If you know me well, you probably know two things about me. I was raised Catholic and I am no longer Catholic. In fact, I am now what most would define as an atheist. While the latter has been true for several years now, there was never a point in my life where my Catholicism was more important or dominant than when I was in college. At the time, my long-time boyfriend’s parents got divorced somewhat suddenly and in turn, he broke up with me out of the blue. We eventually got back together for several more years, but it was truly devastating to me at the time.
I get why it happened. He thought everything was fine. He thought his parents’ marriage was lacking romance but normal and healthy for them. As it turned out, they had been miserable for a long time and their divorce was much-needed, but to a hormonal teenager or 20-year-old, it was life altering. No longer sure that love was real or relationships could work, he decided we should call it quits. I was my sophomore year of college, when the high school friendships were fading and my previous decisions to put my relationship with my boyfriend above all else were biting me in the butt – I felt like I had no one. My best friend was 2 hours away. My parents were 45 minutes away but I needed them to think everything was fine. My cheerleading teammates were really the only people I had and we spent all of our time together practicing or partying – they weren’t the kind of people you went to with your problems.
So I turned to religion. Namely, the Catholic masses at the campus chapel led by Father John Dean. A sweet old man, Father Dean is pretty much the opposite of what non-Catholics might picture especially for a college congregation. I started going to mass almost daily. I would sit in the back pew like a Southern Baptist, letting his words wash over me. I so often cried. Many, MANY times, I stayed after the service to talk to Father Dean. I would thank him for something in his liturgy that was particularly helpful, or I’d apologize for crying, or I’d offer to help with the next service. It was a long time ago now (over 15 years), but I know I was involved with at least one ministry group, maybe more. We would have bible study and volunteer at soup kitchens.
Eventually my boyfriend came back to me and, also being raised Catholic, I was able to help him find his faith again, too. We found comfort at our respective churches and would occasionally go together. But mostly, it was a private journey for me.
I was what you would describe as a deeply devout Catholic. I read the bible cover to cover so many times (fun fact: it is still in my bedside table). I firmly believe that my faith saved my life at least once. It was so important to me that I mulled over the decision to get a tattoo of a cross for 3 years before I actually pulled the trigger. Yes, I have a tattoo and no, you will not see it without a magnifying glass.
While religion no longer has a place in my life, I don’t regret my tattoo at all. It reminds me of some of my darkest days and how I got through them. And now it will remind me of Father Dean, who I honestly haven’t thought about in years, but who passed away on Saturday. Learning of his death was a punch in the gut that I never would have expected, because I associate him with my days of being devoutly Catholic. But now as I think about that whole journey, I realize he was an anomaly in the Catholic church. He never pushed me toward or away from god or being a Catholic – he only helped me discover my faith. And at that time, my faith was how I survived some of my most difficult years. Several times, I’ve been tempted to return to the church because I remember how much my faith had comforted me when I needed it. I always let the cons of religion and Catholicism win out, but it’s a nice memory.
I’m so sorry to hear of Father Dean’s passing. Future Westfield State students will miss out on his counsel, but I hope his family knows how much he touched so many of us.