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New Catholic bishop chooses to live in deprived housing scheme

AS Scotland's newest Roman Catholic bishop he could easily have opted for the opulent residence set aside for a man in his position.

CULTURAL SHIFT: Bishop John Keenan has said he is moving in order to be closer to the deprived and excluded members of society. Picture: Jamie Simpson
CULTURAL SHIFT: Bishop John Keenan has said he is moving in order to be closer to the deprived and excluded members of society. Picture: Jamie Simpson

But Bishop John Keenan, who grew up in a high-rise in Maryhill, Glasgow, has shunned the more comfortable address to move into a parish house in a housing scheme in an area of multiple deprivation.

Explaining his decision, Bishop Keenan said the Catholic church was going through a cultural shift and would have to "adapt and change in order to be close to the people of our times".

His first move as the new Bishop of Paisley has seen him decline to take up the detached sandstone villa in the town, in Renfrewshire, used by his predecessors, and move instead to a church property in Greenock's east end.

In his first wide-ranging interview since being installed last month, Bishop Keenan has told of his concern that those in destitution have been "abandoned by society and the church", adding he would reflect "a church out on the street not one that's comfortable in the chapel".

Echoing the stamp put on Catholicism by Pope Francis, the 49-year-old said there were still structures within the church restricting its ability to reach out to those on the margins of society.

Bishop Keenan said: "Exclusion is a scandal for a country that calls itself Christian."

He has also spoken of the need to strip some power and responsibility in the church away from the clergy and hand it to lay members, adding he supported the Pontiff's call for a "new reformation" within Catholicism.

Addressing the problem of dwindling congregations, Bishop Keenan referred to the biblical parable of the 'lost sheep' where Jesus advises leaving 99 to seek the one stray, adding: "It is so hard to take Jesus seriously on this point."

Bishop Keenan's choice of accommodation comes on the back of years of criticism within the Catholic church of the manner in which many senior clergy live, with former Bishop of Motherwell Joe Devine attracting controversy in 2008 for demolishing his home to build a new residence at an estimated cost of £650,000.

He said: "I've just come from living in a university chaplaincy with a dozen students so I've been living surrounded with the buzz of life and fun.

"When I was thinking about becoming a bishop I was keen to take as much of that into my new life, finding people who could form a family with me and support me.

"Priests in Paisley found me a place in St Laurence's, Greenock.

"I am living with the parish priest, Father Gerry McNellis, lots of parishioners come in and out of the house and it has the sound of laughter that makes me feel at home.

"I celebrate the parish Mass and am getting to know the people and that's perfect for me."

The third bishop appointed by Pope Francis in just nine months after years of little change within the Catholic hierarchy in Scotland, Bishop Keenan is also by far the youngest cleric heading any of Scotland's eight dioceses.

The former Glasgow University chaplain had in recent years also been priest of St Patrick's parish in Anderston, Glasgow, where serial killer Peter Tobin had murdered Polish student Angelika Kluk in 2006.

Even as far back as four years ago his name was mentioned as future leader of the church but the evident change at the Vatican appears to reflect Bishop Keenan's take on Catholicism.

He said: "Francis dreams, and so do I, of a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets and not clinging to its own security.

"He doesn't want, neither do I, a church with a tomb psychology which transforms Christians into mummies in a museum.

"When people see a church not just giving to the poor and the excluded but being among them and living with them joyfully, then they will really begin to believe there is a way out of the vicious cycle of living for yourself in your own little bubble."

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