I was raised Catholic. Crucifixes and portraits of Jesus and Mary hung on the walls in my house and my family never missed church on Sunday. I was also taught to pray before bed every night.
But in middle school, I got exposed to new ideas. In life science class we learned about evolution—the theory that modern species emerged from millions of years of natural selection. This clashed with the Biblical story of how the Earth was created in six days. The Bible’s version of creation was based on stories. Evolution made more sense to me because it was based on scientific data and logic. So things like Jesus turning water into wine suddenly seemed absurd. The immaculate conception—absolutely no sperm and yet a child? It was mindboggling to me that people could believe in those things. I started to feel that I couldn’t belong to a group that held those beliefs.
I started to make sarcastic comments about the Church whenever it was the topic of conversation around the dining table or at family parties. I criticized my family members’ constant prayer and traditional Catholic practices. Confession seemed especially ridiculous. “What’s the point of telling your sins to another person? If we’re supposed to be close to God why don’t we just tell him directly?” I’d ask. To these things my mom would respond with: “It just is.”
I still went to church every Sunday, though, because not going would cause problems. But the sermons were meaningless to me, so my mind wandered. And the hint of conservative politics in the priest’s words only hardened my resolve to separate myself from the Church. Eventually I came to the conclusion that I was an atheist. I didn’t believe in any god.
My political views were opposite of the church’s
I started supporting abortion rights and marriage for same-sex couples. Part of this was because I wanted to oppose what I saw as backward Catholic doctrine. I also believed that legal equality was the ultimate good.
In high school, studying evolution again made atheism even more appealing to me. And in history class, learning about the brutality of the Spanish Inquisition (in which people were put on trial for not being Catholic) and the way European settlers forced Native Americans to convert, reinforced my view of the Catholic Church as hypocritical.
When I started high school I began two years of weekly confirmation classes. Confirmation is when Catholics affirm their faith and accept the spiritual leadership of the Church. It’s made when we’re old enough to fully understand what the faith is. Everyone in my family had been confirmed, so I didn’t have a choice. Thankfully, the confirmation classes were easy.
We had a final retreat last March, one month before we’d all get confirmed. The purpose was to help us deepen our understanding of the Catholic faith. I dreaded having to spend the day surrounded by a religion that was no longer mine.
The retreat was held at the St. Joseph’s Salesian Youth Renewal Center in Rosemead. There were about 140 of us ranging from 15 to 17 years old. I knew there’d be some Biblical scripture and discussion of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: fear of the Lord, piety, knowledge, fortitude, counsel, understanding and wisdom. The idea of a spirit giving us those things seemed silly.
I thought back to something I’d read that said that to know your enemy was priceless. I decided that my best defense and eventual offense against Catholicism would be my knowledge of its explanations for its teachings.
We started the day standing in a prayer circle outside. When we moved into the auditorium for the first activity, I felt superior to everyone in the room. I was a modern person of logic, and they subscribed to an outdated and illogical faith. I tried to be friendly though—my aunt was the confirmation coordinator and I didn’t want to cause any problems.
The teachers broke us up into groups and told us to draw things that represented the Catholic faith. I’m competitive and wanted to show some leadership, so I suggested a circle because Catholicism teaches about the Church’s universality. Everyone agreed and the adult leading our group thanked me.
We added a heart within the circle to show that our faith is the core of who we are, the cross to represent the Church and a peace sign to show that religion brings inner and external peace.
We presented the drawing to everyone. I rolled my eyes at what others had created. The peace sign was everywhere. Some teams yelled out their friends’ names during the presentation. It felt like seventh grade. I felt like I was the only one who was thinking for myself.
We moved on to other activities that surprisingly made the day more tolerable. We did an activity with a soccer ball and a few others that stressed the same ideals: team-building, mutual respect and comfort in faith.
After lunch the seats in the activity room had been rearranged into rows in a semi-circle for mass. There was a small altar at the center in the front. I sat on the end of the first row, closest to the altar and to my friends. A white cloth was draped over the altar, with a cup for the wine (which represents the blood of Christ) and another cup for the bread (representing the body of Christ). Before the service began my teacher asked me if I would read a passage. I agreed, thinking it was an opportunity to at least make the service pass by more quickly. She handed me a scroll to read.
The priest presiding over the mass was popular. Whenever he was around us, he joked and tried to motivate us to open ourselves to Christ.
