EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second installment of the Catholic Courier’s new “Profiles in Faith” standing feature, which was inspired by reader feedback to our recent survey. “Profiles in Faith” will highlight Catholics throughout the Diocese of Rochester — of all ages and walks of life — who are role models for living the faith. To suggest a person to profile in future installments, please contact the Courier at Newsroom@CatholicCourier.com.
“I never thought I could experience such a dark moment.”
The dark moment occurred June 24, 2018, when Ben Vasquez learned that his younger sister, Lauren, had taken her own life. In that instant, Vasquez knew his own life was forever changed as well.
“I guess just the best way to describe it is that the darkness just instantly consumed you. You can’t even begin to fathom feeling that horrible in life,” Vasquez recalled. “The feeling itself felt almost evil, and you can see where it almost wanted to corrupt you to the point where you just wanted to give up.”
In the first few hours after finding his sister, Vasquez leaned heavily on his Catholic faith. And when he began to question that faith several days later, he found strength in the unwavering support of friends. His friends’ strong faith provided a light in the darkness when his own faith became shaky. Vasquez, now 27, said he believes the experience made him a stronger Catholic.
Raised Catholic from birth, Ben and Lauren Vasquez attended St. Mary School in Waterloo until it closed in 2005, then continued their education at St. Francis-St. Stephen School in Geneva. At both schools, they formed lasting friendships with fellow students as well as their teachers and principals, Vasquez said.
Ben Vasquez graduated from St. Francis-St. Stephen School and went on to DeSales High School in Geneva, but Lauren Vasquez transferred to the public-school system when she began struggling with depression and bipolar disorder in middle school.
Although his sister didn’t always talk openly about her faith, she clung to it even as she struggled, said Vasquez, who is an officer with the Village of Waterloo Police Department.
“She would say her favorite prayers and had her prayer cards. She would keep crucifixes in her bedroom, and she wore a blessed cross pendant at all times,” he said.
Although his sister struggled with her mental health for years, she’d seemed to be doing better in the weeks before her suicide, which made her passing that much more devastating, Vasquez said. In the first few hours after her death, Vasquez found himself wondering whether she’d go to heaven, because he and his sister had been taught that suicide was a sin.
When Father Thomas Mull, a longtime family friend, visited the next morning, the priest laid those fears to rest by reminding Vasquez that his sister’s act was not selfish, but rather caused by the illness she’d been battling for a long time, Vasquez said.
Vasquez prayed for strength in those first few days as he tried to digest what was happening and help his family make funeral arrangements. Once the initial hectic pace slowed down, however, he found himself plagued by questions.
“I found myself asking, ‘Why did God let this happen? Why didn’t God give her strength to not have to go through with this?’” he recalled.
To make matters worse, Vasquez felt guilty about questioning his faith. He discussed his questions with Father Mull and also with Father Jim Fennessy, pastor at St. Francis and St. Clare Parish in Waterloo and Seneca Falls, and Father Roy Kiggins, a senior priest living at St. Francis and St. Clare. He’d met Fathers Fennessy and Kiggins when they were serving at Our Lady of Peace Parish in Geneva while he was a student at St. Francis-St. Stephen.
Vasquez said all three priests answered his questions to the best of their ability, but gave some of their best answers when they were silent.
“They were just there, willing just to sit. We didn’t have to talk, didn’t have to do anything, just to sit. Their support, their strong faith, almost emanated into us and helped us through it,” said Vasquez, who belongs to Our Lady of Peace. “If it wasn’t for that support, I don’t know if I would have been able to bounce back from that. God shined through them for sure.”
Other friends, including one of his former DeSales teachers, also helped Vasquez through the grieving process. They checked in on him and his family and sat with them in their pain.
“What truly helped me personally was just not being alone, because all I wanted to do was be alone. … They didn’t push. They were just there. That I think is what people need, and that I think will mean more to people going through something traumatic than the people reaching out will ever know,” Vasquez said.
All of these people modeled Christian love and concern, and their actions played a role in strengthening his Catholic faith and his desire to help others, said Vasquez, who with his parents founded scholarships in his sister’s memory at Geneva High School as well as his alma mater, Syracuse University.Tags: Profiles in Faith