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Taking up the cross: Seminarian with brain cancer to speak on 'redemptive suffering'
CHARLOTTE — Suffering is nothing to fear, says Philip Johnson, Diocese of Raleigh seminarian and Greensboro native. Instead, it is an opportunity to bring us closer to Christ.
Johnson knows from experience, as he'll share with attendees at the Eucharistic Congress. In 2008 he was a U.S. Navy officer serving in the Persian Gulf when he learned he had an inoperable brain tumor. He was medically discharged from the military and then acted on a goal he had hoped to achieve after completing his service: beginning studies at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia.
Johnson has been receiving chemotheraphy since early 2009, but the tumor has not shrunk.
"Because of the effects that the chemotherapy is having on my blood counts and other health problems," he explains, "my doctors have decided to discontinue chemotherapy at the end of October to see if the tumor will stay stable while my body recovers for a while."
His future is uncertain, but there is a spark of hope: He has outlived his original prognosis of 12 to 18 months, which he credits to the prayers of the faithful.
Though his cancer and its treatment have brought him pain, Johnson says that pain can be put to good use for the Lord.
"Suffering can either be wasted or it can be offered up for others for a positive purpose," he says.
That positive purpose is known as "redemptive suffering" – the belief that through prayer, one human's suffering can alleviate another's.
"Suffering will come to us all," Johnson says, "but ... with the help of the Church, the sacraments and each other, suffering is nothing to be feared and should instead be accepted joyfully."
That joyous acceptance doesn't come right away, though.
"It is hard to think about death when you are young and healthy," he says. "I felt invincible when I was 24 and didn't think about death very much, and then all of a sudden I was handed a heavy cross to bear."
At the Congress, Johnson will also speak to the high school track, encouraging students to be open to vocations. It's a message he wouldn't have imagined thinking about when he was in high school, when he was a "lukewarm" Catholic, he says. But an encounter on a summer trip in college ignited his faith.
"Thoughts about the priesthood came to my heart immediately," he says, "but it took many years for me to be open to answering God's call."
— Marian Cowhig Owen, correspondent
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