by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicsm
Dr. Knight: You are the pastor of St. Peter and St. Paul in Portlaoise, Ireland. What does that mean? Does your work fill the entire day?
Msgr. John: Portlaoise is a big Parish by Irish standards; we have a general population of c. 26,000 people and according to the last census 78.5% class themselves as Roman Catholic. Pre Covid we had a Sunday worshipping congregation of between 6000 and 7000, at 9 Masses. 5 of those celebrated in our Parish Church, St. Peter & Paul’s, 1 in each of our country Churches at the Heath and Ratheniska, 1 in the Hospital Chapel and 1 at a Mass Centre at one of our Schools – Scoil Bhríde, (St. Brigid’s) Knockmay. We have over 2,000 pupils in 5 Catholic Primary Schools in our Parish and almost 2,000 pupils in 2 Catholic Secondary Schools. Each year we have over 300 baptisms in our Parish with a corresponding number enrolled for First Communion and Confirmation. We serve as Chaplains to the Schools. We also provide Chaplaincy to the Midlands Regional Hospital, Portlaoise.
So as Pastor there is certainly enough to keep me busy within the Parish. I also serve as Vicar General to the Diocese, Kildare and Leighlin, and in addition I am Diocesan Finance Director.
Dr. Knight: How did you receive your call to be a priest? How has this call changed over time? .
Msgr. John: I grew up in a Catholic family in Ireland of the 50’s and 60’s. (born in 1951) It was an easier time for a young person to contemplate a religious vocation – everyone was encouraged to from time to time. I was ordained at 23yrs of age in 1974. It has been a challenging time to be a Priest in Ireland but I don’t regret answering the call to follow Jesus as a Priest. Even in Seminary I realized that the reasons I stayed were different from those that brought me to Seminary – maybe different is the wrong word, evolved might be more accurate. Similarly as a Priest – the call remains the same but the response changes with the times. It is a very different World from the one I grew up in and from the one I was Ordained in yet the promise of Jesus remains and sustains ‘I will be with you always, yes to the end of time’.
Dr. Knight: Do you spend significant time in spiritual direction or primarily programs for groups? It is awesome to see all the priests together at Mass. Do you all live in the rectory?
Msgr. John: Developing a team at Parish level has always been a priority of mine. Communication, openness, developing and agreed and common pastoral approach, regular meetings where everyone contributes are part of this approach. We need to develop a collaborative ministry not just including the priests in the Parish but also involving our religious and lay staffs along with our various ministries and councils.
We all live separately – maybe that contributes to being able to get on well!
Dr. Knight: Our book club is reading the USCCB book “Open Wide Your Hearts” about social justice. What book or books are your parish reading?
Msgr. John: Recommended reading for the Parish team and also a group attached the Pastoral Council are reading ‘The Pastoral Conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelising mission of the Church’, an Instruction issued by the Congregation for the Clergy on 27th July this year.
Dr. Knight: Is this parish one that you have been assigned to for a long time? How do you lead people to the Gospel values?
Msgr. John: I was assigned to Portlaoise as Pastor (P.P.) in the millennium year, 2000. So I have been here a long time. The question of leading people in Gospel values begins with oneself – living life according to those values. I think the prerequisite for any (secular) priest assigned to a Parish is to be a good member of that community. Building up, encouraging, and being part of whatever is good for the community – not just Church activities but every worthwhile community activity, sporting and cultural. We should not live apart from the community and while we cannot be active in all the good and worthwhile we should be supportive and encouraging of them.
Dr. Knight: Do you think/feel that the use of social media in our parishes can assist young people to think about knowing/loving/serving God through their ‘cyber-neighbor’?
Msgr. John: A huge challenge into the future. We were never young as the young people today are young. They truly live in a different World and yet have all the needs of young people – to be loved, listened to, valued and directed. I feel with the pace of change abounding we are in real danger of not being able to communicate with youth and will not appear relevant to them. In that situation it is difficult for them to hear the gospel and the call of Christ to ‘follow him’. We need to be creative and to harness the creative talents of those young people who are active in our Parish. We have a real need to develop a peer to peer ministry among our youth.
Dr. Knight: As a pastor you are able to educate and spiritually form many people in the society through your work. What issues are predominantly on your mind and heart?
Msgr. John: Evangelisation has to be at the heart of ministry – Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, (Dublin) said we have the most catechized and least Evangelised youth in Europe. Referring to the predominance of Catholic Schools (but State funded) having extensive Catechetical programmes. Many young people have 14 years of education in Catholic Schools but yet are detached from Church and Jesus Christ at the end of their time. The Parish must be a place that gives young people an encounter with Christ and a sense of belonging and being wanted. The Parish also has to be at the forefront of welcoming the stranger and the stray and reaching out practically to those who are in need at home and abroad.
Dr. Knight: There have been very influential Bishops throughout the ages including saints. Who influenced you the most?
Msgr. John: I have been fortunate in 46 years of Priesthood to have had 4 bishops in our Diocese who were good and faithful Shepherds – from the bishop who ordained me in 1974, Patrick Lennon, to our present bishop, Denis Nulty. They have influenced my faith and my ministry positively. Growing up in the 50’s/60’s Pope John Xxiii was a very positive influence and I’m sure made me open to the call to priesthood. His ‘Journal of a Soul’ is still a positive influence. I was also vey influenced by priests in my own home Parish whom I saw as very good men performing an important role in our community.
Dr. Knight: It seems that this interview would help us understand your leisure activities. Why is rest and relaxation so important to our spiritual development?
Msgr. John: ‘the glory of God is man fully alive ‘(Irenaeus) And part of that being ‘fully alive’ is to enjoy life reflected through relationships and recreation. I play Golf, not particularly well, but I enjoy the occasional game. I am a follower and fan of local football teams and enjoy the comradery associated with them. My family are in Horse racing and own a number of horses – I enjoy attending race meetings with them, particularly on days when we have a winner!
Dr. Knight: What other issues do you have as a priority for our work as a society?
Msgr. John: Welcoming the stranger is an integral part of being a follower of Christ. I have been involved with a local Direct Provision Centre (where Asylum seekers and Refugees are housed by the State) on the outskirts of our Parish since its beginning some 16 years ago. In 2014 I called for an end to this system and controversially the owner unsuccessfully attempted to ban me from visiting because I compared the system as akin to an ‘open prison’. Finally a Government that took office this year have committed to ending that particular system. I see it as fundamental to our faith to recognise all as our brothers and sisters – not always a popular line. Racism is a destructive force.
Gordon: Thank you for doing this interview to help all of us understand your work better and to live a life in Communion with Christ.