02 December 2008

Fr. Philip's Vocation Story

I was born a poor white child. . .in rural Mississippi. Sorry, couldn't resist. Nonetheless, it's true.

Both sides of my family are Mississippi delta cotton farmers. Though no one farms now, both of my grandfathers planted cotton. My mother and all of her sisters "chopped cotton." My dad drove a tractor. All of them went to church. My mother's family went to the Baptist Church and my dad's family went to the Methodist Church.

My first memory of church goes back to the sixth grade when my mom and dad sent me and my little brother to Vacation Bible School. Mostly I remember being the only kid that week who had not "accepted Jesus into his heart as his personal Lord and savior." Come Friday, feeling the pressure, I walked the aisle, said the necessary things, and walked back to my pew complete with Jesus. It didn't take.

For the most part my family back then was not a church-going bunch. We went occasionally, but mostly we spent Sundays working in the gardens, the yards, doing necessary work around the house and farm. Sometime my sophomore year, mom and dad decided to start going to church again. They chose a United Methodist Church in the largest town near us. It was the local "bankers' and doctors'" church. Lots of old money. Lots of nice cars. Lots of snooty glances at the rubes from the woods. I hated it. We stopped going after about six months.

That next year I went to Mexico with my junior Spanish class. We cut and sold firewood from my family's property to pay for the trip. Our teacher, a Catholic woman, helped us with the hard labor and with our Spanish. Up until we got to the National Cathedral and the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the trip had been a bust for me. My roommates were jerks. I didn't have much money. And my Spanish was rotten. When we arrived at the plaza in front of the cathedral, one of a hundred tour buses packed full of tourists, I stood up and started to the front of the bus like a robot. One more stop, one more site, snap a pic, get back on the cool bus. Little did I know. . .

The second I stepped off the bus, even before my foot hit the pavement, I notices crowds of older women in black on their knees slowly making their way to the shrine. They were praying with these necklaces in their hands. I turned to my teacher and asked what was going on. While she formulated an answer I was horrified to see that these women had bloodied their knees crawling on the gravel and pavement. What kind of religion was this?! My teacher said something about devotion and praying for sons in the drug world and some other things about Mary. I didn't really hear it all.

When we got inside the cathedral, I was overwhelmed with a sense of familiarity and comfort. Just this energetic boost of being home and welcomed. There was a Mass going on. I pestered my teacher for details. She explained what she could. She showed me how to make the sign of cross using holy water. How to kneel. She told me the names of all the fantastical objects in the church--the crucifix, the statues of Mary and the saints, the fonts and confessionals and altars. I was overwhelmed. It was like someone was reminding me of things I had known all my life.

As I look back on that day what I know now is that God trapped me with the sacramental imagination. He was showing me His presence in all the things of this sacred place. I "recognized" them as holy, as set-aside, because without having the words to articulate the feeling, I felt holy as well, loved, wanted. With this feeling still rattling around inside, we walked over to the newly opened Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I knew nothing about this. Nothing at all. The story, once I heard it, didn't impress me all that much. Sounded kinda far-fetched to me. The new basilica was ugly. Stark, angular, modern, cold. Nothing like the near primitive wonder of the cathedral. We saw the relic. Big deal. Move on.

With the vision of the bloody old ladies still in my head and the incense still in my nose. And maybe even a bead or two of holy water still clinging to my forehead, I got back on the bus and started in on my teacher. I pestered her some more about why she was Catholic and where I could get more information and could I come to Mass at her Church and did her Church have classes for people who wanted to be Catholics and on and on and on. . .she good-naturedly answered my questions.

We drove over the mountains to a village called Taxco. A silver mining town for tourists. Our hotel perched on the side of the mountain and my room had a balcony looking out over the valley. At midnight the local set off a stream of fireworks. I went to the balcony. It was very breezy and cold for a Mexican March night. Just standing there alone watching the fireworks I had this sudden sense that everything around me was rushing toward me, almost as if I were falling standing straight up. For just a few seconds I didn't hear anything. Going back to bed, I prayed--something I never did!--and simply asked God to tell me what to do.

I woke up the next morning convinced I should be a priest. After that I started having dreams.