When the mass began the priest led opening prayers and then they played a video that showed scenes of teens with their voices in the background, proclaiming, “I’m Catholic!” The video showed five teens explaining the importance of their faith.
I saw that others were proud to be Catholic
They were people of all ethnicities united by this massive organization, the Catholic Church. In several scenes, they seemed carefree and friendly, as they were running, biking and doing other activities. I couldn’t help but have some pride in at one time being a member of such a force. I told myself to stop, to ignore it, to not allow myself to fall prey to what I saw as indoctrination. Still, the pride in their voices seemed genuine.
Finally, my time to read arrived and I grabbed the microphone, opened the scroll and read.
“You shall live in the land I gave your fathers; you shall be my people, and I will be your God … The Word of the Lord.”
My reading wasn’t anything especially moving but being in front of everyone and having to present the words of their faith made me feel included. I thought back to the video—to those people faith seemed to be something so fundamental and powerful. It contradicted everything I’d held as true for the past two years. I saw the Church as a human institution.
As I sat listening to the priest explain that true happiness comes from preserving a strong faith, I thought about how when I was younger I had felt the contentment of knowing God and there was a change in me. I thought back to my First Communion five years before, to my teachers as my first guides, to sitting in the pews of church on Sunday mornings and appreciating the calm and the smells and the warmth of the church.
I couldn’t make sense of my feelings. I sat in silence, watching the priest. I was an atheist and would remain one, I told myself. My mind screamed. Submitting to faith seemed like a huge step backward.
I was pulled out of the intensity of my thoughts by the sudden movement of all the teachers around the room holding stacks of letters in their hands. Each one handed several letters to their students. I received one, then another and another. They told us to go outside and read them. So I did, wanting to leave the room and clear my mind.
I opened the first one, a teal envelope containing a card from my cousin, whom I had chosen to be my godmother. I read it and was instantly touched by her words. “Don’t let anyone or anything ever hold you back. With God and faith, all is possible,” it read. Someone I looked up to and loved was telling me that my faith was something to be embraced and that she knew I would do a good job of it.
I opened the next one, from the cousin I had chosen to be my godfather. Reading his words, “In life, don’t doubt yourself or shy away from challenges,” I felt chills but from what I didn’t know. It was uncontrollable. Something massive was happening but I still remained reluctant. It was pride. I couldn’t accept being absorbed into something I felt I had been disconnected from. Neither of my godparents knew I’d rejected the faith.
I opened the next one, from my mom. She hoped that I would find my faith again.
Good memories of the church came back to me
At this point, my eyes were moist. I had goose bumps and my heart was racing. Memories of church, of our nativity scene, of paintings of Christ with his arms outstretched, of reading about Christ walking the Via Dolorosa (the path through Jerusalem on which he carried the cross on the way to his crucifixion), of our rosary prayers, of the excitement of my First Communion, and of my family history so strongly intertwined with the faith danced in my mind.
I was struggling to make sense of everything. But then I realized that faith is not something that makes sense. All I know is that I felt Christ that day. I really did. I found something I had refused to look for, something I had lost long ago and had no desire to regain. I found faith.
After the retreat, I mentioned to my family and friends that I had changed. Everyone congratulated me.
Since then, I haven’t let it go. I go to church every Sunday and actually enjoy it. After a week of stressing about school, listening to the sermons and being around people united by their shared faith recharges me.
It’s a calm and a reassurance that science could never provide. Science has answered lots of questions about the world, but there is still a huge amount we don’t know—like how exactly life began and what our purpose is. But faith gives me comfort in just living.
I pray every night, every morning and sometimes during the day. I pray for the physical and spiritual health of those around me and I pray for strength and to stay connected to my faith even when I’m not at church.
A few months after the retreat, I still could not fully accept all the doctrines of the Church, especially on homosexuality, contraceptives and the role of women. When I had rejected Catholicism, I knew that there were liberal Catholics who held political views different from the Catholic Church. But I couldn’t be that kind of Catholic; to me, it was all or nothing because I wanted things to be black and white. But now though, I’ve reconciled my faith with my belief that homosexuality is not a sin and with my support for abortion in the case of rape or when the mother’s life is in danger.
I understand something I didn’t before: faith is a mystery that cannot and should not be scrutinized. It’s a set of beliefs that are so ingrained in one’s being that life without it seems impossible. I don’t agree with everything but I don’t worry about it. I’m in God’s hands now.