Deacon Donlan drawn to Passionists’ charism to accompany those who suffer
November 15, 2021
When Deacon Phillip Donlan, CP, was baptized as an infant at St. Leo the Great Church in Omaha in 1982, a seed of faith was planted, but it would not come to fruition for decades.
Raised in his mother’s Lutheran church, he later learned about Catholicism while attending Creighton Preparatory School in Omaha and eventually sought the remaining Catholic sacraments of initiation (Eucharist and Confirmation) as a senior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2005.
A decade later, Deacon Donlan joined the Congregation of the Passion (The Passionists) to which he professed final vows this past July. He was ordained a deacon in October and is scheduled for ordination to the priesthood in 2022.
While he said his high school years in Omaha were “formative,” he emphasized that his spiritual life really began to grow during college.
“I remember just trying to get my footing,” he said as he recalled living away from home for the first time and feeling quite lonely. “I recognized my great need, and even more my great dependence on God.”
Deacon Donlan began attending daily Mass and found community at St. Thomas Aquinas Newman Center on campus and St. Mary Church in downtown Lincoln, where he eventually enrolled in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).
As he reflected on receiving the sacraments at the Easter Vigil in 2005, he particularly recalled the power of the sung Litany of Saints.
“There was this feeling of being on cloud nine – that honeymoon-type feeling of being where I belong,” he said. “I well up with emotion even now.”
‘A LITTLE SPARK’
Soon after, Deacon Donlan said he felt “a little spark for religious life.” Although he decided to move back to Omaha after graduation to use his degree in International Business, he noticed “that spark never left.”
Nearly a decade later, Deacon Donlan said, he started feeling as though he was living in two worlds: his spiritual life on one hand and his professional life as an accountant on the other.
“At that point I was pushing a religious vocation off,” he admitted. “There was still that inkling, that kind of calling … God’s whispering, ‘You should really check this out and give it a chance.’”
A break between jobs gave him an opportunity he couldn’t refuse: time to discern a religious vocation.
Deacon Donlan found support and encouragement from Father Tom Bauwens, pastor of St. Wenceslaus Parish in Omaha, both in the confessional and while sharing several meals together.
“I thought he had the qualities to be a good priest,” Father Bauwens said. “Anybody can learn theology, but you can’t teach someone to be kind, understanding and compassionate.”
Father Bauwens called Deacon Donlan a “gentle soul” and said the nature of his discernment pointed to the authenticity of his call.
“God would never cause you to be in distress over what he wants you to do,” Father Bauwens said. Phillip’s choice “was a decision based on peace and not anxiety.”
DRAWN TO RELIGIOUS LIFE
Deacon Donlan initially explored priesthood with the Archdiocese of Omaha, but in the process, developed an interest in consecrated life.
To pursue this option, he completed a survey on the VISION Vocation Network website (www.vocationnetwork.org) and received a list of communities that would potentially fit his gifts and talents.
Among them were the Passionists, a religious order of priests, brothers and nuns founded by Italian St. Paul of the Cross in 1720.
In 2014 Deacon Donlan visited a Passionist community in Chicago for Thanksgiving. He said he found it “very prayerful and very supportive.”
Over the next year, he maintained regular phone contact with Father Chris Gibson, vocations director for the Passionists’ Holy Cross Province, and attended a vocation retreat there during Holy Week.
In the summer of 2015, Deacon Donlan applied and was accepted into the Passionist community and began formation in early 2016.
He said the initial adjustment to a new “rhythm” of life was challenging.
“One of the big things for me was giving up my independence,” he said, explaining that in Omaha he had his own apartment, car, etc. “Being on a schedule and being expected to show up at different times at first was a little difficult for me.”
However, Deacon Donlan said he has grown to love the communal life, in particular the shared times of prayer and recreation.
Father Gibson said Deacon Donlan has been an asset to the Passionist community.
“He takes his prayer life very seriously,” Father Gibson said. “In fact, he spends a lot of time in prayer.”
He also pointed to Deacon Donlan’s sense of humor.
“He can take a little bit of teasing and laugh along with it,” Father Gibson said.
As part of Deacon Donlan’s formation, he spent a novitiate year in Mexico and currently attends seminary at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. He professed final vows as a Passionist in July and was ordained to the diaconate in October.
This year Deacon Donlan has been assigned to serve a Spanish-speaking parish in Chicago. He is scheduled for ordination to the priesthood next May.
Deacon Donlan said he was initially attracted to the Passionist charism of preaching Christ Crucified.
“Our founder says the passion of Jesus is the greatest sign of God’s love for us,” he said. “We want to live that out and be with others during their time of suffering to offer the hope and redemption of the suffering Christ.”
He explained that suffering takes many forms, including sickness, discrimination and being unchurched, to name a few. The Passionists engage in a variety of ministries, he said, from managing retreat houses and preaching parish missions to ministering in hospitals.
Hospital ministry holds a special place in Deacon Donlan’s heart. He said he has spent significant time serving the sick and infirm throughout his seminary formation, and he hopes to eventually become a certified chaplain.
His mother, Sue Donlan, a member of St. Wenceslaus Parish in Omaha, said she has witnessed her son’s gift for accompanying people in their suffering, whether supporting friends through the loss of a parent or caring for his own grandparents, now in their 90s.
Deacon Donlan noted that his mother and one of his sisters are both registered nurses, and he speculated that some of their “caring bedside manner” has “rubbed off” on him.
According to Sue Donlan, the impact has been mutual.
Raised a “cradle Lutheran,” and married to husband, Gerald, who was already a Catholic, she joined the Catholic Church in 2018. Her journey, she said, was sparked by her son’s reception of the sacraments in the Church and subsequent religious vocation.
JOY OF RELIGIOUS LIFE
As Sue looked back on her son’s spiritual journey, the characteristic she noticed most was joy.
“It’s just wonderful to see him blossom,” she said. “Every mom wants their child to be happy.”
Deacon Donlan confirmed he has found fulfillment in his religious vocation. He said the Litany of Saints impacted him in a powerful way once again, this time as he lay prostrate on the floor during his recent diaconate ordination.
“Giving myself to the Church in another way really moved me,” he said.
Deacon Donlan also noticed the consistent presence of God’s providence throughout his nearly 40 years of life.
“I felt all my life I was kind of a late bloomer,” he said. “God was extremely patient with me.”