When ANTHONY CO was a student at the University of Illinois, becoming a priest was the furthest thing from his mind.
But one day on a whim, Co joined a missionary trip to Mexico City to work with orphans. It was there where he says he heard the call to pursue the priesthood.
Staff writer Tim Mitchell sat down with the 41-year-old suburban Chicago native, the new pastor at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Urbana, for a wide-ranging chat.
Tell us about your family.
My father is a retired surgeon. He immigrated here from the Philippines. He did everything from gynecological surgeries on up. Surgeons were less specialized back in the day. His bread and butter was probably hernias and gall bladders and things of that nature.
My mom was a nun for nine to 11 years with the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ in Indiana. Right before her final vows, she let her vows expire and went on to marry my father a couple years later. She is a retired nurse and social worker. She started out nursing, and when the kids started coming, she stayed home and then went back to social work.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I wanted to go into law enforcement or the military since I was 7 or 8 years old. I had an acute sense of justice even when I was a little boy.
My plan was to finish my bachelor’s, get my law degree, practice law for a little bit and go into local law enforcement because I was interested in SWAT teams. I was also thinking about working for the DEA or ATF.
I was a criminal justice major at first (in college), and I worked for the West Chicago Police Department’s cadet program. We had our own bullet-proof vest, squad car and badge, but we didn’t have a sidearm. I did fingerprinting, criminal damage reports, recording gang graffiti, parking violations and accident duty. I knew I needed to get a four-year degree.
I woke up one day and had an epiphany. If life is worth living, then I had to find the meaning of life. Because it was such a profound epiphany, I quit my job and changed my major at the College of DuPage from criminal justice to study philosophy and religious studies. Then I transferred to the University of Illinois to complete my bachelor’s degree and then go into law school.
How did you get called to the priesthood?
My parents had raised me to have a deep respect for religious faith, but I had stopped practicing my faith. I don’t think I was an atheist or an agnostic. As I studied all these religions, I would observe, ask questions and reflect on it.
I went to almost every religious service you could think of: Shinto, Bahá’í, Mormon. I started looking for truth. Practically speaking, I just didn’t do anything. Between my junior and senior year at the UI, I had a conversion back to my faith. I got frustrated studying philosophy and wasn’t finding any truth. I was in Allen Hall on my bunk and said a 10- to 13-second prayer: “God, if you exist and if you love me, show me.”
The Newman Center ministry had a missionary trip to Mexico to help orphans, and a guy in my philosophy class asked if I wanted to go. I had this realization from my prayer and signed up. We went to Mexico and worked with about 130 orphan girls. The other members of my group were going to daily Mass and saying the rosary, but I never participated. Finally, I decided to join them in prayer, adoring the Blessed Sacrament in this little Mexican church.
All the lights were off except for the sanctuary. As I knelt there and prayed, God revealed himself and spoke to me. He said, “I do exist, and I love you.”
I felt the presence of God pressing me down and raising me up at the same time. I hadn’t been a faithful Christian. I was feeling all this joy and peace and excitement.
The priest said he was available for confession in the back of the church. I went back there and said it had been seven years since my last confession. I didn’t remember how to go to confession. I didn’t remember all my sins, but I wanted to be right with God. At the moment of absolution, a double wave of peace and joy crashed upon my heart.
During the summer, I prayed one prayer a day. On the feast day of Mary’s birth, I was on a study date with a young lady in the Newman Center. We were both philosophy students. She was really nice and sweet. I was sitting there studying William James when God spoke to me. He revealed himself to me. In my head, I heard, “Son, consider the priesthood.” So I said, “Lord, I’ll do it.” And I never looked back.
I went back to my efficiency apartment at Fourth and Armory and called my parents. They were on the phone at the same time. I said, “I think God wants me to be a priest.” There was a pregnant pause. They said, “Whatever you end up doing, we’ll support you.”
Do you remember your first homily?
I was in the seminary chapel speaking to a small, intimate group. My mom was there. She was so proud of me. I spoke about the reading of the sowers.
Right when I began my homily, my mom’s phone began to ring and kept ringing. She couldn’t turn it off. She ended up taking the battery out.
If you could meet anybody in the Bible, who would it be?
St. Paul. He had it all. He had a missionary spirit; critical, big-picture thinking. He traveled and sacrificed a lot. He was put thoroughly to the test, beaten, imprisoned and shipwrecked. He had a crazy adventure, and I would love to know more about that.
A few personal things: What kind of music do you listen do?
Right now, I am on an ’80s kick. I put on an ’80s station on my Amazon channel and listen. I like Simple Minds. I think a lot of it has to do with soundtracks from watching movies when I was a kid.
My favorite current movie is “Odd Thomas,” based on Dean Koontz’s novel. He is really weird. The character Odd Thomas is exactly that: he is odd, he is strange, he has an internal code of innocence and truth and justice.
Have any hobbies?
I love trying exotic foods that I haven’t had before, like fermented things. I like things that people really love in their culture that are really not typical with the American palate. I want to find out why the other cultures love that food.