As someone who attends college seven hours away, I always look forward to an opportunity to come home for a break. I love where I am, but there is something about the familiarity of home that provides refreshment and joy amidst the challenges each semester presents. My family is very close-knit, so I always try to enjoy each moment I get to spend with them. Although most of my time during breaks is spent at my house—my physical home— I don’t feel like I’m totally “home” until I’ve visited my spiritual home, St. Pius X Parish in Fairfield.
My family and I became parishioners of St. Pius when I was a junior in high school. Both my sister and I were looking for a good youth ministry program and St. Pius had just hired a new youth minister, Paola Peña. I started attending youth group meetings and other outings in the summer, such as a hike and a BBQ and I made instant connections with Paola and the other youth ministers, Shari Garcia and JP von Uffel. They were (and are) people who are passionate about their faith and share it in a relatable and meaningful way. Most of my friends in school at the time were Catholic, and we would talk about our shared faith often, but it wasn’t the same as the relationships I was building with the people at St. Pius.
In February of my senior year of high school, the youth group went on a retreat. I was not prepared for how powerful that weekend would be for me. It was here that I was introduced to the different ways in which God speaks to us, two of the most important being through Scripture and Eucharistic Adoration. The youth ministers opened my eyes and ears to God in a powerful, yet gentle way that weekend. I began to develop a greater love and appreciation for the Eucharist, which was further augmented through going to Mass at a parish where the Holy Sacrifice is celebrated with the utmost reverence.
Shortly after the retreat, Paola reached out to me and asked if I wanted to start doing discipleship. Paola was a former FOCUS missionary and discipleship was a process that she had used during her time as a missionary at the Coast Guard Academy in New London. I would meet with Paola one-on-one every week or so and she would introduce new aspects of evangelization to me. She mentored me in my faith and strove to lead me to become holier. I was so amazed that she was willing to invest so much time into my life in this way.
After I my high school graduation, I began feeling spiritually dry. All of my senior activities had come to a close and I was beginning to transition into the mindset of a college student. I felt lost and I decided to reach out to Paola. I told her everything I was experiencing, and she listened attentively and with empathy. She recommended that I ask Father Sam, the pastor at St. Pius, if I could go to him for spiritual direction. She explained the benefits of having a spiritual director and I agreed that this was something I should pursue. During our youth group’s summer mission trip at Catholic Heart Work Camp, I asked Father Sam if I could meet with him for spiritual direction sometime after the trip. I am being completely honest when I say this was one of the best things I ever did.
I met with Father Sam about once a month in the time before I left for college. These meetings were so fruitful, helpful and encouraging for me. Although the major stressor in my life at the time was preparing for college, I talked to him about all aspects of my life. As a young priest, he himself had experienced what I was experiencing not too long ago, and he was able to provide me with wise insight. Most importantly, in learning more about me as a person, he was able to gauge the health my spiritual life: something that I could not do on my own. He identified what my good habits were and challenged me to grow in my weak areas. Knowing that I had established this relationship with my pastor as I started college was a huge comfort to me.
Now, I always try to meet with Father Sam when I come home for breaks. It is usually one of my first priorities and I get in touch with him in advance to let him know when I’m coming home. It is so beneficial to check in with him, tell him about the joys and challenges that I’ve experienced and seek his guidance. Like any good father, he knows what his daughter is capable of and gives loving advice. Whenever I meet with him, I am always amazed at how well he can read what is going on in my soul and I always feel like a weight has been lifted off of my shoulders when I leave.
Whenever I come home, I try to get together with Paola and Shari, too. They, along with Father Sam, make up my spiritual family and the relationships I forged with them as a member of their youth group have grown into treasured friendships. It is so refreshing to be able to talk to and hang out with these faith-filled, fun women who still help me to become the best version of myself. Without these experiences and connections that I had throughout high school at St. Pius, my spiritual life would not be where it is today, nor would I have felt so grounded throughout college. It is saddening that so many young people fall away from the faith once they get to college. I truly believe that if more of them had a spiritual support system at home, their faith would soar once they get to college. I am beyond grateful to God for my spiritual foundation and home at St. Pius.
By: Michelle Onofrio