In seas of sobering news coverage leading up to and following Brittany Maynard’s controversial suicide this November, Philip Johnson, a Catholic seminarian from the Diocese of Raleigh, was an inspiration to many Catholics.
Like Maynard, Johnson was on the brink of a shining time in his young life when he was diagnosed with incurable and inoperable brain cancer. He was 24 with excellent career prospects as a Naval officer. But his actions following the diagnosis stand in sharp contrast to Maynard’s. Johnson entered the seminary to pursue the priesthood — a call he’d heard since the age of 19. Patients with his type of cancer are typically given 18 months to live; but six years later, despite the pain and struggle associated with his illness, he is hoping to be ordained a transitional deacon in the spring.
Of his suffering, Johnson wrote: “I have traveled to Lourdes, France, the site of a Marian apparition and a place of physical and spiritual healing that is visited by millions of pilgrims each year. I have had the great opportunity to serve the infirm there who trust in God with their whole hearts to make sense of their suffering. Through my interaction with these people, I received much more than I gave. I learned that the 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 that God intends for me to experience.”
When Maynard told People magazine in October that she was planning to take her own life on Nov. 1, people from all across the nation begged her to reconsider. Many shared their own testimonies and stories on blogs, websites, social media and letters to the editor as proof that life holds worth at any stage. Unfortunately, Maynard did carry through with her plan, dying on Nov. 1 in Oregon — a state where physician-assisted suicide is legal — at age 29.
Johnson was one of the many who reached out to Maynard. Despite being, in his words, “shy and introverted,” he shared his own struggles in an article for the Diocese of Raleigh. Though empathizing with Maynard’s pain, he encouraged others who suffer to spurn physician-assisted suicide as an option. His powerful witness has earned him a place in Our Sunday Visitor’s 2014 Catholics of the Year.
Mariann Hughes writes from Maryland.