Phillip Anglin, 54, grew up as a Southern Baptist Pentecostal and later as a Methodist in the north Georgia town of Buford – about 35 miles north of Atlanta – where the only Catholic church, Prince of Peace, was at the end of small road. It was simple, tiny and hidden in comparison to the sprawling Protestant churches of Buford’s Bible Belt.
“If you didn’t want to see a Catholic, you didn’t have to see one,” Anglin said, laughing.
As a 12-year-old, Anglin earned a few dollars cutting grass, baby-sitting and working in an antique shop for “two elderly ladies who are probably my age right now.”
A crucifix caught his eye
Among the chiffarobes, chandeliers and parlor chairs was a Catholic oddity standing upright on a table – a 12-inch, bronze crucifix bearing the corpus of Christ, whose feet moved from side to side because the screw that anchored the feet was missing.
“I wanted it, and I cannot tell you why I wanted it,” Anglin said. “It probably was about $35 or $40, but it might as well have been $300 or $3,000. I couldn’t afford it.”
That Christmas, Anglin answered the door at his home, and it was one of the owners with a gift in her hand.
“There was my crucifix,” Anglin said.
Anglin learned early on the difference between the crucifix and the cross. “I heard people say, ‘Oh, Catholics, theirJesus is still on the cross. Ours is resurrected.’ There was always a negative jab.”
After years of struggling with his faith, Anglin decided to enter graduate school and wound up selling the crucifix back to the same shop for some pocket money. He later entered Lancaster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, affiliated with the United Church of Christ, with the intention of becoming a Protestant minister.
But during Lent four years ago, Anglin said, “something began working on me.” He equated it to “another Catholic blip on the radar” of his life.
“Nothing prompted it, but I had to go visit a Catholic church,” Anglin said. “It was just something working on me. I went with a friend to a Catholic church on Palm Sunday. Even though I was studying to be a minister, I was scared to death of Jesus. I just did not trust. That was my fundamentalist background. When I saw the consecration, something in me clicked, and I said, ‘It’s Jesus,’ and I was not afraid from that moment on.”
Reclaiming a piece of himself
During one of his visits home to Georgia, Anglin walked back into the antique shop.
“My crucifix had not sold,” he said. “I know my crucifix because my Jesus wiggles on the cross. I bought it back, and it’s been sitting on my desk ever since.”
Anglin was still in the Lancaster seminary when he signed up for the RCIA program at Sacred Heart Church in Lancaster.
“I was the comic relief for RCIA, because I was in the Protestant seminary and I had a ton of questions,” Anglin said. “When we got close, they said, ‘OK, give us the date of your baptism,’ and I said, ‘Which one?’ At my first confession, I said to the priest, ‘We’re going to have to go on a retreat because we’re talking about 50 years of sin.’ The priest worked through it, and at the end of confession – I wasn’t even Catholic yet – he asked me, ‘Have you ever thought about becoming me?’ I thought to myself, ‘What, bald-headed?’”
Actually, he was asking if he had ever thought about becoming a priest.
Classmates supported him
At the Easter Vigil in 2014, Anglin entered the Catholic Church. Five of his Protestant seminary classmates “sat in the front pew and watched me come into the church.”
Anglin said one of the interesting things about the Lancaster seminary was that it was founded in the 1820s by a German theologian, Philip Schaff, who came “within a gnat’s breath” of being charged with heresy by his fellow Protestants for “believing in the mystical presence” of Jesus in the Eucharist.
“My school was founded in the theology that even though we can’t believe it’s the body and blood of Christ, we think something else is going on that bigger than (a symbol), but we can’t quite go there,” Anglin said.
After his conversion, Anglin dreamed about going to France and Spain to make the 489-mile Way of St. James – the Camino de Santiago – a journey thousands take each year in memory of the saint, whose remains are buried in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. A priest friend paid his airfare. He walked 38 days by himself from March to April of 2015.
“It was just a mystical thing where only God could show up,” Anglin said. “No electronic devices, a roll of quarters to call my mother every so often to tell her I was alive, pain, blisters, hurting knees, but I walked 17 to 20 miles every day.”
One day, near Pamplona in Spain, where the bulls run wild, a winter storm had caved in the path, which is marked periodically with yellow arrows and seashells, a symbol of St. James.
“The mountainside had washed away, and I could not get across,” Anglin recalled. “Literally, I said, ‘God, I need your help.’ Just then this big Latvian, Superman-looking guy came along and pushed the rocks away like they were cotton balls. We walked along. I only saw him that night and I never saw him again.”
Anglin, 5-foot-8, started The Way at 147 pounds. He finished 20 pounds and five toenails lighter.
“The hardest thing is I got so small I couldn’t keep my money bag round my waist,” Anglin said.
He arrived in a small village late one evening. He asked a man if there were any restaurants, but they all had closed.
“No, there is nothing open,” the man said, patting himself on the chest, “but you’re coming with me.”
The man welcomed Anglin into his home, and his wife fed him dinner.
“I asked them, ‘Why are you doing this?’ and he said, ‘We must honor you, the pilgrim,’” Anglin said.
After completing the pilgrimage, Anglin took advantage of his proximity to visit Rome for several days. One day he was praying near the altar of St. John Lateran Basilica when he heard “two Southern accents” and turned around to see two priests.
“I asked them, ‘Father, please pray for me and my priestly vocation,’” Anglin said. “It turns out one was the vocation director for the Diocese of Alexandria. This doesn’t even seem real.”
Anglin spent one year studying at Notre Dame Seminary for the Diocese of Alexandria before taking a break for more discernment. For the last year, he has served as the office manager at Our Lady of Prompt Succor Parish in Westwego and Holy Guardian Angels Mission in Bridge City.
He does not know what lies before him on the way.
“I still feel a calling, but God is using me in ways I can’t explain here,” Anglin said. “I’m an old soul doing ministry. Every day, I’m visiting the sick, helping with parish life, doing ecumenical work. I have found a calling, but I don’t know how to articulate it. I visited a guy next to the river and he had been praying for me to come. I’m open to the priesthood in the future. I’m open to leading my own pilgrimages of people.”
Anglin will return to Spain this summer to complete a shorter version of The Way – about 200 miles. Fresh in his mind was his personal finish line a few years ago, when he walked into Santiago de Compostela and saw about 20 teenagers hanging out of a hotel window – a group with younger muscles and more stamina who had passed him up on the path.
“As they saw me walking into town, they shouted, ‘Phillip, you made it!’” Anglin said. “They must have thought I needed a walker. I told a friend, ‘This is what heaven will be like. When we ascend, we will hear people calling our names.’”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.