This week Philip Johnson, a seminarian for the Diocese of Raleigh at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, spoke to students in Cardinal Gibbons High School (CGHS) theology classes. Mr. Johnson’s visit to the school was much anticipated. Students have been praying for him this past year when it was learned that he was suffering from an inoperable brain tumor. During his visit, he talked about life as a gift from God, redemptive suffering and the importance of remaining in a state of grace.
A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Mr. Johnson served two years in the Navy. In 2008, while serving on a ship near Bahrain, he began experiencing health problems and was ultimately diagnosed with the tumor, resulting in a Navy discharge. He was given a year to 18 months to live.
“I have outlived my prognosis, and I attribute that to prayer,” said Mr. Johnson. “I thank you again for your prayers and ask you to keep praying for me.”
Bishop Burbidge requested prayers for the seminarian from the faithful in the Diocese as soon as he learned of the diagnosis, and CGHS students answered the call. “Ever since we began praying for Philip, my freshman and sophomore classes have really embraced him,” said Pat Gallagher, CGHS theology teacher. “They often ask about him and have really looked forward to meeting him.”
Philip shared with the students his pre-diagnosis journey from living as a lukewarm Catholic to feeling called to the Priesthood, and related what his experiences have taught him since. He said he learned the importance of remaining in a state of grace through the sacraments. “If we go to the Sacrament of Penance frequently, we are assured of God’s forgiveness and will be strengthened against temptation,” he explained.
Through his experience with cancer, he has realized “that everything we have is a gift from God; God does not ‘owe’ us anything.” Mr. Johnson encouraged the students to visit nursing homes and hospices to see how fragile life is.
Through his physical suffering, Mr. Johnson said he is learning the power of redemptive suffering. He has special devotions to Saint Therese of Lisieux and Saint Bernadette. “The suffering from my illness has intensified my prayer life, made me more conscious of my duties as a Catholic, brought family members back to the Church, and has allowed me to reach out in a special way to the sick because of my personal understanding of what they are experiencing,” Mr. Johnson explained. “The Lord has certainly worked through my illness, so it is impossible for me to be sad, depressed or angry at God.”
The Gibbons students found material for reflection in the seminarian’s remarks. Winston Senter, a senior, felt that Mr. Johnson’s talk “put things in perspective for me. I need to live life to the fullest and really connect with God and Jesus everyday and not put things off.”
Sarah Graves, a CGHS senior, said, “It was really inspirational how he brought his suffering to God. You can see God working in him; it’s really powerful.”
Mr. Johnson, who has completed his first year of Pre-Theology, has taken this semester off from the seminary due to his medical treatments. He is serving the community of St. Catherine of Siena in Wake Forest for the next few months while he receives chemotherapy.
Above: Seminarian Philip Johnson talking to one of four Cardinal Gibbons High School classes to discuss his health condition and thank students for their prayers.
Above and below: Students listening to Philip Johnson talking about the power of redemptive suffering and how his illness strengthened his prayer life.