Two months before leaders of episcopal conferences worldwide gathered at the Vatican for a ground-breaking…
Priest sees cancer diagnosis as a chance to suffer for abuse victims
Father John Hollowell’s 19,400 Twitter followers received a shocking news update just before 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 13.
“Friends, I have been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Prognosis is very good,” Father Hollowell, 40, tweeted in a matter-of-fact tone. Within seconds, thousands of people began offering their prayers. The tweet has since been liked by more than 7,500 people and retweeted about a thousand times.
“The social media outpouring has been phenomenal. I feel like I’m riding the wave, like a surfer, of everyone’s prayers, just being totally supported and moved forward in a way that I know it’s grace,” Father Hollowell of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis told Our Sunday Visitor a day after his Twitter announcement.
Father Hollowell, who was ordained in 2009 as a priest for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and is the pastor of two churches, wrote more about his diagnosis on his blog, “On This Rock,” which he started writing shortly after Pope Benedict XVI urged priests on the 2010 World Communications Day to use blogs and social media to evangelize.
In his blog and on Twitter, Father Hollowell wrote that he prayed in 2018 that God would permit him to suffer on behalf of clergy sex abuse victims. He told his followers and Our Sunday Visitor in the interview below that he feels his brain tumor is that cross. He added: “I embrace it willingly.”
Our Sunday Visitor: When did you first suspect that something was wrong?
Father John Hollowell: I had my first symptom about exactly a year ago. I was on the treadmill in the rectory, running faster than what I normally do for whatever reason. I got light-headed, and laid down on the ground, and then had a spasm on the right side of my body for about 60 seconds. I thought, “That’s never happened. This is weird.” I thought, “Well if anything else happens, I’m going to the ER.” But I was literally completely fine right afterward.
Our Sunday Visitor: What did you do after that episode?
Father Hollowell: I brushed it off. I kind of did the guy thing. I read WebMd and had my blood pressure checked at CVS, but nothing else happened. I went another six months and then there was another episode while I was running outside. The same exact thing happened. Over the last year, I’ve had five of these episodes. After that second one, I started getting the doctors involved, and they got specialists involved.
Our Sunday Visitor: What did the doctors do?
Father Hollowell: Two months ago, I had an MRI. They called me and said, “Drop what you’re doing and come to the ER. The MRI shows you’ve had a stroke.” They tried to find the source of it for about four days, couldn’t find anything, so I got referred to the Mayo Clinic. I was up there for four days. There, they did another MRI at one point and basically said, “We can rule out stroke, because it’s the same size, and a stroke would already have started to heal.” That got them going down the tumor road and then I received the diagnosis.
Our Sunday Visitor: What does the prognosis look like at this point?
Father Hollowell: They’re pretty confident that since (the tumor) is growing really slowly, it’s not any type of severe cancer, so that’s obviously good news. I’m going to head back up there in a month for the surgery, then they’ll probably do chemo and radiation in case there are any cells left behind from the surgery. I just feel God’s been guiding this whole thing. In the midst of it, I’ve been blessed not to have any huge issues so far.
Our Sunday Visitor: What did you think when the doctors told you they believed you had a brain tumor?
Father Hollowell: It was definitely shocking, but at the same time, it put all of the pieces together. As a lot of other people going through health problems have said, I think there is a big part of you that just wants to know what it is. Even if it’s a serious thing like a brain tumor, there’s actually relief in knowing what it is. I think I felt more that way than, “Oh my gosh, it’s a brain tumor. I can’t believe it.”
Our Sunday Visitor: Many people would still be devastated after receiving that diagnosis. How have you kept an optimistic, hopeful tone?
Father Hollowell: I had nine hours to drive back from the Mayo Clinic, had time to pray, process and think. I feel like in many ways my whole life has prepared me for this — amazing parents, a nun who was my fourth-grade teacher who left in the middle of that year but continued ministering to us, things like high school football and college football, and the way that all prepared me to go after things. Then, the faith background, and all the wonderful people, the priests, homilies, teachers and things I’ve experienced as a priest in visiting people who are battling cancer.
I attribute this sense of peace completely to the Holy Spirit, that this is what the first 40 years of my life were getting me ready for. That’s the main thing that jumped out at me. God is kind of saying, “You’re ready for this and you’ve had all of these experiences, things that will get you through this.” I guess there was that sense, too, that I asked for it, and that God granted me that, and so there’s this real sense of thankfulness and gratitude, which may sound strange at first, but this gratitude that, “Yes, I will let you share in the cross for these victims.”
Our Sunday Visitor: Why did you ask God to permit you to suffer on behalf of clergy sex abuse victims?
Father Hollowell: My priesthood has been lived completely under the shadow of this scandal. It’s deeply affected me that entire time. A few weeks after I found out (about the 2018 sex abuse scandals), I sat in a confessional and cried for a half hour when I was by myself in there. So I have this sense of gratitude that I can do something that might help one of them in some way. You know, there’s that line in the Acts [5:41] where the apostles leave prison after getting beaten, and they’re rejoicing because they were found worthy to suffer for the Way. There’s a part of me that is rejoicing that I now get to do this, which probably wouldn’t have made sense to me before. But now that I’m in it, it’s like, “OK, time for the battle.”
Our Sunday Visitor: How will your physical suffering be spiritually beneficial to sex abuse victims?
Father Hollowell: So many people never told the victims, “I’m sorry,” or “I’m really sad that happened to you.” That is Caring for Victims/Empathy 101, and we didn’t do that a lot as a Church. So for me, I want victims to know, “I’m really sorry that happened to you,” and I think it just lends more credibility to do that when then I can also tell them, “I want to prove it. I want to prove that I’m sorry.” I think it adds another dimension of credibility, not to me but to the apology and to the sorrow, so that someone can say, “They’re not just saying that because a lawyer told them to say sorry.” When you wear the collar, it obviously represents the Church to people. That can be a great thing, but it can also be a really negative thing. If I can move the needle a little more toward credibility for the priesthood, then thanks be to God.
Our Sunday Visitor: What do you think of the outpouring of support and prayers you have received since announcing your diagnosis?
Father Hollowell: I’ve gotten hundreds of emails in the last 24 hours already from victims telling their stories. I haven’t even started to be able to sort through it. The social media outpouring has been phenomenal. I feel like I’m riding the wave, like a surfer, of everyone’s prayers, just being totally supported and moved forward in a way that I know it’s grace. I know it’s not natural.
Our Sunday Visitor: What kind of medical recovery timeline are you looking at?
Father Hollowell: It looks like it’ll be a solid six weeks that I’ll be out. Then depending on the radiation and where that happens, it might be up to 10 weeks of being away from the parishes. It’s an interesting thing in the sense that with the surgery itself, you’re usually back, health-wise, after about six days in the hospital, unless you need rehab. There is a percentage chance of needing speech therapy and physical therapy to retrain the brain, so to speak.
Our Sunday Visitor: Will you be doing anything different to prepare yourself spiritually for the surgery and recovery process?
Father Hollowell: Not really. I’ll just keep continuing to do my vocation, be where God has called me to be, try to help my people at the parishes and the students prepare and know that God has this and everything will be OK. We’ll do some stuff to get things ready on a practical level. In terms of my spiritual life, I’ll keep doing a Holy Hour, praying the Rosary each day, saying Mass and visiting the sick. All that is what has allowed me to grow closer to the Lord these last 10 years, and so I’ll just keep doing that.
Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.