For terminally-ill seminarian, a life with suffering is not void of dignity

Raleigh, N.C., Oct 24, 2014 / 05:53 pm .- A seminarian is looking forward to his ordination to the diaconate this spring and the priesthood a year later, even though he was given roughly a year and a half to live back in 2008.

Phillip Johnson, who is now 30, was diagnosed with a Grade III brain cancer known as anaplastic astrocytoma six years ago when he was serving as a naval officer in the Persian Gulf.

“I remember the moment I saw the computer images of the brain scans – I went to the Catholic chapel on base and fell to the floor in tears. I asked God, ‘why me?’” Johnson wrote in an Oct. 22 column, “Dear Brittany: Our Lives Are Worth Living, Even With Brain Cancer,” for the Diocese of Raleigh website.

He was sent home to the U.S. for radiation and chemotherapy and then discharged from the Navy before entering formation for the priesthood, a calling he said he was aware of since he was 19.

Even with aggressive treatment, most research shows that the average survival time for this type of cancer is 18 months, he said.

Quoting the 29-year-old woman who has documented her decision to die by physician-assisted suicide in an online video, Brittany Maynard, Johnson said that “being told you have that kind of timeline still feels like you’re going to die tomorrow.”

After consulting with his doctors, Johnson learned that he will “gradually lose control of my bodily functions at a young age, from paralysis to incontinence, and it is very likely that my mental faculties will also disappear and lead to confusion and hallucinations before my death.”

Much like this terminally-ill woman, he does not want to die or “suffer the likely outcome of this disease.”

“I do not think anyone wants to die in this way.”

However, Johnson believes that such suffering does not diminish his worth as a person.
“My life means something to me, to God, and to my family and friends, and barring a miraculous recovery, it will continue to mean something long after I am paralyzed in a hospice bed.”

“My family and friends love me for who I am, not just for the personality traits that will slowly slip away if this tumor progresses and takes my life.”

Johnson recognizes Maynard’s temptation to end her life “on her own terms.” He admitted that at times he wished that the cancer would take his life quickly to end the suffering and that he hoped for a miracle to be cured of the cancer.

Having been given this long to live has now proved to be a miracle in itself, Johnson said. In fact, he has “experienced countless miracles” throughout his illness.

In his preparation for the priesthood, he has been able to serve other terminally ill people and learned that “suffering and heartache that is part of the human condition does not have to be wasted and cut short out of fear or seeking control in a seemingly uncontrollable situation.”

“Perhaps this is the most important miracle for me.”

Avoiding suffering at all costs – even at the expense of one’s life – is a way to try to gain control “in the midst of turmoil,” but it ignores the redemptive value of suffering.

“We do not seek pain for its own sake, but our suffering can have great meaning if we try to join it to the Passion of Christ and offer it for the conversion or intentions of others.”

Johnson said that by ending her life prematurely, Maynard will be missing out on the “most intimate moments of her life” in return for a faster option “that focuses more on herself than anyone else.”

In his own experience, the seminarian has endured sadness, but has also experienced periods of “great joy.”

“I still get sad. I still cry. I still beg God to show me His will through all of this suffering and to allow me to be His priest if it be His will, but I know that I am not alone in my suffering,” he said, pointing to the support of his family, friends, and the Church.

Johnson said he will keep praying for Maynard in her illness, that she will “understand the love we all have for her before she takes her own life.”

If she decides against her suicide and chooses to fight the disease, she would be “an incredible example and inspiration to countless others in her situation.”

“She would certainly be an inspiration to me as I continue to fight my own cancer.”


  1. Jackie Reply

    I for one do not know what I would do given the same prognosis as Brittany. Her disease is different than yours. She is rapidly going down hill and there is no treatment that will work. She has chosen to go out with dignity according to her beliefs, which I think is very brave. I don’t believe that she is only thinking of herself, but of her husband, friends and family. She wants them to remember her as a happy and alert human being, which is the way everyone would like to be remembered. I applaud both you and Brittany on fighting the good fight to the end whenever that my be. Everyone has their own choice in this situation and everyone’s fight is different. We cannot judge, only God can do that in the end. God Bless both of you at this difficult time in your lives.

  2. Katie Reply

    Good luck sir. My prayers are with you

  3. Kathleen Reply

    My son was diagnosed with grade4 brain cancer in June 2011, he was given 15 to 18 months to live, as his mum I felt angry and asked why. I went to church and spent a lot of time talking to our Lord and praying and lighting candles. I know our Lord heard my prayers because now in 2014 he is still with his children and family. I thank God for my faith and belief in him.

  4. Sherry Montemayor Reply

    Dearest Phillip, I admire your courage and fortitude, as well as your great faith during this battle. You are an inspiration to many. I pray that the Lord will allow you to be ordained a priest and that you will be able to function fully in that capacity. If, however, this is not to be His wish, I say here that you are already a priest in the way that you’ve reached out to so many people by your example and by being willing to share this on the internet for everyone to see. God bless you.

  5. kristineahullinger6513 Reply

    i had a fraind who was told she had thiroid cancer anangel told her to stop kemo her docter sead she wold not live six months if she did she asked me and i sead if she beleaves trust in god she did and lived eight years and we asked god to help releave the itcing from rthe kemo the docters started up she went into a coma in gods hands my sister and i prayed for her cancer she sead lets god will be done befor she died bothe trusted god in his will for them let gods will shine in you at this time and be an examples of gods love aqnd call for you gods prayer be with you kristine.a.hullinger

  6. christine Reply

    It’s all believing in God , we may ask ourselves why me GOD but the truth is that our faith become so confused the more we say. The thing which we is to trust in God and to hand over your life to God my secret is whenever I feel pain I pray the Lord pray and sleep over it. And their comes the next all what matters is Faith in God.

  7. elizabeth Reply

    Am encouraged to know no matter the storm God is on the throne we kp talking to him.may he heal u to serve men worldwide for hes bigger than our problems

  8. Catherine Reply

    Thank you for this writing. I was deeply upset when I read of the Nov 1, All Saints Day, end day by choice of this young woman with brain cancer…..You got it right. I hope she doesn’t go through with this. I will pray for both of you. May God continue to bless you. I totally agree in offering up your suffering for the benefit of others. I admire you and thank you again………….

  9. AL Reply

    I support this young man’s choice regarding his terminal illness and will pray for him for both healing and comfort as I support and pray for Brittany. I have never been, and hope that I am never put into the situation these two wonderful young people have been dealt. I do not know what decisions I would come to but I know I would have the unyielding love & support of family & friends that God has placed my life. May Phillip & Brittany also feel that unyielding love as they continue to suffer a ruthless, diabolical illness.

  10. Juliana D'Souza Reply

    The Scripture says, I have chosen you when you are in your mother’s womb. Surely, brother you will serve the people in Lord’s name. Your faith and encouragement to all who are suffering, is an inspiration to all the victims of the terminally ill. We salute you and ask the merciful Lord to heal you and look forward to your Ordination. All praise and honor to you Lord Jesus.

  11. marianfk Reply

    this is the most important in today’s time what you can do for yourself – look calm in times; Responsibility for people – Ecclesiasticus 31.15 – we do it

  12. mando Reply

    May Almighty God touch you and heal that tumor. He is BIGGER than the tumor, may He be the One who takes control of every situation in your life as He is the One who created you out of His pure love. I will remember you in my Novenas and other prayers. I know how to be called to RL is like, you give your all mind, body and soul to the Lord. May you be strengthened to see your ordination, God-willing.

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