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Shepherding his people with a father's love

“I FOUND that when I came into office, there wasn’t a minor crisis every day, just every other day!” Bishop John joked when talking about taking up his new role, which began on March 19, 2014.

In all seriousness, prior to Bishop John becoming the Shepherd of the Diocese of Paisley, he spoke fondly of the support given to him by the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Antonio Mennini, who promised him that ‘he would love the people of Paisley,’ and that of the late Bishop John Mone—his predecessor—who acted as a father figure to him and proved an invaluable help to him in those early days.

Those examples of pastoral charity re-iterated to him that this was a key component of being a priest or bishop.

“A priest or a bishop must have pastoral charity,” he said. “The love of a shepherd, the love of a father. There’s no doubt about it. In St John Paul II’s time when the Church had a synod on priestly formation, it became well known because it introduced the four pillars of priestly formation—spiritual, human, pastoral, intellectual. One of the things that wasn’t really quite noted was that the pulse that ran through the whole thing was the love of a shepherd, the love of a father. Pope Francis has really emphasised that as well. Without any doubt, the spirituality of the parish priest and the bishop is pastoral charity. Ultimately, you must really love people with a father’s heart and with a shepherd’s heart. That means that you want to do anything to nurture and protect their faith and do anything for the salvation of their souls.”

While the Apostolic Nuncio assured him that he would love the people of Paisley, that feeling has been reciprocated from the outset, with many of the parishioners in his diocese lovingly referring to him as ‘Father John,’ something he is most comfortable with. He might well have been a bit apprehensive about his new office, but he needn’t have been given the endorsement from Bishop Mone, the welcome from diocesan priests and staff and the desire of everyone in the diocese to have a new bishop.

“Bishop Mone’s support was a great help to me because a lot of the love and affection that he had, when people were round about him, he shared with me and that was a big help in how I was accepted,” Bishop John said. “On the day that I was ordained despite the fact that the people didn’t know me from Adam in Paisley, the Cathedral was jam-packed as was the hall and they had to take over the Lagoon Leisure Centre across the road. They didn’t know me, but in their minds, they had a bishop. For me it was a great encouragement to know—and humbling—how much the people were pining for a bishop. There were two years between Bishop Philip leaving and me coming. So, I realised that I was stepping into shoes that had already walked a long distance for me. That lineage made things easier for me and bit by bit, it allowed me time for my own personality to show. The priests were very welcoming to me. My own office staff have been terrific to work with and the priests who make up my core team.”

So, there’s no doubt that people—both religious and lay—have been a source of strength during his time as both priest and now bishop, but prayer and saintly examples are two areas that also help to bolster his faith. Anyone who follows Bishop John on social media will be aware of the emphasis he places on daily prayer and also the devotion that he has to Our Lady—a devotion that really caught fire during his first year in seminary and led to him describing his spirituality as ‘very Marian.’ However, what fewer people will realise is that Bishop John has a deep love for St Paul and his ‘missionary heart.’

“I love St Paul, particularly his missionary heart,” he said. “He passionately loved Jesus. He said at one point the love of Christ is driving me on. I get a faint sense of that. He had a love of people, a love of salvation of souls, all things to all men to save a few at any cost. Following his missionary journeys in the Easter season is something that I love.”

The importance of mission Unsurprising then, that mission is something that is profoundly important to Bishop John. While, he understands it—as most of us do—as the desire to reach out, evangelise and to proclaim the Good News, he has a much wider understanding of mission, explaining it from diocesan, traditional and lay perspectives.

“I would say the first mission that preoccupies me is the mission to our diocese, to the lapsed,” he said. “We need to discover how to go from a Church of maintenance to a Church of maintenance and mission. As Pope St Paul VI said in Evangelii Nuntiandi, ‘the Church exists to evangelise. The Church exists to be missionary, it’s the raison d’être of the Church.’ Pope St John Paul II said that ‘the parish will survive to the extent that it has the courage to find itself outside of itself.’ So, we need to find a way to reach out to Catholics who are no longer coming to bring them home. Then, within that to those who have never been Catholic but have not heard the Good News as a reality in our locality in Scotland. Mission also means mission to the evangelisation of our culture. In the public square we want to bring the Gospel values to it and work to eradicate anti-Gospel values.

