It all started 28 years ago on Dec. 11th, when I was born into this wonderful world. On Dec.12th I entered my life as a Catholic. I was an emergency baptism as I only weighed 3lbs. 15 1/2 ozs. Thus my journey to 'religious life' began. I spent the first month of my life in a hospital with all sorts of needles sticking out of me and other such fun stuff; thankfully I don't remember any of it. I can only assume that my life continued as that of any young, Irish, American, Catholic child: Mass on Sunday, Mom and Dad teaching me the basics of life and of being a Catholic. I remember going to Mass as a child, being on my best behavior, being able to stand on the kneeler, and no toys were allowed. There was no children's church, you dealt with whatever priest you got, whether you liked him or not. We had something called a children's Mass, but if I remember correctly that was a Mass in the gym and it was probably more of a teen/young adult Mass than a children's Mass. Maybe I'm combining memories of a few Masses, but the overall point is we weren't taken out of the Church.
My early life was shaped by my family: mom, dad and my brother, and well the aunts, uncles and cousins too. Being a fair bit younger than most of them, I didn't experience as many sacraments as I could have, but there were enough Communions, Confirmations, and weddings that I can remember a good few of them.
It was soon time for me to go to school, I remember mom calling different Catholic schools, looking to get me in. We tired our home parish, but they for some reason didn't want me so I ended up at Sacred Heart Private School, which was run by the ASCJ sisters, the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, unfortunately it’s closing at the end of this school year. It would be in these hallowed halls of the "little school with the big heart" that my vocation to "religious life" would begin.
Here the sisters would provide many things for us to do, First Friday Masses, plays, glee club aka the choir, liturgical ministries, prayer services were among the many school activities. While Mom and Dad laid the basics of the faith, the Sisters took what was there and built upon it. I read at Mass, sang in the choir, helped out around the school. These nuns hold a dear spot in my heart, especially after seeing the mother house in Rome, and because there were my first experience with “religious life.”
Yeah, I had moved to NJ that other state that my cousins lived in and I was happy until high school began. Those wonderful halls of Hawthorne High weren't friendly at first. See I do not like the fact that most of the kids in Hawthorne have made their friends/groups before they enter high school thanks to that wonderful thing called middle school. So there I was the outsider, the girl with the funny accent, trying to find her way in a school she didn't really like. There was a shining light though, for the first time in my life, I had met a man who had just become a priest. In New York the priests had been at our church since I was born, so they all seemed old to me. Deacon Geno was assigned to our parish and was ordained in Aug. 1993 becoming Fr. Geno or FG as, he was more commonly known. I thought there is no way, he's a priest; he's too young. Little did I know how much this young priest would shape my life.
For a year my mom told me, (Irish accent needed) "You should go to youth group, Fr. Geno seems like such a nice young priest." So finally one Sunday night in September of 1994, I caved, I set foot inside the newly 'ordained' youth room, and much to my surprise I actually liked being there. I met new friends, people I went to high school with, whom I never thought I'd speak to. Here began my 'oh being religious can be fun' stage of life. Through youth group I found myself doing things that I did in grammar school, I was part of our 'teen music ministry', I was a lector in the parish and over all having fun each Sunday night while learning about my faith. I wasn't using books to learn, because I had that book knowledge, I needed what would later be called "heart knowledge" by another priest who has shaped my life.
For 3 years I rarely missed a youth group meeting or outing. Finally, that dreaded day of graduation came, actually it wasn't dreaded; I looked forward to graduating from High school and moving on to college, but I knew I would miss youth group. For 4 years, Fr. Geno showed me that religion wasn't this un-cool thing. I was shown that religion was ok, and a cool teenage thing to do. The one thing I didn't like was that I was leaving youth group and facing down another new school. I didn't want to leave youth group, I had grown accustomed to hanging out on Sunday nights, singing songs, and having fun. I was now leaving all of that behind to go to Seton Hall. I believe Mike put it best on our senior retreat, "what will FG do without us next year?" My comment should have been “what am I going to do without youth group?”
My life with youth group wouldn't end with that retreat as I had one final trip left, Paris/World Youth Day (WYD). It would be on the streets of France that I would see differences between me and other teens on the trip. I had known from day 1 of the meetings, that this would not be an 'easy' trip. I knew it involved crappy food and whatnot; it was called a ‘pilgrimage’ for a reason. It would on this trip that I would thank FG for being whom and what he is. I told him at one point toward the end of the trip, I'm here to see the Pope, and that's it. He laughed, and said thanks. I knew he knew that I truly meant it, and I think it helped him to know that at least one person wasn’t there for Paris, but for something else, JP2.
At a WYD event while looking at JP2 on the big TV screen I wondered why these crazy European ladies next to me were crying like babies looking at him on TV, it was no different than watching it from home. I would later become one of those crazy ladies, many times, but for now it was a strange sight, that I couldn't figure out. Was I moved to see the Pope, aka the little white dot, yes, I was, but not to tears. I didn't cry on that trip until the last night when FG got the St. Anthony's group together and said "we say good-bye to Mary as she heads off to college." It hit me like a bullet that I was leaving youth group. I knew he didn't really mean good-bye, but I was saying good-bye to what I had come accustomed to for the past 3 years on Sunday nights and other events, like the feast, retreats, Masses, and other things where I was with people who shared my attraction to 'religion' and the unknown of college was a scary thought.
I'll end here with college, because it would be at college where my faith would "change", it would be challenged, confused, and all sorts of things. Those 4.5 years shape my life into what it is today, and to add them in here would just make this post super long.