ALBANY, N.Y. — Marco Pantoja III has a room much like any other 18-year-old: a navy blue New England Patriots flag for his favorite NFL team, handfuls of awards from his years playing soccer, and a tiny green sign for Siena College in Loudonville, New York, where he will attend in the fall.
What’s unique is his bulletin board: lined side to side with letters from a mission trip to New York City with his fellow classmates at La Salle Institute in Troy, New York. Resting on top of the board is a gold and brown cross — a sign of his newly found Catholic faith.
Pantoja became a Catholic in 2019, and unbeknown to him, it was a change that would impact not only his life but his entire family.
Looking back, there is a certain serendipity to Pantoja’s conversion — not just because he stumbled upon his Catholicism — but because of the unintended consequences of it.
Inspired by the passion for his faith, Pantoja’s parents, Blair and Marco, and his three younger sisters, Sofia, 16, Elena, 13, and Paulina, 12, also are now joining the Catholic Church.
Sounds like an incredible story, right? Wait, it gets better: At his family’s baptism this Easter, he will be the godparent to all of them.
“I just didn’t realize I had an ability to help people,” Pantoja said, “but I got to see the impact that I did have on everybody else around me.”
“It’s changed my whole attitude,” his father, Marco, told The Evangelist, newspaper of the Diocese of Albany. “I always thought if you go into any religion you should go 100%, and now I understand if you’re doing something to get better, God is always there to forgive you; nobody’s perfect.”
Pantoja has already begun his new role as godparent at this year’s Rite of Election Feb. 21 at the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception in Albany. He served as the sponsor for his family as they entered their names into the Book of the Elect, the last step before their baptism April 3, the Easter Vigil.
Initially, Pantoja wasn’t even sure if he could serve as godparent to his family: “I said I don’t know if we’re allowed to do that,” he laughed.
So, they checked with the experts. Joyce Solimini, associate director of the Office of Lay Ministry and Parish Faith Formation in the Albany Diocese, said “it probably is” rare for Pantoja to fill this role, “but he meets the criteria.”
“The criteria for the baptismal godparent is they have to be at least 16 and they have to be fully initiated in the church, which he is,” Solimini added. “It is unusual that he is the son and the godparent, but he does meet all the criteria.
“The only other thing is it is unusual for someone who is newly baptized to take on the role, but in this case, because he had such a strong faith and influence on his family coming into the church, it seemed very appropriate for them to choose him.”
Growing up, Pantoja and his sisters were never strongly influenced by a certain faith. Their mother and father never had a great relationship with religion, and neither wanted to push that same experience on their own children.
“I grew up in a Protestant family,” Blair said. “It was very strict, and my husband was a Jehovah’s Witness. We let our kids figure out what they wanted to do because we were a little traumatized.”
Still, there were little seedlings planted: Blair’s grandmother was raised Catholic, and while she later left the faith, she continued to offer guidance to her grandchildren. And both Marco and his sisters attended Vacation Bible School, a summer camp offered at a nearby parish, St. John the Baptist in Valatie, New York.
But things really changed when Marco enrolled at La Salle his freshman year: “I was always curious about (God), but it wasn’t until I went to La Salle … when I started really thinking about it.”
His Scripture teacher — Ted Deeb, campus minister and chair of religion at the school — was a big motivator for his faith and put the teen in touch with Ruth Ellen Berninger, director of faith formation at St. John the Baptist, when his student said he wanted to start attending Mass.
Throughout his freshman and sophomore year, Pantoja attended Mass every weekend with his mom.
“He was too young to just drop him off,” Blair explained, but once she started attending Mass, it was hard to not get attached.
“He was so excited about it, there was no way to not want to get pulled into that,” she said. “They were so accepting and I never felt judged or uncomfortable. … When I walked in, I felt God’s presence immediately.”
During Easter 2019, Pantoja, now nearing the end of his sophomore year, was baptized.
After his baptism, the whole Pantoja family started attending church together; after all, they wanted to be supportive. It also was a break from everyone’s busy schedule. Between work, school and sports, family time was spread thin.
“That was the first time in a while we had consistently been together at the same time every week,” Pantoja said. “That was really nice. We would get breakfast after and spend the first half of the day together.”
At the start of 2020, Blair reached out to Berninger once again, only this time, it was to talk about her and her daughters becoming Catholic.
“I maintain that this was the Holy Spirit,” Berninger said. “I worked with the girls and Blair until COVID-19 hit and we stopped for a while.” Then in the summer, Blair and the girls started meeting with Berninger again.
It wasn’t until the end of the year that Pantoja’s dad would come around to the faith, and right when he needed it, too. He had been struggling with personal demons for years that threatened to end his marriage.
“I spoke to God and I felt like this warmth,” Marco said, “and I said if you give me the strength, I’ll do whatever it takes.”
Coupled with his faith, Marco’s father began seeking therapy, but turning to God helped him tremendously.
“Now I wake up in the morning and I’m thankful to be alive,” he said. “I’m just thankful for the smallest things.”
And now, on the Sundays when sports aren’t happening and work is a little quieter, everyone tries to carve out a bit of time to attend Mass together, as a family.
“I’m just really proud of my family,” Pantoja said. “If you told me a year ago this would have happened, no way would I have believed you.”
By Emily Benson, Catholic News Service
Benson is a staff writer at The Evangelist, newspaper of the Diocese of Albany.