I was vested in red and saying Mass in my high school auditorium.
I was teaching a class and a man called me out of the classroom to say Mass.
I was standing in a sacristy and couldn't find the right vestments.
I was in the middle of saying Mass and the sacramentary was all wrong, misprinted. . .

Eventually, I told my grandmother. She gave me a cigar box full of Catholic paraphernalia: a rosary, prayer cards, a small crucifix, and a "question and answer" catechism, which never left my side. I took it to school and embarrassed myself arguing with the Baptists. Even my teachers got in on the arguments! The stuff in that box became a tangible link for me to the Church.

When my parents found out that I wanted to be a priest, they were a little upset. They put up some resistance at first but eventually gave way. By this time I had gone off to college and joined the Episcopal Church. Why the Episcopal Church and not the Catholic? The E.C. in my college town was an old-fashioned brick building built in the 1830's. Stained glass. Brass fixtures. Beautiful hangings. The priests there wore their clerics. The music was thundering, beautifully sung. The services were "churchy." The Catholic Church in town was easily confused with a dentist office. Built in the late 70's, it was a box with those 7-11 glass doors and the whole "stripped bare" vibe. No statues. No tabernacle. No stained glass. No nothing that identified this building as a Catholic Church. The services were informal to the point of being just slightly more organized than a Baptist picnic. The music was folksy guitar, hand-clapping, tamborine banging. The priest wore ugly, ugly, ugly vestments. There was absolutely nothing solemn, nothing transcendent, nothing attractive about any of it. The choice to become Episcopalian was too easy.

I was baptized in the E.C. in 1982 and confirmed later that year. I immediately went to the rector and told him that I wanted to be an Episcoplian priest. I was 18. He told me to finish my undergrad studies, think about getting a masters, and come back when I was around 24 to discuss the whole thing again. 24?! That was middle-aged!! Anyway, I became very active in my parish. After a few years and well into grad school, I had a falling out with the rector. Being a good Protestant, I stopped going to church in protest. In the meantime, all sorts of ideologies, practices, philosophies, and personalities were drawing my attention.

Since the E.C. offered almost nothing in the way of solid teaching on moral deliberation or anything in the way of substantial intellectual formation, I fell prey to one dubious theology after another. Finally, in my last year of PhD studies, I was convinced that God did not exist. Despite this, I was convinced by a British prof teaching in my department that I should move to the U.K. and become a "red priest," that is, an Anglican priest who rejects theism but works in the church for "social justice" using Marxist/socialist categories as guides.

I decided to take a year out and teach English in China. That was a disaster. However, I came back to the States rededicated to my vocation to become an Episcopal priest. I started the formal discernment process in my diocese--a two year procedural grind that worked to discourage many people by its sheer complexity and futility. I served as the guinea pig postulant for my parish "discernment committee." The whole thing was a farce. At the time, I submitted to it out of a sense of wanting to collaborate and a sense that the Spirit would work through the committee to help me discern my vocation.

The details of the process would be book-length so I'll have to summarize: I spent two years meeting nearly weekly with nine lay people from the parish who asked the same questions over and over again. . .eventually they sent a positive recommendation to the vestry of the parish who then met with me to ask me the same questions over and over again. On the night of the vestry vote on whether or not to send my application to the bishop, every single member of the vestry looked me in the eye and told me that I had his/her support and vote. I went home confirmed in my vocation and ready to start seminary. At around 11.30pm, the rector called to tell me that the vestry had rejected my application. The reason: I had the stuff for making a good priest but just not yet mature enough. I was 28 at the time. The rector could not tell me why those voting against my application had lied to me earlier.

This rejection sent me into an anti-religious tailspin. It was during this time that I pursued my interests in the occult and became more and more enamored with Marxism. I spent two years finishing up doctoral coursework and preparing for comprehensive exams. After passing my orals, the prospectus defense, and suffering through several personal traumas, I left the academic world for a job in the psychiatric world. Once in place in my new home, I begain to pursue the priesthood again. This time in another diocese with another parish. At the urging of my parish priest, a woman from Mississippi, I took on a Catholic spiritual director, a Paulist priest in a local parish. Over a year with him I found my Catholic vocation again.

