Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The priest - and his Mrs.

By David O'Reilly

After 19 years as a Lutheran pastor, the Rev. Philip Johnson had grown disenchanted with Protestantism.

"There comes a time, if you're Catholic, to be Catholic," the newest priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Camden said Wednesday at his home in Sewell.

Dressed in his 11-day-old Roman collar and black clerical garb, Johnson, 59, was explaining the appeal of Catholicism's traditionalist ways when a middle-aged woman emerged from the kitchen.

"Here you go, Hon," said Johnson's wife, Janet, handing him a glass of Coke.

"Thanks," said the priest, smiling as she eased down next to him on their living room sofa.

It was a familiar scene for the Johnsons. Married 38 years, with four grown children and four grandchildren, they spent nearly two decades in a Lutheran parsonage in Jersey City, N.J., before converting to Catholicism four years ago.

Men sporting both Roman collars and wedding rings are a rarity in the Catholic Church; it banned married clergy eight centuries ago. In 1951 it made an exception for married clergy who convert, but on a case-by-case basis.

The church has ordained only a few hundred since. "Mr. Johnson's ordination does not indicate a change of celibacy norms for Latin Rite priests," the Camden Diocese noted when it announced his May 22 ordination.

In fact, the Johnsons had no clue he would be accepted for ordination when they converted. But priesthood was their fervent hope. "He was just horrible sitting in the pews," Janet Johnson, 60, said Wednesday, and laughed. Her husband, a serious man, shrugged. "I just couldn't imagine not preaching," he said.

It was not until four months after converting, as Johnson was studying at the Catholic University of America in Washington, that Camden Bishop Joseph Galante learned of his situation and invited him to be a candidate for priesthood.

Galante has named Johnson parochial vicar at St. Bridget's parish in Glassboro, where he will also serve the Catholic community of Rowan University. Both Johnsons will conduct marriage-preparation classes around the six-county diocese.

Although Johnson is the second married priest in its history (the Rev. George McCormick, a former Episcopal priest, served from 1984 until his death in 2000), the Camden Diocese is still learning how to fit the couple in. "The insurance forms for priests don't have a line for 'wife,' " Janet Johnson said. "I told them I'm his 'preexisting condition.' "

Johnson's appointment at St. Bridget's - he said his first Mass there Wednesday - appears to be welcome news to parishioners.

"I think it's wonderful," said Anne Young, an elementary school teacher and Realtor who stopped by the parish office Friday to shake his hand.

Young is "not sure" she likes the idea of married priests, but told Johnson that she and her 92-year-old father "do welcome you."

Jim Dougherty, 72, said he was delighted with Johnson's appointment. "I have no problem at all," with married clergy, Dougherty said as he emerged from the church with his granddaughter. "In fact, I think it would help with a lot of problems."

Johnson sees no long-term obstacle to married priests in the Catholic Church, since the ban is "not a matter of dogma." But he also regards "consecrated virginity and priestly celibacy an ancient tradition and a great gift" to the church. "I don't want to be the poster boy," he said, "for married clergy.

Both Johnsons' faith journey began in the fundamentalist Church of Christ: a Bible-based sect that preached hell for outsiders but was "very nurturing, very loving" for those inside, Janet Johnson recalled.

They met at Harding College in Little Rock, and married after graduation. By then, both had qualms about their faith's exclusionary ways. "The church in those days had a very narrow view of who was Christian," Philip Johnson said.

But after he earned a divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1979, the couple accepted an invitation to live and work for the church in London.

There, they and their young children shared a stately home, Disciple House, with two other couples and their children, whom they all raised together.

London also exposed them to Anglican, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic modes of worship. These included a liturgical calendar, sacraments, formal liturgies, and instrumental music - all of them unknown in the Church of Christ.

Philip Johnson's prayer life, meanwhile, was becoming less self-scrutinizing and more communal - what he calls more "Catholic." When it came time to return to the United States "we knew we couldn't come back to the Church of Christ," Janet Johnson said.

"But we couldn't cross the bridge all the way to Roman Catholicism," said her husband.

In 1986 they converted to Lutheranism, whose music, sacraments, preaching tradition, and liturgies fit their notion of "Catholic" but without the "Roman." After two years at Grace Lutheran Church in Jersey City, he became pastor of 500-member St. Paul Lutheran Church, also in that city, where he served until 2006. She taught kindergarten.

At the time of their conversion, mainstream Lutheranism seemed headed toward rapprochement with the Roman Catholic Church. But when the main Lutheran sects grew liberal and allowed female clergy, the faiths drifted apart.

In October, however, the Vatican announced a new policy by which traditionalist Anglicans, including whole congregations and breakaway synods, may seek "full, corporate and sacramental union" with Rome while retaining much of their liturgy and traditions. The arrangement would allow married Anglican clergy to petition for priestly ordination.

Lutheran pastors, Philip Johnson said, also seemed increasingly free to impart their own views on abortion and homosexuality to their flocks.

"It was a question of who decides," he said. "The question of church unity and teaching authority became very big for me.

"It was Janet who pushed me" toward Rome, he recalled. "She said, 'It becomes clear we don't have a choice.' "

Their conversion was not without pain. Son Nathan, 27, and daughter Alison, 35, did not convert with them, and as non-Catholics were barred from receiving Holy Communion from their father at his ordination Mass. "They understood," their mother said, shaking her head. "But there was a lot of grief. It will never be easy for me." Son Thomas, 25, and daughter Meghan Onochie, 32, are now baptized Catholic.

His ordination "is a culmination of everything Dad's prepared for," Onochie, a new mother, said Friday from her home in Reston, Va. "I think it's really beautiful they made an exception for someone in his situation."

Despite their unique status, the Johnsons said the diocese was trying hard to fit them in.

As they prepared to pose for photos after the ordination, Janet Johnson recalled, she stepped to Galante's left side, leaving her husband on his right.

"No, no," said the bishop, switching positions with her.

"I never," he said, "want to stand between you and your husband."

Photo: Fr. and Mrs. Philip Johnson

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