I’ve been thinking a lot about how I would write this, or what exactly I would say, but for the most part I just wanted to convey my faith experiences since taking first Eucharist. I am currently sitting on a plane, thinking to myself what I did in my life to deserve such an amazing experience while abroad. Certainly, God thought I did something right, and as a result I was given the opportunity of a lifetime to study politics and religion in one of the most dynamic cities in the world. I knew for a fact that this was His way of saying that I needed to go out in the world, discover my true self, and work at it to better not just myself but others as well. I tried to do just that.
During my week-long study break, I chose to go on a five-day trip to the home of Catholicism: Rome. I could have easily gone with friends to Rome and done what college students do, but I felt I had a purpose to go there and I let my heart guide me instead. I booked my flight and my hotel alone, and found it within myself to break the taboo of traveling alone at my age. I did this because I knew that I wanted to take advantage of the amazing location to study my faith deeper and reflect on where I am at since I first became a Catholic. With that said, I posed myself two questions to answer throughout that week and up until the end of my study abroad experience: Why am I a Catholic? Why am I proud to be a Catholic. This is what I came up with.
I grew up in a very Mexican-Catholic family. If I could choose one person that epitomized religion into me, I would have to say it was my grandmother. She was a very devout catholic who filled our home with religious mementos of El Santo Niño de Atocha, and the Virgen de Guadalupe. My grandmother was the exemplary Catholic, humble despite her many acknowledged shortcomings. She knew she wasn’t perfect, but what got her through the day was knowing that that was okay, and that her family would still love her. She passed away when I was seven years old, and after she died, I was left with many questions, most of them unanswered to this day. But for some reason I chose not to do my first communion until I came to Santa Clara. Freshman year at Santa Clara, I met Lulu Santana who helped me understand that it was okay to have lots of questions, and it was okay to wholeheartedly embrace the love that is our Lord. By the end of RCIA (the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults), I was more ready than ever to take first Eucharist and receive the holy oils that made people want to smell my face. The ceremony was beautiful. I would say that if I were to list the proudest moments of my life, that day would probably be top three.
Today I am on an airplane home having spent the past four months living the dream and traveling in Europe.
At first, it was difficult being in a country with a small amount of Catholics. It is not as easy to find a Catholic church in London as you might think, and every trip I would take to mass, would take at least 30 minutes to complete. It was, however, very much worth it since I became a part of the community of Westminster Cathedral, a brilliant parish and an amazing feat of architecture. Going there most Sundays was the highlight of my day, but it made me think about how it is more difficult to be a Catholic in different parts of the world. In the UK, being Catholic in a mostly Anglican country is very difficult, especially for me, a student with no car. On most days, it was nearly impossible to get there without rain delaying either the bus or the church. However, I would see past that and try my best to make it to mass every Sunday.
One of the most hallowed experiences of my life happened while in London. On December 12th, also known as el Dia de la Virgen de Guadalupe, I promised the Virgen that I would go to church at Westminster that day, seeing as I was very far from home. Unfortunately, as I was leaving work, I forgot to get off at the correct stop. I felt a sense of betrayal, like I had failed Her, so I immediately turned around and went to the church. I was very amazed when I learned that I arrived right as a mass was starting. To my surprise, mass was all about Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. The priest talked about La Virgen’s story and, surprisingly, many people were intrigued by what he said and wanted to learn more. After mass, we were invited to the sacristy to view an image of Our Lady. Everyone in the church flocked to the sacristy. What used to be a quiet, private area of the church soon became a long line full of people waiting to meet Our Lady. I had never been happier while in London.
Backtracking, my trip to Rome was probably the greatest experience of my life. After a very long day traveling, I got to Rome and the first thing I did after checking in was to find my way to Vatican City. This was a dream come true. I arrived on Wednesday, a papal audience day. I am almost glad that it rained because I feel like it deterred a large crowd. When I got comfortably close enough, I just listened to his message. That day it was a simple yet powerful message, faith originates in the church. I took it straight to heart, and thought of what that meant to me. Not to mention, I was put on the spot by Vatican Radio, since they interviewed me because I spoke Spanish (probably one of the big highlights of my trip).
But when one thinks about it, the concept of faith starting in the church is a rather abstract one. I was of the belief that faith started in each individual human being--that when things got tough, we would have faith that things got better. However, that was looking at it from a very small perspective. The Church is a worldwide organization. Yes, different individuals have faith differently, but as one single Christian church, faith does get facilitated and promoted for the greater good of the world, not only for each individual. This really set the mood for the rest of my trip. I can’t tell you how many churches I visited and how many times I had profound faith experiences, sometimes right in the middle of the street. But the beauty of it all is that it really helped me solidify why I am a Catholic and I am proud of it. Believing in something is very easy. I can tell you that I weigh 223.5 pounds; though you might have your doubts, you still take me at my word and believe me. I think some people ascribe to this thought process when relating it to religion, regardless of which. Having faith, however, is something totally different and out of this world.
Having faith means that you stop at a corner of the street and pray to God as you would in a church, knowing that it will have the same effect. Having faith is losing someone dear, but knowing that God chose them to be in a special place in heaven, awaiting the eventual day where you might reunite. Having faith is knowing fundamentally that God exists and is everywhere you see beauty, but especially in the places where you see pain. Faith is knowing that you are not perfect, and that you make many mistakes, but still having the firm conviction that God will take care of you so long as you are honest and sincere, Faith is beautiful. Faith brings out the best qualities in every one of us, showing us the difference between right and wrong.
My faith leads me to know that I made the right choice when I chose to become a Catholic. You see, I am proud to walk around and openly bless myself and pray whenever I pass a church. And I’ll tell ya, I am very proud to walk into some of the most beautiful churches the world has ever seen. But I am not proud of being a Catholic because of the nice facilities, the free bread and wine during communion, or the awesome snacks after mass on Sundays. No, I am proud because in my church, people found it within themselves to show their love of God by building the most magnificent buildings this world has ever seen. I am proud because some of those people doubted themselves, yet to this day their faith has built La Sagrada Familia, Vatican City, Florence Cathedral, etc. I am proud because my church acknowledges that more needs to be done to address the needs of the wider population--not just food and shelter, but education and work placements. I am proud because people like Lulu Santana devote themselves every single day of their lives to serving God by recruiting and teaching young men and women the value of being close to God. I am proud because organizations like the Jesuit brotherhood exist to serve the community where other entities cannot. But most importantly, I am proud because I know that wherever I go, someone will know what I am talking about when it comes to pride in their religion. We have a lot to work on as a church, not just the leadership but the community as well. Regardless, I think we are on the right track to make more people like me proud of their religion.