(This post is repurposed and rewritten from my originally published article, “Faith is not a journey, it is a way of being” on Convergent Streams, V8 N2 2020 – per their terms of service (as archived on Jan 1, 2022), I retain all rights to my published work(s).)
My faith journey has always been private, but now I am opening myself so others may see what exists within the walls that is my soul. This post is a bit of self-exploration – a way for me to answer and internalize three fundamental questions: “Quién Soy?”, “Por Que Soy?”, “Como Soy?”, and to share with others that they are not alone on their journey of discovery.
I was raised, not just Roman Catholic, but Mexican Roman Catholic. Everything in my religious life was ritualized and made way more important than it seemed, at least to outsiders, but I loved the deep connection and way we lived our faith and beliefs. From the passing out due to too little oxygen near the flaming candles to the swatting of flies as we cross ourselves – I loved, and still love, it all.
We lived in a city on the outskirts of the Federal District of Mexico City, Tlalnepantla de Baz. Every morning we walked to the nearby church to celebrate with the Franciscans who lived and worked at the monastery. I learned a great deal about how to question every aspect of my faith from those beloved monks and I’ll never forget the lessons they taught me about how we are connected to everything and everyone around us. My parents and grandparents thought the little monks were a bit loose with their theology, but I enjoyed their free spirits and open hearts. In a way, they were preparation for what would eventually be my life’s path.
My Little Priest
We arrived at morning mass and as always I bounded up the walk like Tigger on steroids. I spotted one of the monks I befriended and ran up to him to take him aside, as I always did. With a smile on his face he asked me, “What have you seen today, my little priest?” Shocked, I stumbled back a few steps. He just stood there with that knowing smile.
I’ll never forget his words – they are etched deep into my soul. He knew – somehow he knew about the man at the foot of my bed dressed in a simple long linen tunic. No matter, I was overjoyed and shared my story about the silent man at the end of my bed. He said nothing to me, at least not that I heard physically, and only smiled lovingly. I felt safe with him and smiled back. But when I rubbed my eyes to rid myself of the sleep still within, he was gone.
My little monk smiled the same smile as the man in my room and said, “So, today you will pray a thank you to the Lord; a thanks for his visit and for smiling upon you.” That was the day I knew I would be like my little monk – a priest living in praise of our Lord.
Whenever we returned to the United States, I felt alone and disconnected from my faith, my country, and my family. I preferred the company of my grandfather – being with my father was strange and to be perfectly honest, unsafe. I often, with permission of course, walked down the hill to our parish where I sang with the choir and, yes, served as an alter server/sacristan/gopher/everything else I could do to immerse myself in parish life. I always worked primarily in the shadows; never bringing attention to myself. I liked being invisible, it gave me time to be alone in the chapel with my Lord.
When we returned to Mexico for extended family visits, I served in some capacity at the little chapel with the hooded monks. It was a joy to learn all I could from them, and I learn so very much. But finally the day came when I was to enter high school in the United States. My parents decided I needed stability over yearly home visits. They chose to remain in the United States and rather than enter private high school (I attended private Catholic school since grade school), my father asked that attend the local public high school.
I was crushed as I was already accepted into a private high school with a full scholarship, but my father… one feared for one’s safety when he was around. To maintain peace, I acquiesced. I cried for weeks after, but he left me alone until one day everything he held in exploded. I was fifteen when I left and I never looked back.
I encountered many hardships after leaving home, but I finally broke free and made a name for myself within a few years. At 21, I owned my businesses and lived a good life. I moved out of California a week before the Rodney King riots and gave thanks to my Lord for making little hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I moved to a state where I managed a fairground and served my community. Talk about coincidences, I was only a mile or so away from St. Francis parish run by – yeppers – Franciscans.
One day while cleaning the offices, the new diocesan associate pastor suggested that I consider the priesthood. In the years since leaving home, I never really considered a return to my original calling. Heck, I didn’t even know I could think about it at that age. I was content serving as an adult alter server, custodian, and gopher. But little by little he increased my responsibilities and soon the old spark reignited.
It was in 1997 I heard the words directly from one of God’s chosen – María Esperaza de Bianchini. The associate pastor arranged for her to join our parish for a one-evening event. Aside from the pastor, the associate pastor, and Servant Maria, I was the only other person on the altar during her visit. I was later told she asked for me by name, though I don’t know if that is true. I still think it was a ploy to trick me into applying to the diocese.
After her incredible homily (you can read it here The Angelus – Saint Francis of Assisi Church), she blessed people privately and gave them words of hope and inspiration. Standing beside her, I helped people kneel before her and assisted in any way possible. When everyone had gone, only the associate pastor and myself remained – and she read me like an open book.
