Ed West catches up with Philip Johnson, the US seminarian diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour
Few articles in The Catholic Herald have moved readers as much as an interview we ran two years go with the American seminary applicant Philip Johnson, who in 2008 was told he had an inoperable brain tumour and just 18 months to live.
The interview prompted many people to write heartfelt letters, and one reader even wrote to us offering to pay the cost of his priestly training.
At the time of that first interview the young man (he was just 24) had already decided to pursue his priestly vocation, having been given a medical discharge by the United States Navy. And, incredibly, last month he was admitted to candidacy for the orders of diaconate and priesthood at a ceremony in Philadelphia.
When I catch up with him Philip has just received the news that after over a year of intensive radiation therapy his tumour is stable, perhaps even a little reduced.
“It went well,” he say. “The doctors think the tumour is slightly smaller. It was hard for them to tell because they had to zoom in on it. But they’re going to keep me on chemotherapy for a few months.”
Philip’s story starts on October 15 2008. He was then a gunnery officer in the US Navy and discerning his vocation. He had been suffering from nocturnal fits for several months and had been to the doctor, who thought that it was sleep paralysis, an unpleasant but not serious condition. But because he was asleep he was unable to accurately describe the seizures, and it was only when his ship was in the Persian Gulf on deployment that a fellow officer saw one of the seizures.
He was given an MRI scan. Doctors sat him down and told him he had a brain tumour, and just 18 months to live. He went to the chapel and cried.
The following January exploratory surgery revealed that the tumour was cancerous, malignant and more aggressive than previously thought. The tumour was rated as 3.3, with 4 being the fastest-growing, with average life expectancy being under two years. Because it was too big to operate on the only option available was radiation and chemotherapy. That was three years ago now.
Philip’s health up until that point had always been good. “That’s why it was so surprising,” he says.
Philip was raised a Catholic in North Carolina, although he speaks with a standard Midland American accent. “I don’t know why,” he laughs. “My whole family has a southern accent. I just never picked it up.” Like most Catholics of his generation, he drifted away in his teenage years, rather than actively rebelling, and even as a child he says he was not especially devout.
Graduating from high school in 2002, he immediately entered naval academy in Annapolis, Maryland, although this involved some sacrifice for a young man. “The other universities all had parties all the time,” he says, while Annapolis was very strict and focused. But looking back, he says: “Going to naval academy saved my faith. In any other school I would have fallen away.”
At the time he had a steady girlfriend. The relationship lasted for two years, but he always had an affinity with the priesthood (his former girlfriend went on to marry and the two are still friends). “I started thinking about it after I came back to the faith,” Philip says now. “I had five years owed to serve in the military because they paid for college.”
In 2006 he met his bishop, Bishop Michael Burbidge of Raleigh, to discuss his priestly calling. Then came the news.
“I never felt anger,” he says. “I was just really scared at first and I was confused.
“I wanted to become a seminarian. We have so few priests, why would God cut short someone who wants to add to it?” he says, almost laughing.
The military gave him a discharge and he returned to the United States from his posting in the Middle East to prepare for priestly training. Later, he visited Lourdes for the first time. “I’ve probably been six or seven times. I’ve done that three summers now. It does still have that power. It keeps drawing me back. It has a unique atmosphere.”
There, he met his teacher, a hermit called Fr George Byers who was one of the English-speaking chaplains. Fr Byers teaches him only. Philip just refers to him as “the hermit” as he lives alone in a log cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“He’s been a seminary professor all his life,” Philip explains, “and it just happened that he decided to become a hermit, and the bishop of the diocese next to mine invited him. So he moved to North Carolina right when I needed to take time off for the seminary. We kept in contact ever since.”
I ask Philip whether his way of thinking has changed after carrying this disease.
“You start to care a lot less about worldly things,” he says. “Things that used to bother you don’t bother you any more, when you think about it. It changed my life for the better. It made my prayer stronger, I came into contact with people I otherwise wouldn’t have met. I can see God’s hand in it. I can’t be mad, because I can see how he is working through this. You think about the blessings you have already.
“Death: you never think about it, and if you do it’s so far away that you never give it a second thought,” Philip says. “Now I have to think about it every day.” (He recently lost a friend, Jennifer Robbins, to brain cancer. For like many people with terminal conditions he has come to know many other sufferers.)
Philip is currently assigned to St Catherine of Siena church in Wake Forest, North Carolina, and hopes to return to St Charles Borromeo Seminary for on-campus studies next year.
He loves the Extraordinary Form Mass, which he says is rapidly growing in his part of the United States. Raleigh cathedral now hosts an EF Mass one Sunday in each month and Philip finds it a source of strength. (His mother, incidentally, only became a Catholic three years ago, although he doesn’t believe he was a direct influence.)
Philip writes a blog, In Caritate Non Ficta (which translates as “in unfeigned love” and can be found at Philipgerardjohnson.blogspot.com), and his faith and stoicism in the face of such a terrifying condition have inspired many people.
“My bishop asked me to speak at the local high school,” he says. “He’d already asked them to pray for me, they were praying novenas. There was just overwhelming support.”
Philip gets letters from well-wishers all the time, and he says that knowing that people care helps a lot. “If you have a difficult day, knowing people are thinking about and praying for you helps.”
A friend in the Vatican even arranged for his name to be entered into the prayer book that sits on the Pope’s prie dieu. He remains in the prayers of so many people, friends and strangers who have been touched by his story.
Last month Bishop Burbidge, for the second year in succession, announced a novena for Philip. In a letter to priests, religious and the lay faithful of the diocese, the bishop noted that the “growth of the brain tumour appears to have stabilised about the time of the conclusion of last year’s novena”.
I happened to have read a couple of days before interviewing Philip about a new trial for treating brain tumours, called GALA-5, in which 60 patients newly diagnosed with glioblastoma, the most common type of malignant brain tumour, will be given 5-amino-levulinic acid, a substance which makes the tumour glow under UV light during surgery, making it easier to remove under surgery. I mention this to Philip, then realise he probably gets these sorts of snippets of hope all the time from people. It is natural when confronted with such a terrible injustice to want to offer reassurance.
He laughs. He says that he gets “a lot of emails from a lot of people” telling him about the latest in developments in brain cancer treatment.
I ask Philip what he is currently praying for. “I’m praying for strength,” he replies. “I’m praying for the strength to accept God’s will and be joyful about that, because miracles happen.
“I’ve always had a feeling, right after I was diagnosed, immediately I was told I had 18 months to live… for some reason I didn’t believe it. And I keep hearing it from different people, from priests I know, who say that when they pray for me they have a feeling I’m going to be around for a while.”
For some reason I get the same feeling when we speak, such is the strong feeling of hope that he communicates, not just for himself but for all of us who are ultimately heading in the same direction. So many people, in fact, across the world are praying for Philip that it seems as if he has an enormous force of faith behind him. So this Christmas, please remember him in your prayers.