On the national scene, the E.C. was committing suicide with one disastrous lurch away from the historic faith after another. Finally, in 1995, I had had enough and left the E.C. to become a Catholic. I joined the RCC as a liberal High Church Episcopalian, meaning I was formally a Catholic but my theology and church politics were modernist and my liturgical tastes were medieval. I still didn't care for the informal, hippie-dippie Catholic liturgy, but the friendliness and community that the RCC had compared very favorably the chill I felt in the cliquey country club world of the EC.

Once confirmed, I immediately started the process for joining the Paulists. I spent two years in discernment with these guys. On the advice of the vocations director, I quit my excellent job at the hospital and moved home to spend the summer before entering seminary with my parents. I got a job in a local psych hospital and basically spent my free time getting "caught up" on all things Catholic and Paulist. In June of 1998, I came home from work and my mom told me that the Fr. John, the Paulist vocations director, has called and wanted me to call him back. I did. He told me that the president of the Paulists had rejected my application for admission. Fr. John would not tell me why. He said, "They're afraid you will sue us." Apparently, Fr. John should not have encouraged me to quit my job before the final decision about my application was made!

I was devastated. My mom wanted me to drop the whole idea of priesthood. I agreed. I walked around the house that day, saying over and over again, "What am I going to do?" My mom kept crying and telling me to just forget the priesthood, get a job, get an apartment, and be happy doing that. In the meantime, I was injured at work and got a staph infection in the injured site (first lumbar disc). I spent the next seven months in agony--both physical and mental, trying to deal with doctors, hospitals, insurance people. It was during that period of pain, dependence, helplessness, and rebellion that I finally found my niche. Accidently.

I was browsing an internet site that had an alphabetic listing of links to the websites of men's religious orders. Most of them I had never heard of. I spotted one that intrigued me "Discalced Carmelites." As I went to click on the link, I accidently clicked on the link for "Dominicans." I was taken to the order's main webpage and it took me all of three minutes to find the US provinces and the southern province. I contacted the vocation director via email and the next day he called to chat with me for two hours. About a week later he came from New Orleans to my parents' house in Mississippi to interview me. We spent six hours together. He offered me an application at the end of the meeting.

What was special about this discernment? Over the years I've complicated the whole affair into something it isn't. For me, the simple truth is this: the Dominicans wanted me. The Episcopalians didn't want me. The Paulist rejected me. The Dominicans wanted me, and they promised to make use of my gifts. I was accepted into the 1999-2000 novitiate class. My acceptance was contingent on my finishing the PhD before July 1999. I wrote furiously from Feb to July, finishing a first draft by the time my plane left. I graduated with the PhD in May of 2000. I was simply professed in 2000; solemnly professed in 2003; ordained deacon in 2004 and priest in 2005.

Smooth sailing the whole way, you ask. Ohhhhh, no. The novitiate was very hard. My studium years were extremely difficult. I made the move from being an ideological Marixist with religious pretensions to being an orthodox Catholic. The move has not been applauded by all of my brothers and sisters in the Order. Sometimes, I get the impression that there is some "buyer's remorse" about accepting my application! However, I have found many brothers and sisters in the Order (from the whole theological spectrum) who share St Dominic's zeal for preaching the gospel and witnessing to the power of God's mercy.

Plans? The phrase "Dominican plans" is an oxymoron. Of course, we plan. But I've rarely seen these plans actually pan out. If I could simply chose my path I would continue teaching undergraduate philosophy, theology, and literature. I am developing a course that brings all three fields together. The University of Dallas is developing a creative writing program that I would probably be willing to hurt someone to join. The Angelicum has a Templeton Foundation grant for a project called "Science, Theology, and the Ontological Quest." The grant brings in scientists, philosophers, and theologians to teach and research on the intersections of science and faith. I'd love to be a part of this. I am also dedicated to adult lay formation at the level of teaching basic theological/philosophical methods. However, preaching, as always, remains primary and any and all of this stuff I've mentioned here is directed solely to the improvement of the preaching. Without that, there is no reason at all for me to be here.

