Around a year ago, Bishop James Johnston came to Kansas City to lead the Catholics of northwest Missouri at a challenging time. He came in with an agenda not of his choosing: to clean up the mess of the sexual abuse scandal that engulfed his predecessor. But he also has hopes and priorities of his own.
Bishop Johnston spoke with guest host Brian Ellison on KCUR’s Central Standard about what his job entails, and about his journey from electrical engineer to getting the call from the Vatican to come to Kansas City.
These interview highlights have been edited for length and clarity.
On his background
I grew up in east Tennessee, in Knoxville. I went to a Catholic grade school and high school, then I went to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (go Vols) and studied electrical engineering. It was there that I really began to look at my life.
On growing up Catholic
Our family was very active. I would go with them to church events and Sunday Mass. Our family was fairly committed.
Many people don’t realize that east Tennessee is the least Catholic place in the country: it’s 2 percent Catholic. My dad’s family was not Catholic, so I grew up in what we would call a mixed family. His family were primitive Baptists. It was a very interesting sort of childhood I had. And growing up in east Tennessee really prepared me for life. You get used to listening, to having conversations and dialogue and understanding.
On attending a secular college
It was the first time I was really out of my element, in a sense. I was in a more diverse place and I had more people ask me questions about what I believed … people who were friends, so I didn’t feel threatened by their questions. I was, probably for many of them, the first Catholic they met. In fact, it was a catalyst for me to do some deeper searching about what I believed and why I believe it, so it was an awakening.
On his decision to be a priest
I’m sure, like a lot of college students, when you get to college, you begin to realize your life is ahead of you and you’re going to have to start making big decisions. I started examining my life. I began to really understand how much I was loved by God. In a sense, I think I discovered my real identity as a beloved son of God. And once you discover your identity, a lot of things begin to start falling into place. I began to feel the urge to give myself away, to give myself to God.
On getting into electrical engineering after college
I wasn’t certain about priesthood and I had my degree. And I was getting some job offers, some good ones. I’d never really been away from home. So I took a job in Houston, Texas, the furthest job offer away from home that I had. It was painful. I was so homesick going into a strange, large city. But it was good for me, and I made great friends and worked there for three years.
I enjoyed the people I worked with, I enjoyed the problems and solving problems and helping people. I enjoyed living in a big city, too. It helped me to grow up.
On getting the call from the papal nuncio to become the Bishop of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph
I was the bishop in southern Missouri for seven and a half years at the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau. I happened to be driving back across that long stretch of southern Missouri when I got a call from the papio nuncio, Pope Francis’s representative to the United States.
It was stunning. I had to pull off the road, and when I heard the voice of the nuncio saying that Pope Francis wanted me be to become the next bishop here, it was frightening, I have to admit. It’s stunning, just in blink of an eye, to have your life changed.
On asking for forgiveness for the sex abuse scandal at a recent Service of Lament at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
It was real because we talk about healing, and there are different levels of healing. And I think the deepest healing comes from forgiveness. But that can only be made possible and made easier when genuine confession is made and repentance is done.
Listening to the voices of actual victims and survivors is very sobering, very powerful.
On charges from critics that such services are more about public relations
It’s hard to respond to something like that. I can only speak from the heart. If people are willing to receive it, that’s a grace. I can’t get into a debate on whether or not I mean it or not. I try to be as transparent and honest as can when I speak, and I hope people receive it that way
I think we should be held to account and criticism is helpful. I’ve benefitted greatly over my life from good criticism. We’re not exempt from that. I think it’s good, it doesn’t hurt at all. It can be very healthy.
On what a bishop does all day
I work with our pastors and our people all across the 27 counties of northern and western Missouri to further the kingdom of God, and that takes a lot of shapes and forms.
I’m a firm believe that every person has gifts that God wants them to use to serve the kingdom. Mainly, that’s lived out in parish communities, communities of faith where people come together for worship, for learning, and for life in common. That’s lived out in charity, we have various charities to serve the poor and the vulnerable.
A bishop’s job is always trying to prepare for future too: preparing for future priests, laypeople to minister, preparing for adequate resources, preparing for new institutions — like St. Michael’s the Archangel, our new high school that’s going up right now in Lee’s Summit.
On the balance between the administrative side and the pastoral side of the job
I realize that it’s both. I try to make sure that a healthy part of my weekly schedule is spent out of the office, and in the parishes. It’s a good blend.
On whether he has a role beyond the church
I do, I believe that very much. When a bishop becomes a bishop, he becomes the bishop not only of the Catholics in his territory, but every soul in his territory. In some ways, I’m called to pray for — and to assist, even in remote ways — every person within my diocese. I see the church as the presence of Christ in world, and that presence is intended to assist and to bring the love of God to every person
On whether his role is an activist or political one
First and foremost, it’s not. However, there are issues that arise that do fold over into political issues. There are certain moral issues, issues that touch on the common good that are part of our faith that impact the greater community. And so, sometimes my voice is needed in areas in the public square
On what he’d like the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph to be known for in the future
I’d like it to be known as place where people encounter the hands and the face and the heart of Jesus. That it’s known for bringing the love of God into the community in way that enriches our entire community.
Jen Chen is associate producer for KCUR's Central Standard. Reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.