Newly ordained Phillip Owen wants to be part of a renewed and purified Catholic Church

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

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."

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Posted: October 4th, 2011 9:38 PM

God bless you! Thanks for answering the call & we will be praying for you Fr Phil - stay strong in your beliefs = the truth = what people need to hear. peace

Jg Morales  

Posted: September 1st, 2011 9:15 PM

That said, I think the young Father Owen was a bit harsh. While his passion is refreshing and even inspirational, it's hard to judge what another is doing when you don't know where he's been. The Good Book says that each heart knows it's own joy, and no one can share it's suffering. I know that my world view changed quite a bit between 21 and 24, and then a bit more between 24 and 28. I have no doubt that it will change even more as time steadily flies by. Father Owen's may as well. I may not agree with the Church on everything, but I respect it for what it is. I think holding strong to traditional values is a good thing. I don't believe values should change according to the whims of others. I don't believe right and wrong changes according to the pleasure of others, nor for the sake of some popularity contest. I enjoyed the read.

Jg Morales  

Posted: September 1st, 2011 9:02 PM

@Janet- From a Christian perspective, I'm sure you know it's a little insulting to lump all Protestants with Pagans. I'm inclined to believe it was intentional. But please do correct me if I'm wrong. Beyond even this, I find it odd when people debase other groups in order to validate their own. If you find the Catholic bashing unacceptable, why then -in all your pure Catholicness- would you turn around to claim that protestants and pagans believe love without sex is impossible. Your statement is both generalizing and generally untrue. Further, it's needlessly judgmental. You can't defend Catholic values by demonizing everyone else. You can try, but you'll never win that way. In Lutheran church we said the Nicene Creed declaring our belief in the Catholic church, among other things. It's very fascinating to see how little Catholicism must believe in us in return. Part of being a true Christian isn't...oh, saying how you're more right than everyone else. It's loving and respecting despite differences, and setting a *good* example for others, as you are representing a lot more than yourself (even if you don't mean to).

Scoreboard Check from gjuy  

Posted: September 1st, 2011 5:09 PM

Those Rooting for Father Owen: 1)Janet Baker 2) Tom (50/50) Those Greatly Concerned with a 26 Year-Old Fundamentalist Priest: 3) Everyone Else in OP RF

Janet Baker from Chicago  

Posted: August 31st, 2011 7:22 AM

Your friends who 'cannot' conceive are not exempt from miracles. Why do you keep dodging the point? Chastity is difficult, but beautiful.Your arguments make sexual slaves of us! Rapists say the same! "I gotta!" This young priest means to keep the ideal, great! The world is sweeter and safer with sexual discipline (other disciplines,too),and priestly chastity is a beautiful pledge to it.'No sex outside of marriage' makes a good society. 'Yes we can!' with the ideal before us, and the help of God.

Adele from OP  

Posted: August 30th, 2011 9:10 PM

@JanetBaker_you speak in riddles. Plus, I'll make sure to tell my opposite sex, married, in love but unable to conceive couple friends that their love, since it "doesn't make a family" is impure and forbidden.

Janet Baker from Chicago  

Posted: August 30th, 2011 8:31 PM

Don't mix up pure and impure, please. Impure is the pedophiles. Impure is sex without love. Not only love, but only the kind that makes a family.Every other kind is impure, forbidden. Justly so. Pure is able to love truly, totally, without sex. Protestants and pagans say that's impossible. Jesus thought otherwise(it's why women loved Him).Chivalry thinks otherwise. True love thinks otherwise.All those pedophile priests do not prove that beautiful purity is impossible. Just that impurity is ugly.

Catholic Faithful part of the problem from Oak Park   

Posted: August 29th, 2011 2:30 PM

Tom: Pray for what? For the young priest to succeed in making the church more rigid? Spare us. There is a reason the Priesthood is in such decline. The position does not attract the best and brightest. It attracts the frightened and righteous. Limited thinkers. The sexually stunted. The emotionally battered and confused. Purity? Start by cleaning out the seminaries. Allow married/female/homosexual priests. Attract compassionate people who seek INCLUSION, not RESTRICTRICTION. Start there.

Tom Howard from Chicago  

Posted: August 29th, 2011 10:58 AM

From the perspective of a Catholic family member, I do not find these type of public comments to be helpful for building healthy relationships. I will pray for Fr. Owen as he continues his Catholic faith journey. Becoming a priest is a notable accomplishment, but, as his role model St. John Vianney would remind him, it is represents but a beginning. Living out one's commitment to Christ through the diocesan priesthood calls for meeting daily challenges with humility and prayer.

