Philip Johnson didn’t tell anyone where he was going. He didn’t ask if it was OK to leave. And never mind that he skipped a day of classes.
At the time he was a rising senior at the U.S. Naval Academy, studying abroad with fellow midshipmen in France.
There were many reasons he took what he called “his chance” that Friday.
First, he wasn’t worried about traveling alone in a foreign country. He had studied French since he was a boy in Greensboro and could speak fluently. Second, he had always wanted to visit Lourdes, France, where Mary appeared to a young girl named Bernadette in a grotto in 1858. Third, and most important, he needed an answer.
“I had a girlfriend at the time. I was really struggling with whether or not I wanted to get married or become a priest,” he said. “So I took this pilgrimage for a weekend to pray and receive clarification from God about what he was calling me to do in life.”
Today, he talks openly about how he received that clarification. “It wasn’t a brick over the head,” he said. “It’s hard to explain.” But it was there, at Lourdes, that he felt a calling to discern.
After two days, he returned to his host family and summer studies in Paris. He later went back to campus in Annapolis, Md. ,and graduated from the Naval Academy. And, in 2006, he met with Bishop Michael Burbidge, who had just been appointed bishop of the Diocese of Raleigh. He told Bishop Burbidge that he had a five-year commitment to the Navy but that he intended to seek priestly formation after that commitment was over.
Philip was thinking about the possibility of becoming a military chaplain. Considering his background, which included his father’s service in the U.S. Marine Corps, it was a likely thought. And Father Aidan Logan, who had been Philip’s chaplain at the Naval Academy, was the first priest who motivated him to discern.
It seemed that Philip had a plan. He was in his early 20s and felt invincible. He imagined that he would serve in the Navy, see the world and then live a lifetime in service to others as a priest.
During his Navy service, he did see the world. He went on two deployments, which took him from his base in Norfolk, Va. On the way to a deployment in the Middle East, he visited Spain, Morocco, Italy, Israel and Greece. In the Kingdom of Bahrain, an island nation, he realized how difficult it is for Catholics in some parts of the world to practice their faith.
“It’s a Muslim country … there’s only one Catholic church in the entire country. [That church] was filled with Catholics …. some of them from Saudi Arabia … some Indian refugees. They have such a fervent faith. They’re living in a place where Catholics aren’t very welcome … but they’re keeping the faith despite all of the dangers,” he said.
There were points during deployments when he had no option but to go months without Mass. It was difficult, he said, and he missed receiving the Eucharist and the sacrament of penance.
“It was something I just took for granted living in the U.S. I started to think of the stories of early missionaries in China and Japan. They went sometimes years without seeing a priest,” he said. “But they still kept their faith through the rosary … through praying their missal. That was something I had to turn to.”
Even with the sacrifices of life aboard a ship, he felt good about his service and his plan to attend seminary.
But things took a turn he couldn’t have predicted.
In 2009, while off the coast of Saudi Arabia, a roommate on the ship noticed that Philip was having seizures in his sleep. He visited the ship’s doctor and, later, the closest Naval base. Medical personnel told him he had a brain tumor but that it was manageable.
“I had a little bit of relief in that,” he said. “But … when I came back to the United States one of the neurosurgeons [in Portsmouth, Va.] looked at the scan and told me that the previous doctor had been wrong.”
A biopsy showed a fast-growing cancer. The doctor was honest in his professional opinion: inoperable, incurable and with a median, or average, survival time of two years.
“It was just bad news. I didn’t get any good news. And it just changed everything,” he said. “I was 24. It was the first time that I felt out of control. I was worried … sad … [and] scared. But I never got mad at God.”
After a medical discharge from the Navy, he found himself meeting again with Bishop Burbidge. “I will never forget the words he said. He said, ‘Philip, if God is calling you to be a priest, then who am I to get in the way?’ I will always remember him saying that and supporting me,” he said.
He completed radiation, and began a pill-form of chemotherapy and classes at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary outside Philadelphia. He persevered with faith, friendships and coursework. His favorite classes were about the liturgy.
Around 2011, though, he reached a point where he was too sick to continue at school. He was appointed to an internship at Saint Catherine of Siena Parish and took residence at the rectory with [then] pastor Father Philip Tighe.
At the rectory, his bed and quarters were situated so that, if he became bedridden, he could have direct sight of the Blessed Sacrament. Fr. Tighe directed all sorts of remedies to the young seminarian. “Whether it’s a kale shake or the worst-tasting thing in the world … that [food prep] went on in our rectory for maybe two weeks,” Fr. Tighe joked. “I tend to be somebody who likes to solve things, and in this case I was able to experience a lot of my own inadequacies … and learn how to listen to him about what he was going through.”
Fr. Tighe added that Philip had a great resiliency during the two years he spent in Wake Forest. “He studied hard. He performed very well. He kept pace with his classmates. We all knew academically he was gifted. It was great to see him push through [challenges],” Fr. Tighe said.
He returned to St. Charles in 2013, was ordained to the transitional diaconate in 2015 and graduated from seminary in May 2016. Throughout his years as a seminarian, he made a month-long visit each summer to Lourdes, where he served the sick.
“Everybody talks about the miracles at Lourdes, [but] there actually aren’t that many physical miracles … I think it’s 69 over the past 150 years,” he said. “I think the real miracles I witnessed there were when people would change their hearts … people were converting, going to confession and forgiving people.”
As many who know him have observed, he brings a unique understanding to those who are suffering.
It was fitting that Deacon Philip Johnson was ordained to the priesthood on Jan. 7, the birthday of St. Bernadette of Lourdes.
For many reasons, it was a day that beat the odds. Medically, Father Johnson has outlived median survival time for his type of cancer by years. And the Mass took place on what was a snowy and icy day for many parts of the diocese. About 700 were originally anticipated to attend, but only about 300 were able to travel to the church.
Father Johnson’s parents, Debra and Philip, and his older brother, Patrick were proud to share the day with their son and brother. Bishop Michael Burbidge, former bishop of Raleigh and current bishop of Arlington, was the principal celebrant of the Mass. Bishop Timothy Senior, auxiliary bishop of Philadelphia and rector of St. Charles Borromeo, was present. About 20 priests attended, including Father Javier Castrejon, who vested Father Johnson. Friends Bruce and Joy Nogales, who gifted Father Johnson with a chalice, presented the gifts during Mass.
“As someone said to me this morning, and it is so true, ‘No snow, no ice, no bad weather could take away from the joy we are experiencing this day,’” Bishop Burbidge said in his opening remarks.
In his homily he added, “Today invites all of us to reflect on God’s call in our lives … for all of us to rejoice in how God has acted in the life of Philip Johnson. Philip, in God’s divine and mysterious plan, in the midst of your strengths and weaknesses, God has chosen you to become his priest, and throughout these years he’s also asked you to accept and take a share in his cross, which you continue to carry courageously and faithfully.”
Father Johnson will serve the faithful at Sacred Heart Parish in Pinehurst and San Juan Diego Mission in Robbins.
“I am looking forward to offering Mass … to be able to hear confessions,” he said. “Confessions have been very important in my life. I’d like to be a gentle confessor and bring the gift of God’s mercy to other people.”