By Fr. David Daigle
Philip Johnson, an officer in the United States Navy and graduate of the United States Naval Academy was just promoted to Lieutenant Junior Grade (LTJG) and will soon be joining the USS IWO JIMA (LHD 7) as the Fire Control Officer. At only 24-years old, Phil has a great career and future ahead of him. But there is something more - Phil wants to be a priest.
Serving as a chaplain in the Navy has brought me into contact with many fine individuals and many talented people. Phil is both. He is an exceptional man and a talented young officer. With that in mind, I'd like to share some background on Phil—who he is, where he's from, and what he believes is the path God is leading him to in life.
Phil’s inspiration for attending the Academy and why he decided to become a naval officer came from his father who served in Vietnam as a Marine. This life experience had a huge impact on Phil; growing up, he had great respect for the military, and the sacrifices men and women make in service to the country.
Although he had been raised in a devout Catholic household, the years of high school were not a time of deep spiritual growth. He partied a great deal and was not particularly close to the Church. When the time came for college, he felt drawn to pursue life in the military, and saw the Naval Academy as the pinnacle of military education.
Accepted to the Academy, he put aside all other college options. That first year was very tough with physical and intellectual difficulties that seemed almost insurmountable. The drill instructors were unrelenting and constantly pounded the midshipmen, seeking out any weakness of character. The schedule was extremely demanding with every moment of the day was structured. In essence, there was no time to spend alone for reflection or to pursue personal interests. That is, except on Sundays when the midshipmen were permitted to attended religious services. It was then that Phil's life changed. He relished the quiet time, and the chance to pray. He turned to the Lord for strength, and his spiritual life began to be revitalized after some years of dormancy. He returned to Mass, and eventually to the Sacrament of Reconciliation after many years of being away.
With the spiritual tide of his life changing, the high watermark occurred after completing the grueling "Plebe Year" of the Naval Academy in 2003. Midshipman Johnson was offered the chance to attend a month-long retreat in Europe with other college students. On this retreat, he sensed a deepening awareness of God through the sacraments and in the spiritual inspiration he received by visiting the soaring Catholic basilicas and cathedrals in France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein. Notably, his trip culminated in a private audience with then-Cardinal Ratzinger where he professed his filial respect to the future pontiff.
Spiritually renewed, he returned to the Academy a changed person. He began attending daily Mass and participating in all the events of the Catholic groups. For two years, he had been dating someone he describes as "the perfect Catholic girl." But things had changed so much in his spiritual life, that he had begun contemplating the idea of being a priest. At Mass, he began to imagine himself in the role of the priest celebrating the Holy Sacrifice. The strength of his desire for serving God even brought with it the thought of leaving the Academy before graduation and entering the seminary. However, knowing the education and experience of the Naval Academy was not something to set aside lightly he decided it was best for him to graduate and work in his chosen profession. By gaining some life experience, he determined that if the calling to the priesthood was true, it would not only survive but grow stronger.
Commissioned as an Ensign, a junior ranking officer, he took his first assignment on a cruiser. During his first deployment to the Persian Gulf in 2007, he had no access to a priest or the sacraments for many months. The lack of access to a priest and the sacraments was something he said was very difficult on him spiritually. It did, however, help him truly appreciate the ministry of the priest even more.
Flashing forward to the present time, I met Phil because will soon be transferring from the VELLA GULF to the IWO JIMA in August. Between underways, I’ve been visiting the other ships of the strike group, getting to know the Catholic lay leaders and the Catholic faithful onboard. For my part, I consider it a big honor and a blessing to be a part of LTJG Johnson’s life as he grows in his faith and discerns a calling to the priesthood. The story of Phil’s life underscores how very important it is for the presence of priests alongside servicemen and women in the military.
I thank God everyday for allowing me to serve as a priest in the military. Although it is a challenging ministry, I thank God for allowing me to meet wonderful men and women of every faith looking for God and seeking Him out within the circumstances of their lives. But, in a particular way, I derive my greatest joy and satisfaction as a priest bringing God's presence to Catholic men and women in and through the sacraments. With a grateful heart, I offer a special word of thanks to my bishop, William E. Lori, for releasing me for this service.
Fr. David Daigle writes for CatholicMil.org from aboard the USS Iwo Jima, (LHD7). Copyright 2008 CatholicMil.org. Used with permission.