Janet Baker from Chicago but go to mass in OP  

Posted: August 28th, 2011 10:57 AM

changed the liturgy, to be like conservative protestantism's, and the teaching on collegiality, ecumenism, and so-called religious freedom. Now on the one side, there are those who think the teaching should be altered further to allow practices formerly forbidden. They are frustrated with Benedict because he says no; the other side is also frustrated, because even though Benedict has permitted again the celebration of the ancient sacrificial mass, he has kept the doctrinal changes. All this IMHO

Janet Baker from Chicago  

Posted: August 28th, 2011 10:46 AM

@Jim. Well, dirty courtyards need a broom, and judgement, too, is at times necessary, even for Christians. But this is not the place, because the question isn't one of popular understanding, but of theology at its most detailed. May I suggest a framework, if you want to do some research? There are two sides. One says the Church may modernize, the other says it is bound to the teaching of Christ. At Vatican II, the former side 'won' to a degree, and without a theological debate (continued)

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: August 27th, 2011 10:17 PM

Just Christians?

Seriously Coughlin from OP  

Posted: August 27th, 2011 4:23 PM

@Jim Coughlin: As any good Christian of any stripe will tell you, it's not my task to judge others and their choices -- that task belongs to God alone. It's my task to live my life and guide my family and neighborhood in a way that pleases God. All the rest is beyond me and will take care of itself in the way God intends.

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: August 27th, 2011 3:12 PM

So tell me, Seriously. Do you think Pope Bendict is leading a lifestyle that is authentic? That's also the question I posed to Fr. Owen but would like to hear what others think.

Seriously Coughlin? from OP  

Posted: August 27th, 2011 1:00 PM

@Jim Coughlin: Yes, I saw both Borat and Religulous. They were both decent comedies, but I wouldn't form any opinions on anything based on seeing them (which was my point).

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: August 27th, 2011 12:13 PM

No,Seriously. I just wondered if Father Owen had seen "Religulous". How about you? I cannot recommend "Borat" but you might be amused.

A Little Perspective Please from OP  

Posted: August 27th, 2011 8:00 AM

This is a story about a "hometown kid" who is pursuing his goals and has reached an important landmark. He should be celebrated for doing so. All of the comments about the Catholic church are random...and akin to saying "I hate wrestling, it's stupid" in response to an article about a hometown kid winning state finals in wrestling (i.e., pursuing his goals). Congratulation Fr. Owen on reaching an important are truly a hometown kid that has done well and we're proud.

Seriously Coughlin? from OP  

Posted: August 27th, 2011 7:51 AM

@Jim Coughlin: Seriously? Are you citing "Religulous", a movie made by Bill Maher the comic as a serious source for any information? Wow....hold whatever opinions you like, but please make sure they are well informed. Excuse me, but I'm going to go watch "Borat" now and form my opinions on the global economy....

Janet Baker from Chicago  

Posted: August 27th, 2011 7:45 AM

Those who 'leave' the Church without regret, who brag about it, who urge others on to follow them, did not have faith in the first place, or they, leaving from scandal, would still mourn constantly the loss of the heavenly food and divine friendship available at that Catholic altar. Faith is a gift. God chooses His friends, although one may pray for this completely unearned honor.

Janet Baker from Chicago  

Posted: August 27th, 2011 7:41 AM

It's a very dumb dog that snaps at both the diseased and the doctor too. This kind of priest will expose the perverts, and eject them. Those who love the high standard of sexual purity will rejoice, those who do not will howl, and those who do not understand how society benefits from the restrictions imposed by the traditional teaching of the Church will nevertheless enjoy the real economic benefits of a more disciplined, a healthier, and a growing rather than shrinking population(read: market)

Jim Bowman from Oak Park  

Posted: August 27th, 2011 6:43 AM

I call this a high level of reporting, in this case religion reporting. Tom Holmes serves his readers well. One comment: His "In other words, it all depends on who it is who writes on the tabula rasa of the growing child" is well said. I'd add, "Yes, and the tabula is being written on for every child from the start, like it or not. One way or another, the child is formed, well or badly. It's in the nature of things."

