Conversions lead new priest, deacon down vocation path: Men were drawn to spirituality of Canons Regular of St. John Cantius

By Hilary Anderson | Contributor
Sunday, June 17, 2012

Newly ordained Father Scott Thelander had a conversion experience in college that ultimately led him to the priesthood, but it took him a while to decide what the Holy Spirit was inspiring him to do with his life.

“I had a sense to serve God but was not sure how,” he said.

“After college, I worked in community mental health but felt that was not quite it,” he said. “I had this recurring image of Mother Teresa in my head. She was caring for the poor.”

With the help of a spiritual director, Thelander discerned he not only wanted to be a priest but one who lived in a religious community like the apostles did. He chose to join the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius who live at and staff St. John Cantius Parish, 825 N. Carpenter St.

Thelander was ordained a priest by Cardinal George on May 29 at the church. During Mass Robin Kwan was ordained a deacon. Like Thelander, his vocational journey started with a conversion in college. A spiritual director helped him find the Canons Regular.

“Their love of the liturgy and its feeling of community life — eating, praying and working together, all in a parish setting — suited my interests. It was like trying on a pair of shoes. You keep searching until you find ones that fit best.”

The word “canons” refers to those who live, work and pray together in a religious community. Canons Regular denotes a community of religious who follow the rules set down by St. Augustine but also adhere to the constitution set down by St. John Cantius.

“Those who choose the religious life here in a sense have a double calling,” Thelander said. “The difference between them and regular archdiocesan priests is that they live and pray together while maintaining a focus on the liturgy for those in a public setting.”

The Canons Regular of St. John Cantius, organized about 14 years ago, are a religious community in formation. With the permission of Cardinal George, they are working through the steps to be a Holy See-approved community.

Until that time they are an archdiocesan association of Christian faithful and the priests are canonically archdiocesan, not religious. They pray as a group throughout the day, much like a religious community, while they staff and serve the parish and community.

“Membership in any newly formed religious group must show that it has demonstrated a certain amount of stability according to church rules,” said Father C. Frank Phillps C.R., pastor of St. John Cantius. “This is a safety net of sorts required by the Vatican. Not just anyone can start a religious community and say it’s following church laws. The approval process can be likened to those steps required before a person can be declared a saint.”

While the Canons Regular priests live in community, they still are considered part of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

“All of our priests are ordained for the Chicago archdiocese,” said Phillips. “We, in a sense are on loan, but live in community with the permission of the cardinal.”

The Canons Regular are dedicated to preserving the traditional liturgy and sacred music.

Masses are said in English and Latin. There’s ordinary (low) and extraordinary (high) Masses. Gergorian chant and other sacred music are commonly sung or played during liturgies.

“We have musicians, both Catholic and non-Catholic, who want to preserve a great treasury of sacred church music,” said Phillips. “Our several choirs have members ranging from young people through professional singers.”

The Canons Regular are doing something people want, says Phillips. Mass attendance has increased. So has the number of young people participating in church services.

“Our parish is non-territorial with no boundaries. Some travel two hours coming from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Chesterton, Ind., and De Kalb to attend liturgies and listen to traditional sacred church music,” he said.

The parish soon will reach out to those who cannot attend in person.

“We plan to broadcast our liturgies,” said Phillips. “While remodeling the church’s interior, we put in technology to enable us to stream our liturgies and other services.” The parish is also going “green.”

“We are putting in LED lighting and disposing of incandescent bulbs, he said. “While we are integrating the new, we’re also working to preserve the old that is so sacred to us all.”