RELIGION

Meet Baton Rouge's Young, Rapping Catholic Priest

02/15/2015 01:32 pm ET | Updated Feb 15, 2015
ASSOCIATED PRESS

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The youngest priest in the Diocese of Baton Rouge has a few confessions about his faith and his music: He didn't like the Catholic Church as a youth, tried for years to run from his calling as a priest, and doesn't want to be known only as the "Rapping Priest."

The Rev. Joshua Johnson, serving at Christ the King Catholic Church at Louisiana State University, is 27, and in his first year as a priest.

"I was raised Catholic, but I just never liked the Catholic Church growing up. I thought it was boring, and I didn't understand it," said Johnson, a native of Baton Rouge whose rapping has brought him a measure of renown on YouTube and social media. He hosts the hip-hop show "Tell the World" on Catholic radio.

Johnson's biggest difficulty with the church was with the Eucharist: "I never believed that it was the body and blood of Jesus Christ that the Catholic Church teaches."

That changed one summer night before his senior year at Lee High School, during a retreat in Alexandria. He attended "Eucharistic Adoration," when a piece of consecrated altar bread — the Holy Eucharist or host — is the focus of devotion and meditation.

"That night in adoration, when the bishop exposed Jesus Christ with the Eucharist, all I could say was it was God's grace that overcame me," Johnson said. "And looking at the Eucharistic prayer, I knew it was God, that it was Jesus Christ. It was as if I fell in love in an instant. I started crying. I was on my knees worshipping God."

The long ache in his heart was lifted, he said.

"The first thing I heard him say was 'I love you,' and it pierced my heart then and it continues to pierce my heart today, because I was living in pretty serious sin, but he told me he loved me."

Johnson said he was also told to become a priest. Instead, he said, he enrolled at Southern University.

"I didn't want to be a priest, and I was trying to run away from it."

But during his 1½ semesters at Southern, "I could not stop thinking about the priesthood."

After a stint with the post office and endless days attending a 24-hour adoration chapel, Johnson enrolled in St. Joseph's Seminary College in Covington in 2006, earning his master's in theology from Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans.

"Those were some of the best years of my life," he said. "It was a time of deep intimacy with Jesus because you had a lot of time to pray and a lot of time to study."

And a bit of time to hone his rapping skills, to the enjoyment of some fellow seminarians.

"I grew up rapping just for fun," he said. At seminary, "I continued to do it for fun and people started hearing me, and the next thing you know I'm doing it at festivals and youth conferences."

Rapping is one of the God-given gifts he uses outside of Mass to witness for Christ, Johnson said.

"I've had people come to me only after seeing my music on YouTube or Facebook and say, 'I'm coming to you because I've seen this video and I want to give to my life to Christ now.'"

Some people have told him they don't like it, "but I'm pretty sure all the apostles didn't appreciate all the other apostles' gifts," he said. "I know I got to keep my eyes fixed on God and what God has called me to do."

Johnson said he's trying use to his gift to please God.

"Rap in and of itself is not evil; it's not a sin. It's part of the culture," he said. "We can use that. We're not called to reject the culture; we're called to go into the culture and promote what's good."

Johnson said he can't recall seeing a black priest during his childhood, so he never thought about growing up to become a priest. Now, he said, "I'm a visible witness to the fact that God calls black men to be priests, too."

In May, Johnson will be a keynote speaker for a conference about race: The St. Martin De Porres Conference, May 8-9 at the Catholic Life Center in Baton Rouge. It's named for the patron saint of interracial harmony, born in 16th-century Peru to a Spanish nobleman and former black slave.

"The idea is to bring whites and blacks together from the area to experience the healing power of Christ together," Johnson said.

Johnson has worked with all kinds of people and cultures all over the world, from New Orleans and Houston to Mexico, Nicaragua and India.

He especially enjoys working with students at LSU, which has 14,000 Catholics.

"I love working with young adults because they have a real fire and a desire to be saints," Johnson said. "I enjoy working with people on their way to encountering Jesus for the first time and those people who have already encountered him."

Johnson said he relates well with the students and is honest with them.

"I can't stand when people make it seem like all you have to do is accept Jesus Christ in your life and everything is going to be easier and holiness is going to a piece of cake," Johnson said.

Everything important involves struggle, he said.

"Heaven meant a lot so Jesus Christ had to struggle; he had to suffer," Johnson said. "So if it means a lot to us, we're going to have to struggle, too. We're going to fall down at times. God's grace is going to be there to welcome us."

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