I don’t usually put my writing here, but this is important to me so I thought I’d share. Maybe you can relate.
At the corner of Union Turnpike and Parsons Boulevard is St. Nicholas of Tolentine Roman Catholic Church, the center of my Sundays and the very reason my family settled on 162nd street, three blocks away. The ceilings are high, the stained glass windows picture the Old Testament on the right side and the New Testament on the right, and after a million-dollar renovation the pews now sport green cushions. Here, I was baptized, confirmed, had my first communion, and attended countless masses while attending the elementary school there for 10 years. At this church, I found out I could sing and joined the youth choir in 4th grade to stay through freshman year of college.
During mass I used to look around at the hundreds of heads bowed and felt blanketed by comfort, confidence even, knowing God must exist because these people could not possibly all be wrong.
I was born a Catholic, like more than 80% of Filipinos, and I never dared question it. My bedtime stories came from a children’s bible, and each life lesson from my parents came with a parable. When my brothers, both altar servers through high school, both started coming to mass only twice a year for Christmas and Easter, I thought myself above them. Righteous. I will never lose sight of my faith, I proudly told my mom. It was all part of being the good daughter. It complemented straight A’s, involvement in every extra curricular activity from sports to music, and volunteering hundreds of hours each school year. I made sure to pray every night, every morning, and before tests.
I joined SEEKERS, the Christian club in my high school largely run by peers in evangelical sects, the kind who spend their Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays at church and several weeks a year on international missionary trips. Once, we broke off into groups to study passages from the bible. I asked one of our group leaders, “ Do you believe that non-Christians, even good people, will all go to hell?” Hesitant, she paused before answering “Yes. That’s why it’s our duty to show them the way to salvation.” I felt obligated to believe this but had at that point become close with friends in school that considered themselves atheists. They were quiet girls, pacifists, who never spoke an ill word about anyone. Their only qualifying “sin” was not being born into a religion the way I was. These friends of mine were going to hell and I swallowed the fact.
I continued going to church for five years after that incident. I convinced myself it was because I had strong faith but the truth is I was tied to the community I found in the youth choir, where I met some of my current best friends. There, I found an excuse to hang out with kids my age and form crushes on boys who sang tenor. I found my love for singing and relished my Sunday solos and Christmas concert ballads. My heart pounded at the crescendos and yearning for recognition through song lyrics: Are you calling me, Lord? Cause I think I hear your voice. Are you calling me, Lord? Cause I’m waiting and I’m ready to learn.
I found a way to go to mass and want to be there. Seated at the balcony overlooking the church, the choir, a bunch of 12 to 18–year-olds, got away with spending the entire homily gossiping in whispers. I quit the choir when our music director, a volunteer, left and was replaced by a paid platinum blonde lady who halted the Christian pop songs we favored. Our sound was modern while her style was straight Ave Maria circa 1825. The new director came around the same time all the choir members went off to college and were hardly ever seen at mass. No clapping, no snapping, no liberties with vocal runs, her style was traditional. I tried working with the new director, coming every week. Eventually weeks turned into months, and months became years. Now, nobody sits at the benches where one hundred people dressed in blue robes used to fill. The only way I connected to the church was always through music. Once our old sheet music got buried in storage boxes and the lyrics, once etched onto my tongue, needed effort to recall, I saw that my passion was maybe not for the church, but for the art it inspired.
My mother comes from Camalig, Albay, Legaspi. At this town at the foot of Mayon Volcano, still active, the people revolve their lives around the church.
Her knees still bear bruises from praying on them hours at a time every night by her bedside. They prayed the rosary without fail every night and committed it to memory. When I ask my mother why she is so fiercely religious, she points to the New York City skyline. She tells me how prayer got her to this city. She reminds me that my dad never even left his small island, Catanduanes, for the mainland until he was 20, my age. Without believing in God, she tells me, she wouldn’t be here and neither would I. Because of God, I could call this city home.
