I am a Catholic by choice. I made my choice at an early age after I attended Mass for the first time with my mother.
We lived in a small tight-knit colonial community on the island of Cebu in the Philippines. My mother was the only Catholic in her social circle. We attended a non-denominational Protestant Sunday school taught, in turns, by our mothers – except my mother who was not allowed to teach Sunday School. I found Sunday school intensely boring. My only real memory was marching around the classroom singing Onward Christian Soldiers and dropping our pennies into the poor box. It is probably where I learned to say the “Our Father.”
Attending my first Mass was an awesome event. We lived across the street from the Redemptorist Seminary, so that was where Mother attended mass. For a little girl, the church itself seemed enormous! It was filled with sparkling light; the ceiling was high, giving a sense of spaciousness. We entered from the back and stretching before us was a long central aisle ending in the high altar. There were statues and dancing candles. The air smelled of incense.
Beginning with the procession of the Priest and altar boys, followed by the solemnity of the Mass in Latin, I was riveted. I loved everything about the beautiful ritual. I wanted to go again, right away, but never had another chance.
I had to wait three years before my brothers and I were allowed to take catechism lessons. We had been imprisoned by the Japanese and were housed in the junior college across a field from our house. (See my memoir “Only by the Grace of God” for a complete explanation of why we were in the internment camp.) We were fortunate to have a young and handsome American Priest who belonged to a Belgian missionary order. as our catechist. When he thought we were ready, we were baptized by Father William McCarthy, the Maryknoll Priest who had obtained a Papal blessing for our parents’ marriage. We were baptized on December the 8, 1942, in a prisoner of war camp under the Japanese in the Philippine Islands.
Perhaps because of our imprisonment, which lasted for three years, our faith became an integral part of our lives. Although Priests were available to say Mass, the Eucharistic hosts and wine had to be smuggled into camp by faithful Filipinos.
In the last year of our imprisonment we were confirmed by the bishop. I received instruction from a Maryknoll nun, Sister Patricia Marie. Mass was held in a barracks that had been converted into a church, pews and all. I always sat in the front pew so I could see everything that was going on. I loved Mass.
Perhaps, because my initiation into Catholicism occurred during the internment camp where I was always hungry, always afraid of the soldiers, never knowing whether or not my parents would be taken away, made me rely more on my faith. Prayer for liberation was constant. Prayer for victory and the end of the war was also constant. Faith was the only thing that sustained us.
When we were finally rescued. (A documentary and several books, have been made of our rescue.) We were convinced it was a miracle as no one died. We were brought home on a converted troop ship, torpedoed, and survived.
That experience has stayed with me all my life, coloring my attitude toward my faith. I went through the years when I was angry at the Church but when someone asked me if, when I died, I wanted a Priest with me or if anyone else would do, I realized how much my faith meant to me and I returned home.
I am a Catholic because I am certain that the Catholic Church traces its roots to Jesus, as does no other. There is an unbroken line from Jesus to the Apostles to the first missionary journeys, to the establishment of the first Christian churches, the first bishops and presbyters (priests) anointed with the “laying on of the hands” by the Apostles to today’s Magisterium. It was the Catholic church that preserved the early documents and made the decision as to which books belonged in the Cannon of the New Testament and which did not. It was the Catholic Church that decided what was included as Christian belief and what was heresy. Catholicism taught that there was a Triune God composed of Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. It was the Catholic Church that taught that Jesus was truly human and truly divine. It was the Catholic Church that preserved the Bible from extinction. It was the Catholic Church that had to develop armies to defend Christians against attacking Muslims, even to the doors of Rome, when kings and emperors ran away. It was the Catholic Church that created the first hospitals and schools for the poor and created orders of religious to staff them. It was the Catholic Church that developed the first Universities. It was the Catholic Church that inspired the most beautiful paintings, sculptures and music in the world. It is the Catholic Church, still unified, that has existed for two thousand years.
Am I ignorant of Church history? No. I am aware of the atrocities committed by members of the Church. It does remind me, however, that the Church is composed of human beings, very frail human beings who respond to the times they live in, and acted badly. Some were politically driven. Some driven by greed or a desire for power. Others were driven by an over enthusiastic evangelistic zeal. We have the same drives in the Church today. We have the same drives in the world in which the Church exists. Yes, the church has had its share of dreadful sinners.
At the same time, the Church has fostered, encouraged and inspired a great number of very God-driven people, Great Saints: people who taught about God and Jesus by their very actions. Some were great orators and brought people to Jesus by their convincing sermons. Some were great writers, philosophers and theologians. Some did great deeds of tremendous virtue. The saints that have gone before me and have existed in my day have inspired me by their actions and helped me in my spiritual journey. Outside of the Catholic Church, I cannot find many lives of saints, of people who have dedicated themselves so completely to God, and who serve as role models.
Throughout history, the Church has been composed of both great and small sinners and great and small saints. The Church has been and always will be composed of people.
I am a Catholic because as a Catholic, I learned to pray and I learned that there are many types and forms of prayer and that they all help us to reach out to God. We are not alone.
Being a Catholic means that every time I fall I need to get back up and try again. I am so lucky to have the sacrament of penance and reconciliation so that when I do fail, as I always will, I can confess my sins, make restitution and amend my life.
For me Catholicism is a signpost that shows me the way. I am free to choose how I behave, just as others are, but for me, without the Church, the signpost would not be clear.
I am a Catholic because I experience a uniquely personal relationship with Jesus that I cannot find anywhere else. I am a Catholic because Catholicism is my spiritual home. I don’t know of any place else that is better.