From the moment I was baptized as an infant in the Catholic Church, I believed in God. How? You may ask. I felt something alive in me and others, especially my father and mother. My sister, three years older than I, felt the same.
First I learned to love. second to serve, finally, I learned to forgive.
My mother and father always took us to church. My father, a strict and relentless disabled World War II veteran loved us. I always did as he ordered. “Sit quietly,” he whispered to me, when we were inside church. The organ music was soothing, and on one occasion I fell asleep, he picked me up after Mass ended, and a lady commented, “She’s so quiet!”
“Thank the lady, Frances,” he prompted me.
When I turned 5, he died and my mother, now a widow, became a single parent, something unheard of back in 1953. In the Hispanic culture widows remarried so a man could take care of them. When my father died, she had to make adjustments. First, she made us a priority. We moved in with our grandparents, and mother did her best to give us all we needed. Money, her second priority became difficult to get. Even so, she enrolled us in Catholic School, and that turned out to be a lasting memory.
My first teacher, an elderly sister, wore a starched black habit which ruffled when she passed by. She created an atmosphere of total respect. Because this was my first year of elementary, I tried to understand what she taught, but, Daddy gone, I couldn’t ask my mother to help me. She attended school only to the third grade, and she worked three jobs.
The second day, I panicked! Sister asked us to memorize a list of words. She rambled on about the words, and the following day gave us a pop quiz. I nearly wet my pants. I didn’t know all the words. The only one I recalled was GOD. I turned the paper in and went home to tell Mama that I had failed. “I don’t want to go back! Please Mama! Please!” My mother sighed. Later on in life she confessed she was relieved, because she couldn’t afford the Catholic School.
The next day, Mama enrolled us in public school, and, what I thought the end to my Catholic education, turned out to be the first lesson about Catholic nuns. My cousin, also in the same classroom, asked me, “Why didn’t you come back?”
“She’s mean! I don’t want to get bad grades!”
“Hey, Frances, what bad grades? You got a hundred!” My mouth dropped. I experienced a feeling of love and kindness hidden under the starched black habit of the sister, who, although strict, knew I learned the greatest lesson of all–I knew God!
Mama made sure we never missed Mass on Sunday. She also enrolled us in parish catechism to receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion, and the sisters taught me more about Jesus, Mary and confession. I learned humility from the nuns. When I turned 15, I secretly vowed never to marry. Instead, I took care of my mother, who had sacrificed her life for us. She inspired our prayer life and how to serve God with selfless love.
My decision to remain celibate without entering the religious life had its setbacks. I experienced rejection and criticism, even from my relatives. As I grew older, I delved right into social pressure, mental anguish, aridity of spirituality. But Mama ever present, with her love, patience, and forgiveness influenced my Catholic growth. A difficult transition occurred to me with a missionary priest who came to our parish during lent. When I went to confession with him, he kicked me out of the Confessional screaming, “How dare you call yourself Catholic! Get out!
Forlorn and ashamed, I prayed before the Blessed Sacrament. By that time, I had learned to ask Jesus for spiritual strength and hope. The next day, I attended the mission and went to Confession with the same priest. The Holy Spirit inspired me to make a true reconciliation with Jesus, and to this day, I know the priest did not kick me out, but Jesus taught me a lesson in humility…a transcending into a spiritual awakening.
Vatican II came into being, and the Church created a unity among Catholics. No longer did the Catholic world individualize their experience with God, but we found that the Catholic faith is truly universal.
I am 69 years old. My mother died at 87. I recall her ever present Catholic faith, which, so ingrained in my heart, mind, and spirit, became for me the strength that leads me on. The scandals that have occurred and continue to exist in our Church are lessons for all Catholics, Christians, and non-Christians, not to criticize or condemn, but unite us, bonding us in love and forgiveness.
“Be perfect even as your Heavenly Father is perfect!” (Matt. 5:48)