May 10, 2013

New Catholics feel at home in the Church

New Holy Angels Parish member Amenti Sujai receives holy Communion from Father Kenneth Taylor, pastor of Holy Angels Parish in Indianapolis, during an Easter Vigil Mass at Bishop Chartrand Memorial Chapel at Marian University in Indianapolis on March 30. Also shown is Father Robert Robeson, rector of Bishop Simon Bruté College Seminary in Indianapolis. (Submitted photo)

New Holy Angels Parish member Amenti Sujai receives holy Communion from Father Kenneth Taylor, pastor of Holy Angels Parish in Indianapolis, during an Easter Vigil Mass at Bishop Chartrand Memorial Chapel at Marian University in Indianapolis on March 30. Also shown is Father Robert Robeson, rector of Bishop Simon Bruté College Seminary in Indianapolis. (Submitted photo)

By Natalie Hoefer

As the Church marks the Resurrection of Christ at Easter, it also welcomes new members who enter into their own new life in Christ.

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis welcomed 944 souls into the full communion of the Church Easter weekend through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) in parishes throughout central and southern Indiana.

(See a list of the archdiocese's new Catholics)

Each new member brings a rich story of their call to Catholicism. Some of their stories tell of rapid conversion. Others involve a long path spanning years or decades. Some portray a return to the faith of their baptism. Others highlight a first profession of faith.

Each bears the touch of God calling an individual closer to him in union with the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church founded by Christ.

Here are four of those special stories.

From secular to sacramental

Adam Sheets was baptized as a Catholic as an infant, but his family did not attend church on a regular basis.

“I always had faith and even prayed the rosary, but never went to church,” Sheets said of his faith once on his own.

He and his now-fiancée, Ashley Shellhorn, traveled the path of living together and raising their daughter, Alexia, now 11 years old.

Then a work situation arose for Sheets in the spring of 2012.

“I was afraid I would lose my job,” he recalled. “I started praying like never before. I prayed the rosary every day. And I just started to feel this peace. I promised myself I’d start going to church if I made it through.”

Sheets kept his job. He mentioned going back to church to Shellhorn, who was raised as a Mormon but no longer practiced her faith.

“I was thrilled,” said Shellhorn. “We both had been missing church.”

Sheets approached Father William Williams, pastor of Most Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Beech Grove.

“I was terrified. I didn’t think I could ever be accepted back into the Church because of my lifestyle,” Sheets said. “Father Williams was so comforting. He said we didn’t have to move apart because that was not in Alexia’s best interest, but he did ask us to live chastely. It’s been tough, but it’s worth it.”

Sheets met several times with Father Williams, went to confession and received the sacrament of confirmation at SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis in the summer of 2012.

But the story doesn’t end there.

“My first time going to the Catholic Church, I felt so welcomed and it just felt so right,” said Shellhorn.

The couple enrolled Alexia in Holy Name School, and Shellhorn started RCIA at Holy Name with Sheets as her sponsor.

Shellhorn and Alexia were both baptized and received the Eucharist at Holy Name’s Easter Vigil on March 30. Shellhorn was also confirmed.

She and Sheets will be married at Holy Name on May 11.

“Having more faith in our relationship has made it so much better. We didn’t realize how important it was until we started going [to church],” said the soon-to-be Mrs. Sheets.

As for their daughter, said Shellhorn, “Alexia is the happiest she’s ever been. She’s talked about maybe becoming a nun.”

Sheets sees the work of God in his and Shellhorn’s relationship.

“For 14 years, we put off getting married. I think there was a reason. I think God wanted it to be this way, in the Church.”

No longer afraid

Vicky Bai of Beijing, China, was struggling with a fear of death.

“I was crying every night because I was afraid of dying, because I was afraid that if you died, you just no longer existed.”

Bai had no faith to ease her anxiety. Her parents encouraged her to practice Buddhism when she was young, but “it didn’t feel right.

“I tried to force myself, but I just didn’t believe in it. It seemed like a lot of people didn’t really believe in their faith. They were just interested in, ‘What’s in this for me?’ ”

Bai’s mother had a Catholic friend speak with her daughter about her fear of death. He said he, too, had had the same fear, but his faith alleviated it.

“He took me to church a few times, and he gave me a Bible. When I’d start to cry at night, I’d start reading the Bible. It made me feel at peace.”

Bai started college last fall at DePauw University in Greencastle. She joined the Catholic Student Association (CSA) and started RCIA at St. Paul the Apostle Parish, which serves as the Newman Center for the university.

“I just wanted to learn more at first, but after studying in RCIA I got more understanding, not just knowledge,” she said. “I can’t name an exact moment, but I started to believe it and to live it.”

Bai was received into the Church through the sacraments of initiation during the Easter Vigil at St. Paul the Apostle Church on March 30.

