For many American Catholics, their faith is something they know for their whole lives after being baptized as infants. However, for St. Amelia Parish in the Town of Tonawanda, the process of welcoming new Catholics became an international process of learning a new culture and language.
A Chinese married couple who asked to be identified as only John and Jessica and their 6-year-old daughter, who has not taken an American name, were recently accepted into St. Amelia Parish. The adults were accepted into the Church via the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. While their daughter was too young to receive adult rites, she also became Catholic with her parents. The family, from Tainjin near Beijing, came to the United States two years ago and settled near St. Amelia's.
Through an interpreter, Rosemaria Recchia, Jessica said she feels like "they are part of a big family." John said the hardest part of the process was understanding some parts of the Bible. Jessica, who agreed, said it was also difficult to get used to some differences between Eastern and Western thinking.
"This is their second time to the U.S. The first time was to travel. This time, they came for his work (as an illustrator of children's books), and because they liked the education in our country," Recchia translated. "The hardest part was language ... they like the peaceful, quiet life of Buffalo, the simple life."
When asked about the most important thing John and Jessica learned about the Catholic faith, Jessica responded by saying, "The most important is the spiritual aspect of life, to not be worried all the time about many things, but to have peace and tranquility." Answering in English, Jessica said "kindness" is the most important lesson she learned, and John answered, "Friendship."
Prior to coming to the United States, Jessica had grown up in a family of Buddhists, and, while they did not have statues of Buddha all over their house, once a year they would go to burn incense at the temple. She emphasized a major difference between the two religions in that Buddhists are called to seek out Buddha but, as a Catholic, God had come to her and John and sought them out.
Brian Ruh, a pastoral associate at St. Amelia's who had helped the family on their faith journey, said the family initially chose to send their young daughter to St. Amelia School, but they did not understand the difference between public and parochial schools at the time. She attended the Catholic school and came home telling her parents stories about what she learned about the Catholic faith. Although she now attends Hamilton Elementary, Ruh said she kept what she learned in private school.
"She would go home, and she would share what she was learning here at St. Amelia's, and she would even share prayers," Ruh said. "So they're like, 'Oh, that's nice,' and that kind of intrigued them. That was the start of it, their daughter going here to St. Amelia's."
To begin preparing John and Jessica to be accepted into the Church, Ruh began to meet with them in May 2013 to begin their catechumenate, or initiation, until they received the Sacraments of Initiation this Holy Saturday, April 19. When asked about challenges of working with Chinese immigrants who spoke only Mandarin, Ruh said St. Amelia's was "blessed" to work with Recchia, a devout Catholic and a member of Blessed Sacrament Parish in the Town of Tonawanda, who also served as their sponsor.
Recchia said it was a "joy and a challenge at times" to work with the family, and said it was a way to use what she knew about the Chinese language to work for Jesus. She studied the language at Middlebury College in Vermont as an undergraduate, and originally started it "just for fun," she said. However, she enjoyed it so much that she decided to continue studying, and has known it for 25 years.
"It wasn't a plan that I had, it just happened. I was helping (John and Jessica) with their English. Their daughter was going to St. Amelia's, and they asked about being Catholic," Recchia said. "To be able to use my language skill for His work gives me encouragement, strength and joy." She added that the hardest part was being able to translate some of the words, and the easiest was "smiling and laughing with them."
In beginning to work with the couple, Ruh was initially not sure where the process would end up going, and told them that their catechumenate could take two years or longer. However, he said they asked leading questions and offered insights that he and Recchia did not think they could have known about the faith, and said, "It was as if the Holy Spirit was leading this whole thing."
Ruh said it was also a major challenge to find a Bible written in the family's native language, but he was able to track down a Catholic Bible, which differs from the Chinese Protestant version.
"It took a couple of months, but we were able to find a place in San Francisco, and we were able to get an New Testament and an Old Testament translation," Ruh said. "That was awesome, and it's interesting because there's a different interpretation ... there will be different symbols for different words. They will use words that will come from more of a Protestant slant."
According to the website for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, thousands of American men and women are welcomed into the Church each year via RCIA. This generally takes place on Holy Saturday during the Easter Vigil. Before beginning their catechumenate, adults and children 7 and older who would like to become members of the Church familiarize themselves with its practices and teachings before formally announcing to their parish that they would like to be baptized.
Paula Penepent, the Diocese of Buffalo's coordinator for the catechumenate, said the process of familiarizing oneself with Catholicism is fourfold, involving "developing a relationship with Christ as our Lord, learning the teachings of the Church, becoming part of the prayer life and liturgy of the worshipping community, and learning apostolic witness and service in the context of the faith community. She also said part of the process, for her, is being able to listen and attend to the needs of the human person, and not bringing in any preconceived notions.
"That's central to the catechumenate, no matter if we're dealing with cultural or someone that's been in our parish, in the same socioeconomic and ethnic group," Penepent said.
From there, the candidate for baptism, called a "catechumen," begins the process of working with priests and other members of their parish to begin on their faith journey. This may take as long as several years. Once the parish feels the catechumen is ready, that person presents him or herself to their diocesan bishop in a formal ceremony that typically takes place on the first Sunday of Lent.
On Holy Saturday, the catechumen receives the Sacraments of Initiation, including baptism, confirmation, and first Eucharist, and is officially a member of the Church. Following their welcome into the Church, newly baptized members continue to reflect on their faith and learn more about the Scriptures and Sacraments, and consider how they will serve their parish and community as Catholics.
For more about the Office of the Catechumenate at the Diocese of Buffalo, contact Paula Penepent at 716-847-8760. It is located on the third floor of the Catholic Center at 795 Main St.