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: August 26th, 2011 11:57 PM

Does Father Owen believe that Pope Benedict is leading a lifestyle that is authentic? Has he seen the movie, "Religulous"?

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: August 26th, 2011 11:47 PM

People choose to post comments using dubs for a variety of reasons, Joseph. You can never be to sure about how some folks may react. There have been numerous instances of people being bullied and harassed just for posting their opinion or asking a question. A veiled threat has been directed at person's young family on at least one occasion.

epic lulz  

Posted: August 26th, 2011 8:47 PM

My favorite part was when he attacked his fellow priests and superiors for not being "attractive". Yeah, this guy is exactly what the Church needs right now. If the Cardinal doesn't demand a recantation from this guy, after what he has put others through, we'll know exactly what side his bread is buttered.

G Kelly  

Posted: August 26th, 2011 5:17 PM

No hiding here. The Church won't need more than 3 priests if they continue to circle the wagons and keep people out. Divinely created? Hardly. A shame the culture of child rape hasn't bankrupted the Church.

Joseph A. Wemhoff from Oak Park  

Posted: August 26th, 2011 4:31 PM

Why is it that all of you negative-energy brick-throwers hide behind pseudonyms? Your cowardice proves the bankruptcy of your cause.

mv113 from OP  

Posted: August 26th, 2011 4:06 PM

It's Priests like this that led me to leave the church (small c intentional)

Father Head in Sand  

Posted: August 26th, 2011 3:05 PM

Truly sad. I wish the young priest well, but being young and espousing Old Catholic Dogma without recognizing the absolute misery and harm it has brought to thousands--particularly abused children at the hands of socially/sexually stunted men is NOT a flag you want to carry into battle. What's next: Denouncing Galileo? Bringing Back the Inquisition? Selling Indulgences? Those were old Catholic practices too. Free advice: Reconsider and join the Peace Corp. Pray w your feet.

Joseph A. Wemhoff from Oak Park  

Posted: August 25th, 2011 7:47 PM

Thank you, Tom Holmes, for an objective portrayal of Father Owen. Your journalistic integrity is an unexpected, but very welcome, find in the pages of the virulently anti-Catholic Wednesday Journal.

Joseph A. Wemhoff from Oak Park  

Posted: August 25th, 2011 7:45 PM

Thank You, God, for sending us a good and holy priest--someone whom I can joyously call "Father." I wept, too, when reading the article. Father Owen, if there is ever anything that you need%u2014from money to a picket line to someone to get in the face of heretics opposing you%u2014please call upon me. I will pray to God every day that He may preserve, protect, and advance you against Satan and all his followers.

Virginia Seuffert from Oak Park  

Posted: August 25th, 2011 1:33 PM

Andrew, I knew all the best people came from Yonkers -- my home town too. Robert, get your head out of the sand! It's the liberal churches that are emptying their pews. The Churches that are courageously preaching the gospel are the ones attracting new members. Among Catholics, despite what Ken Trainor asserts, vocations to the priesthood and the religious life are coming from faithful followers of Church teaching.

Janet Baker from Chicago  

Posted: August 25th, 2011 11:52 AM

I cried, reading this. All I can say is, Thank God. Thank God! Thank God for this young priest, who is our future. We took a wrong turn at Vatican II, and I have doubted at times that it can be reversed, but then here comes the grace of God working in a young man such as this, and it's possible to see again why our Church is specially protected and will endure until the end of time. I too will remember him in prayer.

Robert Hall  

Posted: August 25th, 2011 11:02 AM

This is a priest from the past. It is time to look forward or he will be a priest for no one. Yes, people need help but with a closed mind to people who are different(gay, non-Catholic, etc.) there is no help and no need for such a priest. This article made me very sad!

Andrew Piacente aka Doria2 from Yonkers, NY  

Posted: August 25th, 2011 7:36 AM

Father Owen is the new breed of Priest and I am thankful for Priests like him. His battle will be an uphill one but he sounds as though he doesn't mind that. God continue to bless this young man - a real Priest, AndyP/Doria2 Yonkers, NY HOSEA 4:6

Virginia Seuffert from Oak Park  

Posted: August 24th, 2011 4:51 PM

Wonderful article in every way. God bless Fr. Owen. The Church needs many more holy priests like this. Father, I will remember you in my daily prayers. Oak Park Pastors, can we have the renewed commitment to the Sacrament of Penance that Father speaks of?

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