Hearing the Call
“Siéntate, padrecito,” she said in her angelic voice. I reached over to the associate pastor to help him down, but somehow our positions reversed. All at once my heart was racing so fast I thought I had no chance of catching up. Something strange had just happened and I was stumbling to find my bearings. In what seemed like a blur, the priest and I exchanged places. She spoke softly and purposefully, and always smiled. Looking into her eyes was like looking into love itself, or rather themselves. She is a presence you never forget.
I remember arguing with her that I wasn’t a priest. A few times I grabbed at the empty space beside me, trying to switch with the priest back to my service position. Again she smiled and said to me, “He told you long ago you were already one of +His. You ARE already a priest.” Still I argued, “I am not worthy…,” “I’ve done bad things…,” and so on. Her words – tears still flow when I hear them; “You were forgiven long ago. Go – be who you were meant to be.” I was stunned. After what seemed like an eternity of looking into her love-filled eyes, I kissed her hand and returned dutifully to my station.
After the event ended and everyone went home, I cleaned the church – at least I think I did. No matter what cleansers I used, the church smelled like roses so I vacuumed and after putting away the supplies I sat in a pew and began to pray. I woke up the next morning curled up under the altar. No one knew and I began the day as I usually did – unlocking the doors and getting ready for a new day.
Honoring the Call
Every mass thereafter, the priests prayed for vocations and looked directly at me. One day, without them knowing, I applied to the Diocese and was accepted after several interviews and the usual battery of tests. I left the fairgrounds the year before and already served at my parish so the transition was quick and easy. That fall my true education began.
I was miserable in seminary. If ever you want to dissuade someone of being a priest, let them live in a Roman Catholic seminary. The one I attended was filled with professors who wanted nothing to do with their priesthoods and the wall oozed with drama. I wasn’t happy there and as a result my grades suffered greatly. It was a difficult decision, but I left the seminary after careful prayer and consideration. It was my diaconate year and I was heartbroken.
Later that same year, a dear friend of mine from my old parish, a deacon and beautiful Franciscan soul, invited me to another kind of catholic church; one that was more open and fluid about marriage and the celebration of women as priests. He left Rome the same year I did due to abuses he witnessed and found a home in a “new” kind of catholic church. I attended his priesthood ordination and at his invitation, I joined and was ordained the following year.
That was 21 years ago; I have been in ministry now for well over 26 years. It’s been a rough road, but I find my faith – that is to say my connection with my Lord and my service to the People of God – is deeper now than ever, but not because of the Independent Movement.
My experiences in the Independent Sacramental Movement (the Independent Catholic Movement) have been varied. There are good memories and not-so-good memories, though the good outweigh the latter. Through it all one thing has always remained constant – my faith.
My faith – that is to say my trust and belief in the +Creator – permeates everything I have done or ever will do as a priest and servant to the People of God. It guides me in times of trouble, comforts me in times of woe, and joins with me when in bliss. And through it all, the pain in my side is as real to me as is the sun to those who bathe in its warmth, but I bear it knowing I am drawn deeper into relationship with the +Creator.
I, too, am seeking the same peace, joy, forgiveness, and compassion that everyone else seeks. I, too, am looking for an end to suffering, and I know I will find it in the same place it has always been – in the loving embrace of my +Beloved +Creator.
For me, faith is not a journey. It never has been. It is a place deep in my soul and something to which I return on a regular basis that allows me to move and breath, and have my being within the presence of my +Creator. It is, for me, a way of life and has always been the endpoint in this long path of service, but I had to journey long and hard to get to that sacred place.
So… What Now?
Serving the +Creator is simultaneously a joy and a sorrow. It is sorrow in that I cannot help those who do not want help, and I can not want it more than those struggling to walk out of the depths of despair. I’ve made the mistake way too many times and will always carry with me the lessons for having tried. I do, however, believe it is my call to walk beside those who struggle to leave the depths of darkness to find their way into a truly healthy relationship with the +Creator.
6 We all have different gifts according to the grace given to us. If it is a gift of prophecy, we should exercise it in proportion to our faith. 7 If it is a gift of ministry, we should engage in serving others. If it is a gift of teaching, we should teach. 8 If it is a gift of exhortation, we should encourage. Whoever gives alms should do so generously; whoever leads should do so conscientiously; whoever performs acts of mercy should do so cheerfully.Romans 21:6-8 – New Catholic Bible
This scripture makes my point for me. Faith is a verb. It encounters every person equally; resilient in its defense against the frailties of the human condition and honest in its understanding that life is freely given and eternal. If we are to follow the servant’s path, then we must do so with the understanding that we serve the +Creator in returning to a place of love; not just of God, but of all that is +Created.
I will continue wandering on this sacred journey, and I will continue being a servant in all things, in all ways; singing praises of the +Creator and joining the +Created on the path home.