Once upon a time I was a good Catholic. I went to youth groups and I even enrolled in minor seminary in Spain when I was eleven years old. But in time that all disappeared. So what happened?
It started with me perceiving a lack of freedom. I thought that being with God didn’t allow me to be myself. I thought Catholicism was the “Church of No.” I used to go to church because it made my mom happy. I really couldn’t find a better answer. And God: Where was he? Did I experience his mercy, love, and forgiveness? I did, when I was younger. I had just stopped noticing or remembering.
So I left the seminary and went to study in Madrid to become an English teacher. My big dream was to travel the world and meet lots of people. And oh, the people I met!
Fun, Free—and Phony. I lived in France and Wales, then ventured to Berkeley, California and New York City. The excitement of the world took over me. I felt free; I felt happy; I had made it. I still felt empty though, so I decided to move somewhere that offered more money and stability. I moved to Los Angeles and discovered the “happiness” of a good salary. Nobody there asked me if I went to Mass on Sunday or if I prayed.
Little by little, my faith, God, and all that I once thought to be good and holy became a distant memory. I was in my twenties and I thought that meant I should have fun, date, and maybe try drugs. I became the fun guy—the one who taught during the day and partied at night. The one who forgot if it was Christmas, Easter, or even Sunday. Sleepily, I became antireligious. And I thought I was free.
My life without God lasted ten years. I didn’t go to Confession once during that time. I lied to my mom and to former Catholic friends over the phone. I lied to myself, and I lied to God. The worst part was that I was perfectly okay with it. Fortunately, Mom kept on praying for me.
“Do Not Be Afraid.” In Los Angeles I drank much, dated even more, and partied constantly. I never thought I was a bad person. I just lived like I had made it. No attachments. No reminders to follow God. Nobody criticizing what I wanted to buy. I thought happiness was living alone, not just physically, but emotionally. All my friends in Spain were jealous of my life in LA, so I thought that I had succeeded. But just when I thought I was the happiest, something bad happened. My girlfriend and I broke up. That’s when I really felt alone.
Naturally, I had to mitigate my pain with alcohol, so I went out until the sun saw me at my worst. I stumbled home with the idea that a new day would be the best medicine. When I woke up and opened my eyes, what I saw next changed my whole life.
The television was on, and it was broadcasting the funeral of Pope John Paul II. Across the screen flashed the famous phrase from the gospels that he often repeated: “Do not be afraid.”
In one-half of a second, I saw my life over the past ten years. Then I remembered back to when I was free from self-pity and self-destruction. The phrase “Do not be afraid” suddenly made me know that even though I had been pursuing the life of the world instead of God, he did not abandon me.
There in front of the television, I cried like a baby. I felt lost and naked and wondered how God could love the person I had become. Then I remembered how my mom had taught me to pray. I shakily started to say the Our Father, but stopped midway because I was crying so hard.
“Are You Crazy?” I cried a lot during the next nine months, especially when I called my mom to tell her about my new desire for God. The longing was so deep that everyone and everything around me seemed new. I felt different too. My first Confession in ten years was one for the books. That poor priest! It didn’t matter though, because I had fallen in love with God again.
God wanted more from me though. One day, when I was at Mass hearing the priest preaching, a thought passed through my mind. “I want to do that. I want to tell the world about God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness.”
“Then why don’t you?” God murmured.
“Me? Become a priest? God, are you crazy?” Then I started making excuses, asking God, “Have you forgotten the things I did?”
That’s when he brought to mind the day I returned to Confession. “Remember that?” I sensed him say to me. “Since then, yes, I have forgotten. So don’t be afraid; I am always with you.” I cried again—surprise! After that, the feeling that I should be a priest mounted inside me like a gentle storm. Thirty times a day, I said yes then no. I kept curiously talking to priests about their vocation, telling them I was “asking for a friend.” I was still afraid. “Do not be afraid,” he said again.
Then one day in prayer, as I looked at Jesus and as he looked at me, I said my timid, reluctant yes. My life changed again, and now I am living the most real dream possible.
Looking to Love You. If you are a parent who suffers for your child, if you are lost and living a life without God, or if you are in need of God’s forgiveness, I say this from my experience and my life: Do not be afraid! God is looking for you and he wants to love you until the end.
Fr. Gregorio “Goyo” Hidalgo is a priest of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.