminary in Cheshire and, by his own admission, there wasn’t a time in his life where he didn’t think he’d become a priest, the boy who grew up kicking a ball about round the back of his dad’s shop didn’t have a linear trajectory towards his vocation—and not because Celtic had come calling!

“I went to the Junior Seminary and during that time I was pretty sure that I would go on to become a priest with the Salesians, whose work was focused on young people, particularly through education either in the UK province or in Liberia, so it would have involved some time on the missions.

“I think I’ve got a Salesian heart. St John Bosco was my hero, what he did really galvanised me and inspired me. However, at around 17, I started to notice that there might be other possibilities and after six months at the pre-Senior Seminary in Farnborough, I realised that I wanted a break. I really wanted not to have the weight of the priesthood on me. I had aspirations to be a normal lay person, with my faith meaning a lot to me. I wanted to get married, have a family and a career or profession and do well in the world, but have the freedom of the lay faithful.”

So, for a while at least, the Church’s loss was academia’s gain—worlds that would eventually marry together when he became a priest as it happens—as Bishop John gained his Highers and enrolled in Glasgow University to study law (above). He continued, however, to maintain a strong involvement in his parish, leading the music group and setting up a youth group too. Indeed, he had his personal epiphany while at Mass in the parish one day and thinking about what he would do if he was the parish priest. He claims to have mildly reproached himself by saying inwardly ‘if you’re so clever and you know exactly how to be a priest, then why are you studying to be a lawyer?’

“This was third year and I saw my life at a crossroads” he said. “One way led to the priesthood, which I thought was the meaning of my life and what God wanted me to be. The other way was what I wanted, my happiness. So, I thought that the choice of my life was meaning or happiness. Eventually I came to realise that you can’t go through your life without meaning.”

After speaking to his parish priest about his renewed call to the priesthood, he, in turn spoke to the Archbishop and the wheels were set in motion. He graduated from university in July of 1988 and entered seminary that same autumn. That Road to Damascus moment has given him a very specific outlook on what vocation means.

“For me, it literally means a calling, vocare, to call,” he explained, while saying he’d considered several different professions that he might go into that could keep him involved in the Church, while not being a priest. “I wrestled with God, like Jacob and the angel for 18 months. I was compromising all the time but nothing else would do. I remember then one of the things that clarified it was imagining my life the way I wanted it—going into law, being married and having a family and getting to retirement and looking back, maybe having done better than I expected and looking back thinking is that enough? There was something missing. Alternatively, I thought to myself imagine turning out to become a priest. Maybe not being as fruitful as I had hoped, but I get to the end of my life and an angel telling me that somebody is in Heaven who wouldn’t have been there had you not been a priest. One soul would that be enough? I remember thinking that it would be enough, I would die happy. So, all those things led me to realise that this is something that God wants, has chosen me to be, that’s a defining purpose of my life that if I follow it for all eternity, I will have found the meaning of my life and if I don’t for all eternity I wouldn’t have done.”

Parish life

After being ordained, the first parish that Bishop John was sent to was Christ the King in King’s Park, which he described as ‘one of the biggest and most vibrant parishes in Glasgow,’ which no doubt eased the transition into parish life, replicating as it did, the energy he felt in St Gregory’s years before. Another parish parallel saw him become involved with the youth of the parish, developing, as he put it ‘a real love for the schools.

“There were so many things happening in the parish at the time, lots of people came to Mass, it was vibrant with lots of clubs going on, the parish house was a happy place to be,” he recalled. “I went into the primary schools a lot as I was chaplain in St Mirin’s for the first year and St Fillan’s in the second year. That was fantastic. I loved the schools. That’s where I got a real love for schools, the staff, the kids, the whole thing. I was then appointed chaplain at Holyrood and of the 2000 or so kids in Holyrood, 1000 were from my parish so it was a great extension. I started taking people on World Youth Days and things like that. I spent five years there and I had so many happy memories. It was a great experience.”

After making happy memories in Glasgow’s Southside, Bishop John’s life was to come full circle as he headed back to university after a 12-year gap. Only this time, it was because he had been appointed to Turnbull Hall, the University of Glasgow’s Chaplaincy. Bolstered by support from Christ the King parishioners and Sr Brigid from the Sisters of Mercy, he set about the task of developing the chaplaincy both physically and in a spiritual sense.

“I was there for 14 years and it was a tremendous experience,” he said. “The community there was amazing. People would choose to come to the chaplaincy for Sunday Mass, which was great because it wasn’t a parish of territory, it was for the university community and whoever else. We had the opportunity really to develop our faith and I felt that there was a real sense that the people who came to the chaplaincy for Mass really wanted to develop their faith. So they became a tremendous family to me, religiously, socially and Catechetically. It was just a tremendous parish. When I got to the chaplaincy, I thought to myself I don’t want to go anywhere else. I’m really settled in my life and if this is the rest of my life then I’m really happy. So, it was a real wrench to leave.”

While the chaplaincy was a slightly different kind of parish experience, one of the many reasons that it was no doubt difficult to leave was that, having developed a great sense of faith within the chaplaincy, Bishop John had the opportunity to witness great examples of the fruits of his labour, one of which took place on Good Friday one year during the Veneration of the Cross.

“I was just sat at my seat as the priest does when he has venerated the Cross, watching the faithful coming up,” he recalled. “It was really moving to see that personal moment. Then this one very old Nigerian woman came. She had been attending and became housebound, so I was taking her Holy Communion. I really enjoyed talking to her daughter and family. She could still make it on occasion. She came to the Triduum. She came walking forward with everyone else, but just couldn’t get up the step to venerate the Cross. She tried many ways, but you could see the disappointment and so she just bowed before the cross. As she was walking back to her place, the MC then instructed the altar servers to go to her. She was halfway down, they tapped her on the shoulders and she turned around and saw the cross and her face lit up and she was able to kiss the cross rather than just bow to it. It was just such an emotional moment for everyone, but it brought home to me the depth of the faith that is in the Catholic faithful. It’s still there. Sometimes we forget when we see so many people leaving the Church, that in the faithful who come there is a depth of faith that is astounding.”

In the last 14 months of his time in the chaplaincy, the late Archbishop Philip Tartaglia asked Bishop John to take on St Patrick’s in Anderston, as well as the chaplaincy, which he described as ‘a great compliment because while I loved the chaplaincy, what I missed was regular parish life.’

“I loved it and we had a school again so I loved that too,” Bishop John said. “But that was only for 14 months. It was a real wrench for me to leave the chaplaincy and a disappointment to leave St Patrick’s when we were just beginning to get things going.”

Next step Being given a dual responsibility was perhaps a sign of things to come for Bishop John and so it proved, but much like the discerning of his vocation to the priesthood, the idea of becoming a bishop one day is something that—when asked if it’s something that he aspired to—drew an honest and profound response.

“There’s probably natural ambition in any young man or woman, which is as much of the world as anything,” he said. “We have to be honest about that. Also, every priest thinks he’s the best bishop the diocese never had! We all kind of think what we’d do. Earlier on, I did think about it, but by the time I was about 10 years in the chaplaincy, I just wanted to stay where I was. It was a chalice I hoped would pass me by at that point.”

However, Bishop John was to receive the call to serve the Diocese of Paisley and a new era in his priestly life was about to begin.

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