January 21, 2009
Following is Ahyong's winning essay:
From the time we are little children to when we are adults each individual has a faith journey to tell. We all experience the beginning trust and comfort in our religion over the basic tenants that God lives in heaven, the devil lives in hell, and that his son died to save us from sin. But as we lose the precious gift of innocence, so too does our faith begin to be challenged. This is true about my personal faith journey, thus far.
I grew up in a Catholic family where we would go to Mass every Sunday, pray the rosary before going to bed each night, and attend every church function. My parents taught me the majority of all I know about my faith, including the components in praying the rosary, the events that occur during Mass and why, and most importantly, why we believe in what we believe. I loved going to Mass because I got to wear pretty dresses with matching hats, and loved listening and singing the songs. At that stage of my faith journey I was a little child, eager to learn more about God, loving my faith fully, and being proud that I was Catholic.
When I finally entered elementary school, my faith was strengthened even more. Looking back on my education at Holy Name Catholic School, I realize how important it is for parents to try to send their children to Catholic schools. Not only do students receive one of the best educations they can, but their children also learn the value and meaning of their faith and Catholic religion. Throughout my years at Holy Name Catholic School, I learned my multiplication tables, how to spell properly, the cycles of the ecosystem, but also the parables of the Bible, the teachings of the Catholic Church, and the Apostle's Creed in a way more meaningful and comprehendible to me and my classmates. At the end of Kindergarten, I was finally able to enter the Catholic Community through my baptism at a church in the Philippines. At the age of six, I knew that I was being initiated into the Catholic Community, but didn't really realize the grandeur and importance of it until my second form of initiation as a Catholic.
During the second grade, I was educated about the sacrament of Holy Communion and how it is one of the most important sacraments we receive as Catholics. One day our pastor took each of us planning on receiving our First Holy Communion out of class and sat us down in the hallway. I remember being nervous because I wasn't sure what he was going to ask me. H asked, "Why do you want to receive your First Holy Communion?" I was only eight years old at that time, and wasn't really sure how to respond. What was the right answer? Would I get a bad grade if I didn't say the right thing? So I just sat there and thought for a moment. Then I realized that I just had to say what was in my heart. With some hesitation I told him that I wanted to receive my First Holy Communion because I wanted to be closer to God, and with a smile he nodded his head and led me back to the classroom.
My faith continued to be strengthened throughout my elementary career as I learned more about Catholicism, especially during Mass. I always admired how important the altar servers were at Mass; my sister was even an altar server, and I really wanted to be one too. I begged and pleaded Father Ben Conda to allow me to be trained as an altar server during third grade, but he told me that I wouldn't be able to until I entered the fourth grade. I was a bit disappointed, but decided that once I entered the fourth grade, my name would be the first on the list for altar server training. Sure enough, I became an altar server. I was so nervous the first time because I didn't want to let Father Ben down and didn't want to look like a fool at Mass. I felt so important when I paraded in the church with the cross and got to be the first person everyone saw. Most importantly, I thought I was so cool because I got to sit by the priest. It wasn't God, but it was close enough for me. With my first taste in actively participating in the Mass, I was hungry for me so I decided to do more by becoming a lector. That same year I was also taking Confirmation classes, learning about God's plan for us and later that year receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. With the first steps taken, I was ready for more.
Holy Name Catholic School was so advantageous for my faith. Throughout my time there Catholicism was broken down to its simplest form so that my peers and I could understand what we believed in. I enjoyed having Catholic School's Week because we got to have fun with our faith. During school Mass some of the essays we wrote would be picked by our teachers to be read aloud. I always felt special to be able to read about what Catholic schools mean to me and why I'm proud to be attending Holy Name and never realized that six years later, I would be doing the same thing. I'll always remember Father Gary's homily during Sunday Mass when he spoke about the faith of children and how it is such a special gift. I specifically remember him reading some of the essays from students and he read a portion of mine. He read about how I planned on being a doctor because Jesus helped heal the sick, and ironically, I'm still set on achieving that goal. My faith in elementary school was so bright and so strong, but I didn't know that it would be challenged as I transitioned into middle school and high school.