Fr. Philip, OP

P.S. I almost completely forgot to mention what happened with my high school Spanish teacher, Mrs. Mary Eddy! I went home to visit my parents right after I got back from Oxford in 2004. I had been ordained a deacon at Blackfriars and was preparing to move to Houston, TX for my internship. I went to Mass at the local parish, which had moved to a newer building. I went in clerics to the 9am Mass. When I got there I asked around for Mrs. Eddy. It didn't take long before she came running up to me to say hello! She was very surprised to see me and more surprised to me in clerics. She told everyone that she was responsible for bringing me into the Church. Yup, I'd say she was. Goes to show you what just a little encouragement for a young man with a vocation can do. . .right?


  1. Question - where did your grandma get the cigar box full of Catholic "stuff"?

    Uplifting story and pretty amazing story - thank you!

    ...and I can understand why you might not be popular with the more liberal of your order. Keep it up. It means you're probably doing something right!

  2. Wow I have always been curtious about your conversion story and you sure did not disappoint

  3. Adrienne,

    The cigar box came to my grandma through a long and twisted set of circumstances that I'm not at liberty to share. It's just a part of my family's history that's off-limits for the public.

    Also, in do far as I am unpopular with the liberals, I think it has more to do with my personality than my politics/theology...though those don't help. Because of my 90's grad school training I am prone to deconstructing arguments in a way that often pretends to get at the motive-core of a position. People see this method as a personal attack. A lot of religious these days are trained in the "I-statement" philosophy of communication, a method that highly privileges emotion and perspective w/o reference to objective truth. I don't buy that, so my interaction tends to look aggressive in comparison.

    Fr. Philip

  4. thanks for sharing, I mean that most sincerely.

  5. I actually didn't know you taught in China!

  6. Wow, that's a beautiful story! As a fellow convert (though my story is far, far less dramatic) I can totally empathize with the feeling of "home" at your first Mass.

    Did you ever get a chance to tell your Catholic teacher this story? I'll bet she's love to know that she was so instrumental in God's plan for your life :-)

  7. Thank you! I see no other way to "discuss" an issue than from objective truth. Of course, that is something that is not taught nor believed anymore.

    I taught the 7th - 12th graders at our church for almost 10 years and would have to spend the first 3 or 4 classes teaching them what truth was. Sad!

  8. Magnificent story! And consider how it begins. Over 400 years since she first appeared to St. Juan Diego, the Blessed Mother is still working New World miracles.

    Another classic element of the story: we always seem to take the long way around, even when we cannot say that it is because of concern about our sick uncle. Except that under the burden of modernism, the "long way around" can now take us years, even decades out of our way.

    When the Lord presented the beloved disciple to His Mother at the foot of the Cross, what a profound gift it was!

  9. Thanks for kicking serious ass father. We appreciate your journey, especially us Irvingites. I cannot wait to see you in 3 months!

  10. Fr. Powell,]
    I suggest you put this bio on your sidebar. Title it Conversion Story or something like that. Not only would others be able to read it, but you won't have to repeat yourself and constantly refer people.
    Just wondering--did your parents convert?

  11. Anonymous10:04 PM

    as a fellow Mississippian and convert i loved reading your story, esp the part about the rubes from the woods at the "doctor's and lawyer's church" we always called it the "mink coat" church. (even though it's never cold enough for a mink coat in MS)

  12. oh I love the PS about your teacher! how cool is THAT??!!

  13. On behalf of my class and my (now formerly) student brothers: dang glad to have ya!

  14. Fr. Philip - awesome story! Being a convert myself, one thing in particular caught my eye - the lack of beauty at the RC church in town prevented you from converting at that time. I had a similar experience and I've always tried to figure out exactly why that gave me pause for a while. I, unlike you, converted at that time nonetheless because I was intellectually on board, but I have always tried to figure out why the lack of beauty made me hesitate given that my brain had told me it was the truth. Well I finally figured it out - God is Beauty and when the church and it's liturgy does not convey that beauty (or even rejects it) you begin to have doubts. Why would you want to join a church that (seemingly) rejects God? God bless you for your work, and keep preaching the Truth!