“There is the mission that we always understood when we talk about the missions. The mission of the Church in the developing world. From I was a wee boy I’ve always been captivated by Missio Scotland. When I was in Africa—Malawi and Uganda—you’re overwhelmed by the vibrancy of the faith, of the Church. Christianity is flourishing and thriving like wildfire there, but it’s thriving beyond its material resourcing now. When I was over a couple of years ago and I had a day out with one of the bishops, I asked what he was doing that weekend and he said: ‘I’m going north to open another two parishes.’ Another bishop he was talking to was saying that he was ordaining 15 priests next month, but it’s nowhere near enough. So, it’s a different reality. The Church is really thriving, but it needs resourcing in terms of the schools, the seminaries, the hospitals and so on. But that’s the real hope, the hope is in the global south, the developing world for the faith.”

“There needs to be an understanding of the vocation of the lay faithful in the life and mission of the Church,” Bishop John added. “What the Church is asking us to do is to understand better, reflect upon and appreciate better the common Baptism of all of the people of God. The most important thing to my identity is the same as yours—it’s Baptism. Our most fundamental relationship is not that I’m a priest and others are lay persons. That’s not the essential relationship. It’s that we’re all Baptised and are brothers and sisters. All of us are equally responsible for the mission of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Lay people have the same dignity and responsibility as I do for spreading the mission of Our Lord Jesus Christ because we get it at Baptism.

“So, each and every one of us is responsible for proclaiming the Gospel where we are and for a lay person that could be in their family, in their local community, in their workplace and based on how they live their lives. Every one of us shares in the royal dignity of the priesthood. Jesus was a king who came to serve rather than be served. Every one of us is called to offer ourselves in service to the Church and the wellbeing of the Church.

“We, as priests have to allow the lay faithful to be salt, leaven and light in the world. It’s arguable that lay faithful have a more fundamental missionary task than priests do!”

And Bishop John believes that the lay faithful are going to be crucial in securing the future of the Church going forward, especially with the challenge of existing in an increasingly secular environment. Paisley Diocese held its successful synod that focussed on the themes of: The New Evangelisation and The Role of the Laity and from that he emerged with a positive outlook on the idea of renewal.

“Each one of us has to get to know Christ more lovingly,” Bishop John said. “ As St Richard of Chichester said: ‘May I know you more clearly, love you more dearly and follow you more nearly.’ A renewal of the Church, a renewal of our faith will bring about a renewal of the culture.”

Supporting Missio Scotland And what about Missio Scotland? Well the bishop believes that again the universality of our Church—priests, religious and lay faithful—is key to supporting the work of our missionary men and women throughout the world. It’s something, he feels, that the aforementioned St Paul knew instantly and his example, with regards to mission and charity, can always act as an inspiration if we need one.

“St Paul understood immediately, we’re not a congregationalist Church of each parish for itself,” Bishop John said. “We’re a universal Catholic Church and we all help each other. What I have, I give to the other who doesn’t have and what he or she has, he or she gives to me in terms of what I don’t have.

“Will any Christian community survive if it’s not universal now? The Catholic Church has the resilience of a universal Church. If there has been a weakening in faith in Scotland and Britain over the last three generations, there has been an equal and opposite growth of faith in Africa. Now they are sending missionaries to us. They are sending priests to us. All over the country we are now being supported by African priests, who came from the missionary efforts of our parents and grandparents and what have you.

“At the same time, we are relatively, in the western world and hemisphere, we are richer than they are. So, what’s £10 for us, could be the equivalent of like £500 in some places. Relatively speaking, we are materially better off, so we can support them materially whereas they support us spiritually.

“Missio Scotland is not about us giving to them—far from it—it’s about us all helping each other with the surplus spiritual or material resources that each of us has. So we should support Missio Scotland but we must always do that first and foremost from a position of love.”

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