My journey back to Catholic Church is a complicated one.
I was baptized Catholic and during my early childhood I remember attending mass at Santa Clara Church in Oxnard, CA. We left the Church while I was still small. My mother was seeking to have her children grow up in a faith-filled community where we could connect with people our own age and I suppose, at the time, that was something that was lacking in Catholic parishes in the 1980s. I truly think we took a pit stop to the Protestant Church to pick up my brother in-law on the way. It was in a Protestant church that my sister met her husband along with a group of friends,who one by one converted to the Catholic faith.
When I was 18 years old my sister declared that she was returning to the Catholic Church and bringing her husband and her children with her. I was dumfounded. I asked her why and eventually questions began to spill out. I asked her to show me where in the Bible pieces of the Catholic faith came into place such as the Hail Mary. She was patient with me and showed me in the Gospel of Luke chapter one verses 26-38 which speaks of the Annunciation of Mary when the angel Gabriel visits Mary declaring that she is blessed among women. I ruminated over this very familiar passage, one that I read every Christmas, and began to contemplate the piece of my faith that had shaped my entire life.
Over the course of thirteen years I would wrestle with my faith and my identity in it. My sister told me that sacraments were not to be taken flippantly, but deliberately. Once I received all of the sacraments, it would be my responsibility to live them out daily. I was not prepared for that responsibility. What transpired would be a long spiritual tug of war.
Even though I spent a chunk of my life in Protestant churches, my family was still rooted in Catholic traditions. Every meal began with my dad leading the blessing with the sign of the cross and proceeding with, “Bless us, O Lord and these Thy gifts..” I never knew a family meal without this prayer. I knew the seven sacraments because it was part of our Christmas Eve meal (the Feast of Seven Fish). My father was once in seminary and decided not to become a priest as he learned marriage was the vocation he actually was after. My father, having been taught by the Holy Ghost Fathers, was very good at making sure his children knew the Catholic faith even in the most subtle of ways. It must also be noted that when I am visiting my parents and attending mass with them, I still catch my dad whispering to himself all of the components of the mass even those the priest recites.
Even with my father’s little lessons, Catholicism was an enigma to me as child. I’ll never forget the time I was looking through his Bible as small child coming to him, “Daddy, there’s something wrong with your Bible. There are extra books in there. You better check it out!” and he said, “oh no, no extra books. All the right ones are in there.” he laughed jokingly. I learned my first lesson in church history that day, but my understanding on doctrine and dogma was muddled. Forget about transubstantiation, that would take me a few more decades to grasp.
When my grandmother died, I was given her Miraculous Medal and wore it without knowing what it represented. What I knew was that I wanted to carry my grandmother with me for the rest of my life. Eight years after my grandmother passed, my grandfather passed and I was given his crucifix and family rosary, belonging to my great uncle, that was blessed by Pope Pius XII (who also had a private audience with him). It was coincidentally the same period of time when my sister declared her return to the Church. I sat in my grandfather’s funeral mass and instead of sadness, I felt peace. I was sad to see him go, but I felt peace in the prayers. I felt comfort in knowing that my grandfather would be reunited with his wife and received by God.
Burying my grandfather, my mother showed me the stain glass window at St. Bernard’s Church in Indiana, PA that was dedicated to Fred and Virginia (my grandparents) and at the cemetery, I saw the grotto, built by my great uncle that enclosed a statue of Blessed Mother. At that moment, I thought about how my family line was filled generations after generations of faithful Catholics. Their faith had been such an integral part of their life even to the tying it to their occupation as my great uncle, a mason, had done with the grotto in the cemetery.
The call to return to the Church had continued on through several more years. I would feel a tug to go to RCIA to get the rest of the sacraments and then would immediately pull away. With every turn, there was the Church. In 2007, I felt called to the Czech Republic. During the Cold War, the Czech Republic was forced to strip religion down to rites. Under Soviet control, religion could no longer be practiced publicly which would transform the nation to a predominately Catholic one to a predominately Atheist one. When I came to the Czech Republic, I remember attending an English service in a Protestant church and thinking, “this is great, but this just isn’t for me.” I asked my new friends where a Catholic Church was in town, to which they replied, “you wouldn’t understand it, it’s not in English.” But catholic means ‘universal.’ Eventually, I was connected with a Czech woman who introduced me to her church, a small Catholic parish downtown. This little, cold church would be my home for the next two years.
One day I was nodding off in mass (because parts of it I just could not understand), when I heard English. There were two American lay missionaries who served in the Czech Republic and they were visiting my parish. I couldn’t believe it. After mass I went to them and spoke to them about their ministry. Tom and his wife mentioned a healing mass that would take place later that day and expressed how he wanted to pray for me and my roommate. I brought my roommate at the time for mass and afterwards, they prayed for us. I felt true spiritual healing.
A few years later, I found myself in Philadelphia. I prayed that God would send me to New York, but Philadelphia would be the place to which I was supposed to move. I worked for a Christian school for brief time and would learn that working as a teacher was not my true vocation. For about a year (while working at the school) I would pass a non-profit , serving the homeless, called Bethesda Project and felt drawn to this building. The word “apply” would enter my head every time I passed that building on my way home from work. One day, I found myself in need of a new job and the words “apply” entered my head. Little did I know that I would be applying for a position in a Catholic organization. I stayed in Philadelphia for two years until I felt another call to San Francisco. Just as with Bethesda, I would heard, “San Francisco” in my head. I eventually moved to San Francisco for a job working with the developmentally disabled.
I church hopped again and felt the pull to RCIA again. Eventually I would move into the Haight and from my apartment balcony I could see two large spires poking up through the sky. I hit Google and looked up “Catholic Churches in the Haight.” The first that came up in the search was St. Agnes , a Jesuit parish in Haight-Ashbury, just two blocks from my place. I could have easily gone to St. Agnes, but I was curious about the church with the spires. I hit Google image. There it was, St. Ignatius, a Jesuit parish on Fulton connected to the University of San Francisco, about a half mile from my house. The next day, after my Google search, I walked to St. Ignatius thinking mass started at 10:30. I got to mass early enough to conveniently read the bulletin and learned that there was a RCIA class starting. “OK God. You have my attention,” I whispered to myself. I signed up for RCIA the next day.
I spent most of RCIA slightly comatose and drifting in and out of consciousness from my grad school workload, but it wasn’t until my first experience with confession that I felt like I “got it.” The sacrament of reconciliation felt like a homecoming. I felt like the prodigal son who just wasted his inheritance only to come home with pig excrement smeared on my face and yet received by a gracious father ready to welcome me home. During my first ever confession, my priest told me to read Psalm 139 noting that God has always been there. He knew exactly what I was going to do before I did it. Even when I ran away, there He was. I didn’t matter if I was in the Czech Republic or San Francisco- God was always there.
I was confirmed not at 12, but at age 30 on April 19, 2014. The moment that Chrism oil hit my head, I knew my life would change forever. I would never be the same again. I didn’t want to be the same. I made a conscious decision to eliminate everything in my life that did not gel with my spirit. My sister was right. The sacraments are not to be taken lightly, but deliberately. I knew at the moment when I took the Eucharist for the first time, that I would be striving to live out the sacraments daily. My journey back to the Catholic Church was a long one, but I know now that nothing is accidental. Even when we do not immediately respond to God’s calling, he still leads us to where we need to go with tremendous grace and compassion. God is very respectful of our free will. His whispers are quiet ones. When we are quiet and open to listen, we will find our way. I am so grateful to be back home.