  15. jcr385...

    yes, God is beauty...but beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. YOU may not have found beauty in the minimalistic contemporary church...but others might (I'm a traditional gal..I'm just saying) so perhaps, given your arguement it is GOOD to have both traditional looking churches and also the modernistic style churches so that there is something beautiful for each to see a reflection of God in.

    ??? what do you think??

  16. MightyMom

    I would agree to a certain extent. There is a subjective component to beauty, but I also think we could agree that there is certainly an objective standard for beauty as well. Since there is a Being (God) who is Beauty, then there should be standards by which we judge beauty. Judging beauty should engage emotion, the senses and the intellect all at once and should not just be reduced to emotion. I think what you've gone too far to the extreme and reduced God to someone who can be changed and tailored to personal tastes - a dangerous proposistion indeed!

  17. Did you study at the Dominican Studium in St. Louis?

  18. Father: Thank you very much for sharing with us your conversion story. I must say that, agreeing with you, we sometimes take the longer road and search for something that has ben there all along. I have been Catholic all my life, and the strenght of that identity is so strong that sometimes I can even understand why someone who stops going to church or disagrees with the church on some things, still calls him/herself a catholic even if fallen from state of grace, even in turmoil, even in identity and faith crisis, one calls oneself a catholic nevertheless. Your conversion story reminds me a lot the scriptural passage where we read: "I have called you by name...and you are mine" because no matter what one does, we are Christ's and we belong with Him. I was going to share with you that even though i never stoped calling myself a Catholic, I had my moments of darkness, of being lost, of searching. I embraced in my student years the worldly philosophies of existentialism and agnosticism (they were so convenient, to tell you the truth)and I myself saw my life swirl into a meshmash of chaos and fear when i arrived in the U.S. after arrving: yes, from China too. I spent six months there, but these were the loneliests days of my whole life, and it was there that I violated the first commandment, knowingly, and somehow, it seemed O.k. when it happened but after that the pain inside me was so strong that I couldn't take it off me no matter how hard I would try to lull it. One night, here in the U.S. I was in my bed and couldn't sleep. i recounted my life since my childhood and a sudden and intense sense of being lost and affraid swept over me as i contemplatwed how i had wandered away from the One God who had always been my shield, my stronghold, my helper in days past. I couldn't take it anymore. I jumped off my bed and got on my knees and simply and plainly i asked to the father: "Fathr, please bring me back to you, I left your house and I am lost, I need you...I trust in you" After the criying stopped, I went back to bed and I slept like a baby for the first time in so many years. i had the security and the certainmty that God was with me again. Ever since I have walked in the land of the living in conspectu Domini, and even though I am human and I frail sometimes I walk with Him now and I will live in the house of the Lord all the years of my life.

  19. I have a guess or two about the cigar box based on a similar object in my family.

    When I became a Catholic two or three of my great aunts were scandalized AND told me about my great grandmother, who was christened a Catholic but was a Baptist by the time she married.

    They had stories of a rosary somewhere around, but no one has ever given it to me.

    Of course, maybe my cousin the Russian Orthodox Priest (he's OCA, actually, but he went to St Vladimir's) got it?

  20. Anonymous11:08 AM

    Wow, Father, thank you very much for sharing this. I'm 20 and I thought I am the only one with problems, it a relief that I not alone (well in a time travel sense I guess, no offense) I want to be a priest but am pretty discouraged with the fact i can't stand college and now my alternative plan is gone since the Marines wont take me due to the anti-depressant meds I'm on. But you remind me vocations take time, God bless!

  21. That's quite a long and complicated journey!

  22. Fr. Philip,
    Here in the Diocese of Austin we got our annual "Meet the Seminarians" supplement. One of them, Sean DeWitt, mentioned you as being an influence in his answering the call.

    I'd like to send you a scan of it, but can't find an email address for you. Let me know if you'd like me to send it!


  23. Robyn, leave another comment with your email address...I won't publish it.

  24. Can I ask, how did you come by your name in religion? Why Phili Neri?

  25. Excellent story!

  26. Awesome story. Thank you for the time you were with us, and may God continue to guide you on your journey

  27. Anonymous5:07 AM

    Thanks for sharing You are one interesting man.Good luck in the future and may GOD bless you always.Your friend Ron