I guess I was like any “ordinary” teenager growing up in Schenectady (go on, try to say it out loud), New York. I went to a public school, was very involved in dance and soccer and music and the drama club.
My two older brothers paved the way for our home to unofficially/officially be the party house and I was an active participant from a young age.
I was also convinced that I’d grow old with my boyfriend, writing “J+M 4E” in permanent marker on pretty much anything I reckoned appropriate, which was just so unnecessary on so many levels.
My family was on-again/off-again Catholic Mass goers. I think we went through the motions because it was tradition on both sides of the family, and because of Nonna.
Nonna was the rock of faith in the family – double fisting rosary beads, secretly putting saint medals in our rooms, and splashing our necks with holy water when she hugged us.
And although she couldn’t speak a lick of English, she clearly communicated something about the essence of life I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
So, to keep the tradition, and of course to please Nonna, Tom, my second oldest brother, went on a confirmation retreat his junior year. I’m pretty sure he was out the night before and went into the retreat a little, let’s say, disheveled. He wasn’t expecting to gain anything whatsoever from it, either.
Little did any of us know that that retreat would change his life forever, and, in turn, mine.
After the retreat he started going to church. Every. Sunday.
He was hanging out with the youth group kids, and his youth minister, all the time. He was more kind. Free. He seemed … happy.
He tried getting me to join along on his church escapades, but I wasn’t interested. I was perfectly fine upholding my hard-earned popular status, dating my “soul mate,” and not wasting an hour of my life on Sunday.
When it became clear I wasn’t eager to go to church with him, he took a different approach; he’d start showing up at my boyfriend’s house two hours early to pick me up. Or he’d stand in the door of our house with no shirt on — BB gun in hand — whenever my boyfriend came over, refusing to let him in.
He was trying to protect me.
Since Tom had vacated his spot as the resident partypants Mastroianni, I took his place. I started hanging out with his friends, seniors at this point, and nothing was more satisfying. I was accepted and dubbed “Little Mastroianni” because “Father Tom” had stopped coming around.
One Saturday afternoon, my mom dropped me off at my friend’s house to work on a “history project.” We were such devoted students that we willingly gave up our Saturday to do homework. So we got right to it:
We put padding in our bras, threw on some high heels, and had more makeup on than any sane human being should, except for a costume party. Then one of the senior guys picked us up in his jeep and took us to a party in downtown Albany. Yeeeaaa, sorry Mom and Dad.
The apartment belonged to some college kid I met when I walked through the door. It had a musty orange carpet and a neglected kitchen that reeked of stale beer and dirty socks. No one seemed to notice or care, though; after a few hours, I had made myself at home, and my senses were accustomed. I sat in the living room with my arms around the boy who drove the Jeep, acting like it was normal for me to be there.
Until I thought I was going to throw up … and not because of the beer.
Tom had walked through the front door directly in front of where I was sitting.
It was like a scene from a movie: when he walked in, there was a sharp stop on the track the imaginary DJ in the corner was dropping, the girl in the kitchen dropped her glass — and her jaw — and all eyes were darting nervously back and forth from brother and sister, wondering what Fr. Tom was going to do.
And with everyone’s breath held tightly in their chest, all he calmly said was, “Come on, let’s go.”
Embarrassed, I grabbed my stuff in a rush and followed him out. I was trying so hard to act like I was sober that I missed three steps down the narrow stairs behind him, my friends whispering in my ear whether or not he was going to tell our parents.
I didn’t say a word in the car. I was terrified, already mourning the next month of social life I’d miss being grounded. Tom was clearly disappointed with me, but he struck a deal; he’d take me back to my friend’s, instead of our parents, if I went to church with him the next day. I couldn’t believe he was having such mercy on me.
The easy answer was “yes,” of course. And honestly, I was sort of intrigued by the whole church thing since he’d been asking me about it for so long anyway.
His friends at church were super nice and welcoming, but they lifted their hands during mass and that was weird. But I remained open since I’d never seen anything like it before. Plus the youth minister, Bob, reminded me of Nonna — he had the same light and the peace as her, and an authenticity I hadn’t seen in many people. He got up after Mass and announced that there would be adoration for youth group that night.
It started with some ice breaker game where someone had to eat ketchup and sardines, so I was thoroughly entertained and equally appalled. I was having fun. Then Bob gave a short talk about God’s love, and that the human heart is ultimately looking for Him.
I had never heard a sermon like that before.
To be honest, I was shocked that this hilarious, relatable guy was talking about something to do with faith so normally. CCD (that religion class you go to when you’re a kid but have no idea what the letters stand for) was always just an hour of filling in the blanks for the Our Father, or some sort of guardian angel crafts or something.
But when Bob talked about Jesus, he was talking about someone he knew very well.
Someone that was part of his life, not just a distant concept or far off story from the past. Someone that had come into his life and radically changed it. It wasn’t fancy — in fact it was very short — but it was an honest sharing from his heart, about how he had been affected by this incredible love. It was powerful, hitting me right in the gut.
When we were invited to kneel for a time of adoration, I looked around to make sure my posture was like everyone else’s (since I still didn’t know what adoration was), briefly letting go of my clasped hands for a second in order to pull my belly shirt down to cover myself. It was winter and I had a slight chill about me the whole night — until Father Brucker walked in. I’ll never forget it.
I swear I instantly felt covered in warmth.
Father Brucker was holding this golden thing I didn’t know the name of but knew it was important. It was like a star on a stick and the center of the star was a small white circle. I recognized it as a host, what the priest held up during Mass.
I stared up at the host and started to cry, which was something I was not accustomed to at that point, especially in a room full of strangers.
And in that moment I just knew, more than I knew the sky was blue, that God was real and that He loved me. I was cut to the heart with a joy and a love I had been longing for. I had no idea how I knew, but I knew that little white piece of bread was Jesus.
I knew that I was in the presence of God.
I remember proclaiming to everyone that I would never miss a week of Church from there on out. It didn’t quite catch on as quickly as it did for my brother (old habits die hard), but I was always drawn back to that warmth and freedom I found in God.
I was cut to the heart with a joy and a love I had been longing for.
It’s an astonishing mystery I’ll never fully grasp on this side of Heaven; the fact that God is real, that God is Love, and that He hides himself in the Eucharist (the little host!) to be close to His people, to be close to me.
It baffles me that the greatest source of peace, freedom, joy, I have found is in front of that little host, in the presence of God.
I am eternally grateful for the kindness and mercy of my brother, and that God plucked me out of the darkness way back when I was just a kid, and He continues to pull me out of the dark and into His light.
Megan Mastroianni is associate director of Anthem, the youth and young adult ministry of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
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