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By Tom Holmes
Fr. Phillip Owen would be the first to tell you the Roman Catholic Church needs reforming. Ordained on May 21, the 26-year-old priest who grew up in River Forest knows from firsthand experience that changes need to be made. As a child, however, he had no sense of calling whatsoever to the role of reformer.
When older women in St. Luke Parish would tell young Phillip that he would make a good priest, his reaction was "no way."
"Growing up, my role model was Michael Jordan," he recalled. "The priesthood was very unattractive to me. The priests didn't come into the school much, and when they did, they were grumpy. Why would I want to waste my life being a priest? I wanted a house, a nice car and a wife."
Owen said he didn't receive much inspiration from his teachers at his parish school either.
"Looking back," he said, "I don't think my teachers believed what they said they believed."
His real spiritual formation began at home. "We grew up fairly poor," he said. "I'm the eighth of 10 children, and I wore my brothers' hand-me-down clothes. We lived a simple lifestyle and had a happy family life."
Every evening the family would have what they called "prayers," a time when they would watch a religious film, pray the rosary or go around the family circle with each member praying out loud.
Owen would hang out at St. Luke Church all the time, not because he was a particularly pious kid but because "that's what you do when you are raised Catholic." He remembered how he would often be late for his first class because he had been serving Mass.
He recalled his four years at Fenwick High School more for his participation on the basketball and track teams than for any spark to join the priesthood. It was, however, during his high school years that he experienced a first gentle pull toward that vocation. His brother Peter, seemingly out of the blue, announced that he was going to enter the seminary. Four years later, he followed suit, entering St. Joseph College Seminary at Loyola University.
"I was not really interested in the priesthood," Owen said. He wanted to take a look at the option rather than intentionally seek that path. "My first year was haphazard because I wasn't really motivated. I needed to be converted."
Hearing the call
In his second year, however, he felt a strong call to be a priest. What happened was that his roommate, two years older, provided the first attractive model of what being a priest could look like, even though his bunkmate was still six years away from ordination. "He showed me what a living Catholic faith was," said Owen. "He lived it. He was a good Catholic man."
That inspired him to start reading the lives of the saints. Again he was impressed by men and women who, like his roommate, not only lived what they believed but were willing to die for it. In his junior year, he read the life of Jean Vianney (b. 1786), the patron saint of parish priests.
"He gave his entire life to God," Owen observed. Moved by the lives of the saints in general and of Vianney in particular, he thought, "Wow! I want to do that."
Upon graduating from college with a bachelor's degree in psychology and philosophy, he entered Mundelein Seminary to study theology and prepare for ordination. It was during his years in college and at the seminary that two tidal waves rocked his ecclesiastical boat. One was the extensive coverage given to the sexual misconduct by some priests in the Catholic Church and the subsequent cover up by some in the hierarchy.
"I'd never heard of it before," Owen confessed. "I was sort of protected. I never saw it. People hadn't talked about it. For me, that sort of thing just didn't happen."
The way he resolved the doubts about the Church that the scandals raised was partly to focus on the conviction that his calling to be a priest came from God. When some of his classmates left the seminary to pursue different paths, he again focused on his vocation.
"For me," he stated, "it's always been between me and God. If guys leave or scandals happen, I still have to be faithful."
The second challenge to his vocation came during his field experience while in seminary. Working on the weekends in parishes around Chicago, the young seminarian was troubled by what he saw.
"It was sometimes shocking to see," he recalled. "The level of catechesis was so low, and the way priests were celebrating the Mass was not correct at times. It would make me discouraged. I said it many times. 'I don't want to join those guys.'"
He needed to answer the question of how the Church can be the mystical body of Christ and at the same time have sinful members.
"It always came back to 'do it right when you are there,'" he said. "There's always the Blessed Virgin, Christ, the angels and saints in heaven. Here on earth the Church is always going to be in need of purification."
Hands on the wheel
If you compare the Catholic Church to a racing car, Owen said, and the priests to the drivers, fans might ask why the car isn't winning any races. For the newly ordained priest, the problem is not with the car, i.e. the institution. It's primarily with the drivers.
Implied in the analogy is that the designated driver can become distracted by back-seat drivers who think they know the way better than the one trained and ordained to sit behind the wheel.
Owen firmly believes the institution called the Roman Catholic Church was instituted by Christ with its hierarchical polity, celibate male priesthood and code of church laws. That's why he was overwhelmed at his ordination on May 21.
"As I was walking down the aisle during the processional hymn, my heart was racing," he said. "It was very powerful, the presence of the holy. It's not about me as an individual but Christ working through me."
When his name and the names of the other nine men who were to be ordained were announced, he began to weep.
"We turned around and faced the people," he recalled. "When they started clapping, I just lost it. It was very humbling. We are taken out of the body to serve the body. It's not about me. Every day when I wake up, I try to say that, but there's a time when you have to take ownership. God called me, and I'm here, and I feel ready."
Noting that seven of the 10 priests ordained that day were born outside the U.S., Owen blamed the dearth of home-grown priests partly on our affluent society.
"We don't need God anymore," he lamented. "Because we have money and material possessions, we can get along fine — that is until someone has a serious tragedy and then it's 'God help me!'" By contrast, he pointed out, there are 1,400 students enrolled in the Catholic seminary in Kenya.
He put the responsibility for the lack of U.S. vocations squarely on the shoulders of many older priests.
"I blame the priests here in Chicago and in the U.S.," he said. "They're not attractive. They are not leading a lifestyle that is authentic. Why would anyone want to give their life to that?"
Because it was instituted by Christ himself, he believes the Roman Catholic Church is doesn't need to change. He argued that some want to make the church more like American society, i.e. to make it more democratic, but the Church exists to transform society, not the other way around.
"That's part of the problem," he contends. "We want to be part of the culture. Yes, we can take some elements from the culture, but that's not the way Christ set it up. The church is not a democracy."
Because the Catholic Church is a divine creation he believes he can maintain very firm boundaries without a hint of judgmentalism. When asked if he would give communion to a gay man living openly in a committed relationship, his answer was no. Would he allow a Lutheran pastor to preach the homily in a "mixed marriage" wedding in his church? No. Would he give communion to a Protestant at Mass? No again. Nothing personal, that's just the way it is.
A conservative reformer
In response to the statement in the documents of Vatican II that Catholics have to rely on their conscience especially in ambiguous situations, he acknowledged that the statement is there but explained that when you read the language carefully, it talks about a conscience which is "formed to the moral order and informed by the truth." In other words, it all depends on who it is who writes on the tabula rasa of the growing child.
He alluded to G.K. Chesterton who said the laws of the Church are like a wall built at the edge of a cliff. Protected by the wall, children can play a game of soccer right up to the edge of the cliff without being afraid of falling to their death. Take away the wall, and the children lose their freedom to play with abandon.
Owen sees himself as both a conservative and a reformer. Part of his mission is calling Catholics back to the rites and traditions of the Church before they were diluted and distorted by bad practice. In his first homily at St. Cajetan, the newly ordained priest made a pitch for his members to return to the practice of frequent confession. He testified that he goes to confession every week, and it has been a great spiritual blessing.
"When Pope Benedict came to the U.S. in 2009," said Owen, "he declared that the renewal of the church — and that includes the clergy — depends in large part on the renewal of the sacrament of confession." He paused and added, "Many priests I know don't go to confession."
Fr. Phillip Owen has no illusions about being able to purify the whole Church, but while he is serving at St. Cajetan on the far South Side of Chicago, he intends to do what he can and "do it right."