I cannot bear to tell my mother I don’t think I’m Catholic anymore. I am Catholic because I do not want to disappoint her despite feeling disconnected with the faith I grew up with. She measures the success of her motherhood on how well her four kids have memorized the Nicene Creed. “I’ve failed if you don’t believe in God anymore,” she has told me several times. “I don’t know why none of my kids turned out right.” My siblings and I have never had any crime more serious than a parking ticket, all went to top schools, maintained straight As, and have close relationships, but skipping mass is the sin that erases any accolade. “I can’t be proud of you anymore, I don’t know what has happened to my daughter,” my mother says to me.
“Why didn’t you go to mass with us?”
“Because I don’t want to go anymore. It doesn’t make me feel anything.”
“You’re crazy! You’re going crazy! How can you expect your life to go well at all without going to church?” she would say, slapping me on my shoulder.
On Sundays, I will purposely lay buried in my blankets pretending not to hear my father’s bark to wake up for mass. I will sleep in and make sure to continue sleeping in through the 12:15pm mass. I will escape to the library insisting on the importance of a school project and come home when masses are over. On the days I am dragged to church, I will kneel, stand, and mumble when appropriate but spend the entire time thinking about an outfit I’m going to wear to a party the next Saturday and where my family will eat afterward. I’m not at the point of shamelessness as my brother, who texts and plays games on his cell phone.
Often times during mass, I can see my mother’s head bowed down, her lids shut, her body swaying into sleep. A number of other people in the pews surrounding us do the same. I once asked her to tell me what the homily was about and she couldn’t repeat it to me. She didn’t remember.
She’s afraid my future children will turn out “all sorts of wrong” if I don’t raise them Catholic: “How will they know right from wrong? How will they know love?”
Love in the Catholic faith is central on one idea: sacrifice. “Jesus died for our sins.” Martyrs, Saints, they all share this virtue in common.
I sacrificed my mother’s pride in me because it was difficult for me to follow a religion that doesn’t accept my oldest brother, who is gay. My parents and entire family know about him, but we never mention it. When I tell my mother half-joking, “Your kids all turned out great! Lucky you!” She would reply, not half-joking, “Not all of them,” and I would know she meant my brother. She still guilt trips him into coming to mass sometimes (“It’s my birthday! This is all I ask for you to do.”) When he was in college and called once a week, the first thing my mother would say after hello was “Did you go to mass this week?” Meanwhile, my father insists, “Being Gay is not what Jesus wants.” He cannot bear to see gay couples on TV and the site of a gay actor will prompt him to change the channel immediately. He says the “irregularity” is cited in the bible but when I ask him to tell me where, he cannot. I’m positive he hasn’t read the Bible aside from passages in weekly mass programs.
At mass, my brother is polite and still says all the same words ingrained into our brains since pre-school. Thanks be to God. Lord I am not worthy to receive you but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.
There is comfort in having a faith and a church. It is an excuse to bring family together. For my family, it would be the only time we are together, that is, if we all went. There are six of us and we all have different dinner times. The doors to our rooms do not lock, but they are always closed. Out of the five of us that live together, some can go four days without seeing another’s face.
I think the urgency my mother has for everyone to go to mass is more about a fear that she is not successfully holding the family together. It is the same urgency she has the one time a year we take a family photo for our Christmas cards. She gets similar cards from her friends–“Look at my best friend from college’s family! One is going to be a doctor, this one is studying to be a lawyer!”–she would point to them and tell me tales of their perfection. When I’m designing the card and coming up with a greeting she makes sure I write “Merry Christmas. God Bless, the Rodulfos.” My mother wants that comfort of knowing she will see us all, together, at the same time each week. In a way, we take a family portrait every Sunday and by the looks of it, there are only three people left in the family: my mother, my father, and my little sister who has not yet learned to think for herself.
I do not doubt God is somewhere but I am struggling to find him in the walls of a church building. I can’t feel at home in a space that feels so impersonal, where your view is the backs of your neighbors, the air is cold, and each step echoes loudly in the obviously empty space. I can’t feel connected to Catholicism when it tells me that talking to God means speaking to him words that are not my own. I cannot bear to tell my mother I don’t think I’m Catholic anymore. I cannot bear it because I know the face she will return – eyes glassy in disappointment, her usually faint frown lines deep – is not, like God, something I do not see.