As I took the next step in education by enrolling in middle school and high school, I was introduced to a completely different world. I didn't know what to expect, but knew that no matter what, I had to stay true to myself, my friends and my faith. Before middle school and high school, my faith was like a candle. It was burning bright for all to see and wasn't harmed by anyone trying to put it out, but that was about to change.
High school was a stage in my life that really challenged my faith in God. At this stage of my faith journey, my candle was still burning bright, especially through my participation as a music minister and in youth group. My involvement with music greatly strengthened my faith in God and helped me connect with others in a more personal way. Everyone might not have rhythm, but thanks to God we all have SOUL. I played and sang every Sunday and even got to participate in the Christmas and Holy Week choir. For several years I played the piano and sang for both the 9:30 am and 5:30 pm Masses. This vocation was demanding and a struggle at times, but I knew that I was lending my gifts so that others could enjoy the Mass and connect with God more. Despite my reassurance of God's love through music, involvement with youth group, and support from the congregation, I still experienced doubt.
The first time I remember being ashamed of my faith and ignorance of the Catholic Church was when I took a history class at my high school. We were discussing the Black Plague, Renaissance, and Reformation. I knew about the Black Plague and Renaissance, but the Protestant Reformation was new to me. The teacher went into a small discussion about religion and had even admitted that he grew up as a Roman Catholic. At first, I was surprised but thought that it would be a neat discussion, so I continued to listen. He touched upon the sacraments, Christmas, Lent, etc., but then went on to attack it. He asked for a show of hands of the number of people in our class who were Catholic. I was the only one to raise my hand. Then he started drilling me with question, some of which I knew the answer to and others that I did not. I felt ashamed at myself that I didn't know the answers and was embarrassed in front of my peers. There were even times during our studies of this time period in Europe where he would talk about certain Catholic practices, but he was wrong, and I tried to correct him. He didn't believe me, and said I was wrong, which made me question my knowledge and faith even more. Later, I talked with some of my friends who were also Catholic, and they said that they didn't raise their hand because they didn't want others to know about their faith. My faith was no longer shinning like a bright flame, but rather flickering with the efforts of outside forces to diminish it or blow it out completely. I figured that with time, it would all disappear and I wouldn't have to be worried about people questioning or threatening my religion, but I was wrong.
The older and wiser I got, the more I questioned my faith. I wanted answers so that I could defend myself, and started seeking advice from adults at church. Life Teen enabled me to ask others about the concerns I had with subjects like heaven, hell, and purgatory, especially after having to deal with the hardships of losing two classmates and friends.
One of the most memorable moments in my life that helped solidify my faith was my experience at Steubenville San Diego. Along with our Life Teen group, I traveled to San Diego for a Catholic teen convention. I wasn't sure what to expect, but loved it all in the end. We had discussions with priest and motivational speakers, got to interact with other Catholic Teens, have a concert with Matt Mahar and Righteous B, attended amazing Mass celebrations, and participated in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. It was a breathtaking and exhilarating experience that enabled me and my peers to reestablish our connection with God. My faith was revitalized, shinning brighter than ever. Though my faith would continue to be challenged, I was finally secure with my beliefs, faith, and relationship with God.
I have come to the realization that no matter what I do or where I go my faith will always be tested. There will be people who will judge me on my appearance, skills, and religion, but I know that the only thing that matters the most is what I think of myself. God has enabled me to live this amazing life full of great opportunities so why should I waste any time of it by worrying about how others will try to crush my faith.
My faith journey thus far has
been like that of a candle. It was first ignited by the love
of my parents and others, but gradually overtime the wick started
to melt because of doubt and pressure by society who tried to
extinguish it. Through my tribulations I have realized that the
only light I will ever need is the light of Christ that is instilled
in my heart and in each one of us. As I embark on a new journey
in my life by attending college, I take with me all the lessons
that my friends and family have taught me, but most importantly
the love and trust in God. While away, I know that I will still
experience challenges, both in my education and faith, but with
the love of God and support from others around me, my light will
be sheltered from harm and will be able to grow brighter and
stronger for others to see.
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