When my mom and I were on our tour in Fátima, Portugal, I had to ask her about something that had bothered me since childhood. When she and my father got a divorce, our neighborhood church turned her away. I couldn’t understand this because my Mormon friends down the street had the support of the entire local Mormon congregation when their parents got a divorce. They brought over casseroles, babysat, and donated clothes and school supplies. By contrast, my mom, who had attended Catholic school and went to church every day, had nobody to help her. That’s the reason why I had resented the Catholic Church for most of my life.
When I asked my mom about that period, she told me that it wasn’t the Catholic Church that wouldn’t welcome her but the priest at our parish. She also said he took donation money and sent it back to his hometown in Portugal after it had been hit by an earthquake. That’s when my mom, my two siblings, and I stopped going to mass. I didn’t care for that church anyway and never felt like going back after they turned mom away when she needed support.
In college I learned about other religions in humanities courses and enjoyed hearing that all great religions have the same values—love, compassion, service to others, forgiveness, peace, and gratitude. Over the years, I’ve tried to embody those values in my own way, without following any organized religion. But as a child, I felt I was a bad Catholic. Catechism was a drag, and my first confession was the scariest thing. (There’s something terribly wrong about forcing innocent children to confess a sin.) I couldn’t think of anything to reveal, so I made up a white lie about pushing a boy in class. This was back in the mid-1970s. I hear they call it reconciliation now. Whatever the name, I hope it’s no longer scary for kids.
I also barely made it through my first communion, when I was scolded by Father Joe for not holding my hands in prayer while I walked up to receive the host. The best thing about mass was seeing my Filipino friend Lisa. Our moms let us sit together in the back row. We couldn’t understand anything Father Joe said, so we would invent our own fun. You know those moments when you’re not supposed to laugh, but you cannot contain yourself? We got the giggles every time! When during communion Father Joe said “body of Christ” with his thick Portuguese accent, I always thought he’d said “bicycle ride.” Naturally, this sent me into daydreaming about riding my bike with Lisa after mass.
But let’s go back to present day Fátima. Mom went on to tell me that she never lost faith in God. She kept praying, and she said she couldn’t have survived the divorce without her faith. On our trip, I saw her whisper her prayers every night before she went to bed. It was cute. It was also very moving for me to see this before I walked my Camino. While on it, I went into a lot of churches, attended some services, and prayed a lot for everyone in the family. I didn’t think the Camino would get me closer to God or renew my faith, but it did.
I believe that people can find God everywhere, whether it’s in nature, churches, temples, synagogues, meditation centers, yoga studios, or prisons. A house of worship isn’t a necessity for one to pray. As my mom says, “You can talk to God anywhere.” However, since my return from the Camino, I’ve gone to almost every Sunday service at a church that Pam, my mother-in-law, likes to go to when she visits. I feel welcome there, and I like the sense of community it offers. The congregation there is progressive and gives support to those in need. Once, when Pam and I heard a priest talk about the death of a longtime parishioner who was gay and whose partner had sat across the aisle for years, we wept. The Catholic Church may have its faults, but it has surely come a long way.
My mom and I bought rose scented rosaries in Fátima (see photo above). I brought mine out and said prayers with it in every church I went to on the Camino. I also use it in my new church here, in Oakland, during the Sunday service. I have it with me at all times along with my sandalwood mala bead bracelet with an Om symbol charm. Both are now symbols of my faith.
I see houses of worship differently now—I started appreciating them. And instead of giggling in church, I now get teary-eyed.
The candlelight service in Fátima reminded me of our shared hope for peace. The flame has been rekindled. I have faith in humanity, as long as we can coexist.