I was born a poor white child. . .in rural Mississippi. Sorry, couldn't resist. Nonetheless, it's true.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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. . .
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, tambourine
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.
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 Episcopalian 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
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
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
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 began 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!
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. Accidentally.
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 accidentally
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.
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.
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