An interview with Bishop John Keenan

Published

Chris McLaughlin

“So how were you actually told that the Pope had decided to make you a bishop? Did you get an unexpected phone call from the Holy Father himself?”

I’m only half-joking with the present Catholic chaplain of the University and soon-to-be installed new Bishop of Paisley, Father John Keenan. Pope Francis has a well-reported habit of personally telephoning out of the blue, having previously answered letters seeking advice and on one famous occasion to cancel his subscription from his local Buenos Aires newsagent shortly after his appointment as leader of the Catholic Church..

“Well it used to be that you would get a phone call and someone would ask ‘Esne solus?’ (Latin for ‘Are you alone?’) which was an arcane medieval thing. I regret to say that doesn’t happen now,” says Father Keenan, who reveals he got the news of his promotion by far more modern means. He missed several calls on his iPhone before getting a text message from the Apostolic Nuncio Antonio Mennini, ambassador of the Holy See for Great Britain.

The message summoned Fr Keenan to Mennini’s residence in London. He recalls: “I thought to myself, either I’m in very, very big trouble or they’re going to ask me to be a bishop.”

Fortunately it was the latter for the amiable Glasgow law graduate who has been Catholic chaplain to the University since 2000. At 49, John Keenan will become the youngest of Scotland’s Catholic bishops and the fifth bishop of Paisley since the erection of the diocese in 1947. Although the diocese of Paisley is small in area, Fr Keenan will find himself leader of an eighth of Scotland’s Catholics, comprising 36 parishes served by 74 priests.

I ask him what he will remember of his time at Glasgow University. He mentions the visit of Pope Benedict XVI, leading pilgrimages, as well as the millions-strong Catholic World Youth Days in Madrid and Rio de Janeiro. Most of all, though, says Fr Keenan, he’ll remember “the faces of all those students, four generations of them now.”

He tells me that being a university chaplain is quite different to being a regular parish priest. “There’s a form to parish life which you slot into. When I came to the University, Cardinal Winning said to me ‘Say Mass every day, twice on a Sunday and then figure out the rest as you go along.’ It was enormously energising to have that level of creativity. Every room was redeveloped. For the first five years I was more often found in a boiler suit with a hammer in my hand than I was saying Mass.”

Fr Keenan adds: “To have a parish where your largest group are teenagers or in their early twenties is an amazing thing – to have a parish which is defined by young parishioners. Therefore the parish itself has to be structurally young. It’s a different kind of parish.”

As I start to ask how relations are with the University, he cuts me off mid-sentence. “It’s a fantastic relationship!”

He explains: “It’s non-contractual. You could call it an honorary, friendly relationship. It’s so friendly, it’s fraternal now. We consider ourselves to be 100% part of the University, it just so happens to be the case that the Church owns this building. The University use our upstairs halls for lectures on a daily basis and we would never think of charging them for that. But in lieu of that, they refurbished the rooms to the level of lecture halls and installed AV facilities and PCs for the students. We do everything we can for the University and they do everything they can for us.”

There has been friction during Fr Keenan’s tenure, however, most notably with the SRC concerning the issue of same-sex marriage.

Fr Keenan addresses that conflict of ideas: “We went through a sticky period, but we tried our best all round to keep faith in each other. We came to the conclusion on all sides that everyone was operating in good faith, but just with a genuine difference of opinion.”

He added: “I’m glad to be leaving on a high note with the student officers.”

Looking back on his 18 years at Glasgow University (four as a student and fourteen as chaplain), Fr Keenan reflects: “I’m going to miss the University. I could have cheerfully stayed here for life. I think that the University now has its own man in the Catholic Church in Scotland. So much of the way I think, the way I feel, is determined by being here.”

Father Keenan’s installation Mass as Bishop of Paisley will take place in Saint Mirin’s Cathedral in Paisley at 7pm on Wednesday 19 March.