I was born and raised in South Bend, Indiana. I went to Catholic school all the way through twelfth grade. My family went to Mass every Sunday and prayed before meals. But we didn't talk very much about the faith at home. When my sisters and I had questions about the faith, our parents would try to answer them the best they could, but that was about it. I think my parents assumed the schools were to be the primary educators about the faith.
The faith was presented to us as essentially just a set of rules: Go to Mass every Sunday and just sit there and watch, and outside of Mass, don't do any of the bad stuff and you'll be okay. I remember as a child I absolutely hated going to Mass because I felt I was being forced to go. And of all the things I remember learning in Catholic school, I don't remember ever once hearing about the importance of having a personal, intimate relationship with Jesus and rekindling it every day.
We never prayed a Rosary together as a family nor did we ever go to Adoration together. Over the years we gradually stopped praying before meals and my sisters all fell away from the faith after they left high school. By the time I was the only one left in the house, I was still going to Mass, but only to say I went; I wasn't intentional about it at all. My freshman year of college, I was fortunate to have a Catholic church right across the street from where I lived on campus, but I was still only going to say I went. I didn't get to know anyone at the church, not even the priest. Once Mass was over, I was out the door and didn't think about it until the following week. Then I transferred to another university where the closest Mass was a 30-minute walk. I made no effort to go. I only went when I was home for break.
For the next two years I was an unhappy wreck. Not only was I straining to keep up with my grades and finding internships, but also one of my biggest struggles was comparing myself to others. Whenever I would see people doing well in something that I couldn't do as well, I would ask myself, “Why are they so good at this or that and I’m not?” I was so focused on how well everyone else was doing but not on the things I was good at or how I could make myself better. I would tell myself I wasn’t good enough and question my own self-worth. It was exhausting and frustrating. I also didn't have very many close friends. Growing up, I was often picked on and had trouble relating to those around me, so I hardly ever let myself be vulnerable. At this particular school, you could either request roommates or have them randomly assigned to you, which I did every semester I was there, including summer sessions, so I must've had 20 roommates during the four years I was there.
In my third year at the school, I came back to the apartment one day and saw an invitation to a Catholic Mass slid underneath my door. I didn't know who put it there. I was intrigued, as I was at a public school and I had not seen this before on campus, so I kept the invitation. But the problem was Mass would start during one of my evening classes.
September 9, 2013 – a normal Monday – is a date I will never forget. I walked out of that evening class and I saw Mass going on across the street. I couldn't hear the priest but I could tell he was giving a homily, so I decided at that moment to go. I was expecting 15 to 20 people to be there, but there were at least 40 to 50 people, including my roommate! It was there where I first encountered FOCUS, which had been at this campus since 2009. This school didn’t have a Newman Center but it had its own Catholic Student Organization: I couldn't believe I had missed out on it for two years! Most people might say that the random roommate who invited me became my roommate by chance, but I'm not sure about that. I truly think God put him in my life to invite me to come back to Him.
About a month later I was invited by the CSO to a retreat off-campus but I was a little hesitant. I had gone on retreats before and felt refreshed and energized after each one, but it didn't take long for that excitement to fade because I was just going through the motions, doing what everyone else was doing. This time I decided to go and signed up at the last minute. It was at this retreat where I learned that this was more than just another club on campus. These were fellow students, men and women my age, who were living intentionally for the Lord and striving to become disciples. We had a lot of fun and bonded over that weekend, but it was much more than that.
What I remember most from that weekend is Adoration. It was the first time I had gone since high school. The moment it started I felt an overwhelming sense of peace that I had not felt in a long time. For all my life I had thought that the bread and wine were just symbols of Jesus' Body and Blood. But it was during that retreat where I first heard that they weren't just symbols, they actually were His Body and Blood and that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist!
Over the years I wanted so badly to get involved in the Church and keep Jesus at the center of my life, but I wasn't sure what God was calling me to do. I went to World Youth Day 2019 in Panama, and one of my prayers at that time was “Lord, whatever your will is for my life, that's what I want.” One day we visited churches around Panama City. In one of the churches there was a statue of Our Lady and beneath it a plaque describing Our Lady of La Antigua, the patroness of Panama. It’s said that her feast day is September 9 and that she was canonically crowned in 2013. Remember that date? I had to walk out of the church and catch my breath. It was a clear message from God that I was right where I was meant to be. It didn't answer what He wanted to do with my life, but it erased any doubt that He does have a plan for my life!
There are still times where I fall into old habits, but the last few years have been transformative because I've learned to recognize triggers that cause me to start comparing myself to others and I'm incredibly grateful for what God has given me in my life. I've also learned to allow myself to be vulnerable to those around me, especially to Jesus during prayer. It's opened up opportunities to have conversations about the faith with my family, especially my mom, who was raised in a strict Catholic household. She's now on a journey of deepening her faith. I think there's a spark in at least two of my sisters at the moment and I'm still praying for all three of them to return to full communion with the Church and for my two brothers-in-law and four nieces and nephews to follow them home.