By Rocio Portela-Berrios
I grew up in a very nominal Catholic family. My parents went to Mass every Sunday. My brother and I were baptized and had our First Communions. But that was the extent of our formation. At 13, I left home to play tennis professionally. I attended online school and lived in hotels all over the world with other teenagers doing the same. It was not easy to go to Mass on Sundays, and it was difficult to live around what I had to see.
In the world I knew, teenagers lived in hotels in countries where we only needed to be 16 to buy alcohol. The world most people do not see until college was the world I had to face when I was barely a teenager. Being alone—without my parents—I always needed someone to talk to, and so I started praying occasionally.
My prayers, though, were basically these three sentences: “God, please help me win.” “God, why did I lose?” “God, thank you for helping me win.” Tennis was everything to me. I valued myself by my success on the court. When I decided a professional tennis career wasn’t for me, I headed off to college at Seton Hall University. Freshman year was full of the excitement of finally being in one place for more than two months; the hope of building relationships that would last more than a week; and making friends that I would not be competing against.
A friend was going to a Bible study for athletes led by Melissa Sartori with Varsity Catholic. I often went with her (mostly to get out of the dorm). I didn’t talk much, but Melissa still made an effort to get to know me. I found myself trying to fill the void I had in my heart from my experience as a teenage professional athlete. I began a relationship with a boy that I thought would relieve my sadness after an injury-filled season.
Through all of this, Melissa started to build a relationship with me. She helped me realize a romantic relationship can only do so much to bring fulfillment, and eventually invited me to go to the FOCUS Conference.
Confessions were offered—with a line of hundreds of students in front of me. I got in line to keep my friend company (no one except my parents knew that I’d not been to confession since my First Communion—nine years ago). The burden of sin was too much, and I knew my heart was seeking something bigger. I gathered up my strength and confessed my sins. I will never forget what the priest said as he looked me straight in the eyes: “Welcome home, daughter of God. Welcome home.” My heart changed. I felt loved. It was overwhelming to think that after all I had done, God was still there waiting for me with open arms.
I went back to campus and I could see God everywhere. I saw Him in the sun, the trees, and I felt Him in my heart. With Melissa’s help, I began to work on my prayer life. My heart needed nothing more than God. Through prayer, I began to understand the void in my heart was finally being filled. There is nothing my heart desires more than for God to shine through me to the people around me. It’s like having the most amazing boyfriend ever—I want to introduce Him to my parents and friends. I want to show everybody how loving and awesome He is.
God loves me, and that is where I find my value and worth now.