I was raised in a strict Pentecostal household and indoctrinated from an early age about the evils of the Catholic Church. I was taught that Catholicism was the furthest thing from spirituality, where God was nowhere to be found because saints and the Virgin Mary--referred to as "idols" in my family--dominated all worship, and Catholics served the pope instead of Jesus. The Eucharist was not seen as the Body of Christ but as a creation of the Catholic Church, and we should not have anything to do with it.
While for many this may sound absurd, I must confess that too many of my relatives still believe this. At many family gatherings I am lectured on how I have abandoned God for Catholicism, and should I die without repenting, my soul will be eternally condemned to hell. In fact, I had an uncle who was an evangelical preacher tell me I would be tossed into a hell seven times hotter than the original hell for abandoning God to become Catholic. Apparently my uncle, who passed away two years ago, believed God reserved the hottest level of hell for deserters like me since I should have known better. My new faith has been the hardest on my mother. Still very Pentecostal, she has trouble accepting that her daughter is condemned to spend eternity in hell.
Of course, I didn't convert from one religion to another. I spent almost 20 years without visiting any church. But I will never forget the guilt felt during my first visit to a Catholic parish in San Juan, Puerto Rico; it was as if I were betraying my family and everything I had been taught. I was in the midst of a personal crisis and felt the need to seek God. A Catholic friend, who knew I had been raised in a Pentecostal family, recommended I visit a charismatic church.
Over the years much has been said in favor of and against the Catholic charismatic movement. Many fear it is a faction within the church that is luring worshipers away from traditional Catholicism. But as early as 1969, a U.S. bishops' Committee on Doctrine report regarding charismatic renewal noted its "strong biblical basis" and legitimate theological reasons for existence. For many supporters, including me and other Latinos, the Catholic charismatic movement is another way to bring in the faithful.
On my first visit to this charismatic Catholic church, I sat in the back avoiding any eye contact, fearing it would signal I was a newcomer and would be harassed into conversion, a common practice in my family's church whenever a new face appears. If I had wanted such attention, I would have gone to church with any number of my relatives. Instead I was taken aback by the quiet and peace I felt as soon as I entered. Even the smell of burning candles was both appealing and ethereal. Candles were forbidden in my family's church.
Everyone was at prayer or gazing quietly at the altar. The quiet was gradually interrupted as members of the choir and music group, complete with guitars, maracas, tambourines, and palitos (wooden sticks), began taking their places in front. By that time most of the pews in the large church were filling up, providing me with a sense of relief. Now I would easily go unnoticed.
Mass began and everything was new yet familiar. The processional was festive; the priest smiled, waving at everyone as he advanced down the aisle toward the sanctuary to the tune of the upbeat rhythms; and from what I could see the musical director was dancing. This was certainly not the type of music I expected to he at a Mass. I was taught Catholics were subdued when it came to worship and practicing their faith. Pentecostals, on the other hand, are filled with the Holy Spirit and it shows in the enthusiastic way they serve the Lord.
As Mass progressed, I had no idea when to stand and when to pray but was amazed at how everyone prayed together in one voice and knew just what was coming next. When it came time to pray the Lord's Prayer (which was first sung, then prayed), the people standing next to me grabbed my hands and raised them without asking, smiling when they saw my look of surprise. …