FAIRFIELD—When Paola Peña looks back on her faith journey, she recognizes the spiritual signposts along the way, when Jesus was leading her from darkness into light. It was a journey that began in an alcoholic home and led to years of atheism and New Age practices…until the moment when, she says, “God resurrected my heart.”
Today, Paola is director of Student Ministries at St. Pius X Parish in Fairfield, overseeing programs for young Catholics. She defines her role quite simply as “somebody who wants to save souls with Jesus.” And she believes her story can help them during these troubled times.
The oldest of four daughters, Paola was born and raised in Stamford. During her early years, she went to Mass with her family at the Basilica of St. John the Evangelist, but her religious life stopped at 10 years old and was followed by a descent into New Age spirituality and atheism.
“I grew up in an alcoholic home,” she says. “There wasn’t peace or order, and you were always on edge, waiting for the next instance of abuse. It caused a lot of anxiety for me and my sisters, and by the time I was ten, my parents split for the third and final time.”
Her mother, an immigrant from Colombia, worked as a housekeeper and was given custody of the children.
“We grew up in poverty and on welfare. There were a lot of challenges because my mom was a single mom,” she said. “By the time I was 16, I had settled on the thought that this was going to be my life. There was no hope. Everyone was suffering silently, and you learned to repress it, because if you mentioned it to my mom, she would take it as something against her.”
Despite her sense of despair, Paola excelled in school and was inducted into the National Honor Society at Stamford High School.
“I realized it was my only way out,” she said. “School was the only thing I had going for me, and I used it to escape from my home life.”
The vacuum in her spiritual life was being filled with New Age beliefs. By high school, she was immersed in a culture that was characterized by tarot cards and spells. She says studies have shown that young people from broken homes commonly turn to New Age spiritualism.
Her family no longer practiced the Catholic faith, and for the most part, she was ignorant of its teachings even though she was familiar with the Blessed Virgin Mary. Furthermore, she thought of God as a supreme being whose primary preoccupation was keeping a list of her transgressions.
“The God I was introduced to was a god who had a list of your sins,” she recalled. “And I wasn’t going to believe in a god who was a dictator or a tyrant. I had a great disdain for Catholicism by this time. I wanted nothing to do with God, and the more I got into the occult, the greater my hatred for Christianity.”
Then, something happened, something she describes as “a moment of grace.”
When she was 16, her mother took the girls to Mass at St. Benedict-Our Lady of Monserrat Parish in Stamford. While they were sitting in the front pew, sunlight began pouring through the stained glass windows, illuminating the sanctuary in a yellow glow.
“I felt the light penetrating me,” she recalled. “It did something inside of me, and I started to cry. I felt what I had pushed down in my heart for so long. At that Mass, I received a very particular grace, and it made me start to feel again.”
During this time, she had been tormented by a recurring nightmare in which she was running through a city on fire.
“I was running away from something demonic, a dark being,” she said. “Then, I got stuck in an alleyway as it was pursuing me, when suddenly the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared. At that moment, I had no idea who she was, but she said to my heart, ‘God does not want this for you. Do you want to stop?’ And I responded by grabbing her hand, which was extended to me.”
The Blessed Virgin’s words penetrated her heart.
“I realized God exists and that the way I was living did not have to be my life,” she said.
She woke up weeping at 4 in the morning and knew God was real and that he had a plan for her life. She also felt a tremendous weight had been lifted off her shoulders. From that time, she began to learn more about the Blessed Virgin Mary and what it means to be a Catholic.
After graduating from Stamford High School, she enrolled in the University of Vermont’s environmental studies program. When she arrived on campus, she was introduced to the Catholic Center and began to regularly attend Mass.
At her first liturgy, she was moved by the reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans in which he said, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then, you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
When Paola returned the following week, she heard the Gospel of the Prodigal Son.
“I just don’t ever remember hearing it before,” she said. “It seemed like it was being read for me, and I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness. I’m a prodigal daughter.’”
At the university, she was also introduced to the Focus Missionaries—the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, which is an organization that brings the Gospel to students through collegiate outreach. Paola became friends with one of them named Jackie, who is now a Sister of Life.
“She mentored me and invited me to her Bible study and taught me how to pray,” she recalls. “I was overcome by the witness of the people at the Catholic Center. They just glowed they were so happy, while I only had anxiety. There was no peace in my heart, so I stuck around because I wanted what they had. At the time, I didn’t realize it was Jesus.”
She attended Mass and Eucharistic adoration and signed up for RCIA classes, and in November of her freshman year, she went to confession for the first time in a long time.
“After 11 years, I finally received Jesus in the state of grace,” she said. “Then, when we were at adoration and I started opening the Bible, I heard a voice say, ‘Look up.’ I looked up and my eyes fixated on the monstrance, and my heart was on fire. It was a consuming fire. Physically, I was enveloped by this fire. I walked out thinking that it would go away…but it didn’t.” The experience lasted 90 minutes.
“I thought God was too good to be true, and that this was going to end because I was so used to broken promises,” she said.
During counseling sessions with a priest on campus, she learned that our earthly father often becomes our image of God the Father, and in order to heal she had to revisit the woundedness and brokenness that defined her childhood.
“It was the only way to heal and invite the Lord to reveal to me where he was,” she said. “I learned that during all those years of pain, he had been there, suffering with me. Before I didn’t know that Jesus suffers with us and that when I am hurting, he is hurting.”
During a retreat, a priest prayed over her for healing and to free her from any effects caused by her involvement with the occult.
“Now, I live in the belief that I am a daughter of the King,” she says.
She later joined the Focus Missionaries and was involved in their ministry at the Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut for three years. In 2015, Father Samuel Kachuba, pastor of St. Pius X in Fairfield offered her a job as a full-time youth minister.
“Just to see the fruits that have happened in the last five years and to be able to walk with people in their stories has been so beautiful,” she says. “Especially to see them enter into a place of surrender…because Jesus desires their peace and surrender.”
Now, her mission is to go out and invite people into a personal relationship with Christ so they can be saved.
“Heaven and hell are very real things, and I can’t imagine doing anything with my life other than preaching the Gospel,” she says. “It is very clear to me that I will be working with the Church for the rest of my life. The Lord is taking care of me. God has transformed my life and resurrected my heart. He has revealed his glory through my life story.”