“I was the only one who was baptized at that Mass. I was excited, but I was nervous, thinking of all those people looking at me,” she said. “But when Father [Darvin Winters] started pouring the water over my head, I didn’t think about the people any more. All I felt was this washing away the old and this feeling of really being born again.

“As an international person here, it can sometimes be hard to fit in,” said Bai. “But being part of the Catholic Church feels like being part of a really big family. Everyone has been so nice, so warm and welcoming.”

While she said she’ll miss the learning and sharing that comes with RCIA, Bai hopes to continue learning through her involvement with CSA next semester. She is also considering serving as an RCIA team member next year.

First, she will return to Beijing for the summer. According to www.NationMaster.com, which provides a compilation of statistics based on data from the United Nations and other global agencies, the Catholic population of China is less than 1 percent. Despite the low percentage, Bai is grateful that her home in Beijing is close to a Catholic church.

But mostly, she is grateful to have found the truth about eternal life through Christ and the Church.

“I’m not afraid anymore,” she said.

Journeying to Catholicism together

When Kerry met Brad Lloyd in 2004, she had just started RCIA. She had been exposed to Catholicism throughout her life and wanted to learn more. Brad was battling with disillusionment of his Mormon faith.

“I knew he was a Mormon, so I quit RCIA, and then we did nothing [regarding faith],” Kerry said.

But even after their marriage in August of 2006, Brad kept reading and searching for something to replace his former faith.

In January of 2012, he read a book that inspired him to be open to attending Mass.

“I knew Kerry was interested in going, so I thought, ‘Why not give it a whirl?” Brad said. “But I didn’t count on converting.”

The couple started attending Mass at St. Simon the Apostle Church in Indianapolis. In May of that year, they had their two children, Grace and Brendon, baptized, while allowing Lydia, Brad’s daughter from a former marriage, to decide if and when she might choose to join the Church.

Kerry started RCIA that fall.

“I went to support her and the kids, and because I wanted to learn more about the Church from an educational point of view,” said Brad. “But then the Holy Spirit kicked in and took things to a whole new level.

“One day I was walking out of work thinking about transubstantiation, and I thought, ‘Do I believe this? Could I believe this?’ And at that moment, I just opened up and embraced the concept without abandon.”

The liturgy continues to draw Brad.

“The Mass is so special. It seems so simple, but each part has a purpose. Everything points to Jesus.”

Kerry is drawn to the Church’s active role in social concerns.

“I love how the Church is so socially caring and helps the poor,” she said. As her confirmation patron, she chose St. Brigid of Ireland, who was dedicated to serving the poor and distressed.

As an unexpected benefit, the Lloyds’ faith journey brought an additional dimension to their relationship.

In order to be baptized into the Church, Brad pursued an annulment of his first marriage. The annulment was received quickly, since his first wife had been married previously, thus rendering her and Brad’s marriage invalid in the eyes of the Church.

“We’re still madly in love,” said Kerry, “and we know we married each other’s best friend. We thought everything was good. But now we feel even closer. Sharing our faith and talking about our faith with each other has made our relationship deeper and more meaningful.”

Seeking spirituality is what prompted their journey together to Catholicism.

“Taking the first step was hard,” said Brad. “But the rewards have been incredible.”

From world religion to the one true religion

Dr. Amenti Sujai’s story starts best in the middle.

In the last few semesters, the professor found herself telling her world religion and church history students, “If you want to be a good Christian, you should be Catholic.”

But Sujai herself was not Catholic—she was an occasionally-practicing Baptist.

The road that led her to making such a statement to her students began with the study of religion in general from an academic point of view.

“I grew up in a Christian home, but in high school and college I didn’t attend much. Then I married and had children and joined the Baptist church,” she recalled. “But it never really clicked with me.”

Yet Sujai said she always had an interest in religion. This led to her earning a master’s degree in theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary, and then her doctorate in theological studies from Northwestern University, both in Evanston, Ill.

She took a position at Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C., teaching church history, world religion, women in religion, and ethics.

“Every time I taught a class in world religion, I’d have to delve into each religion so I could have a grasp to teach my students. I studied Buddhism, Hinduism and others,” Sujai recounted. “But the last two years my heart as well as my head got into Christianity.

“I studied how the Christian church began and developed. I studied the rituals of the Catholic Church, and I began to understand that the Catholic Church was how all Christianity began after the Resurrection of the Christ.”

So Sujai found herself telling students that good Christians were Catholic.

One day in May of 2012 after she made this statement to her students, Sujai said she “heard this voice in my mind that said, ‘Well, Amenti, why aren’t you Catholic?’ ”

As Sujai began to consider converting to Catholicism, she and her husband accepted positions at Martin University in Indianapolis. She searched online for Catholic churches in the Indianapolis area and came upon the site for Holy Angels Parish.

“The first time I attended [Holy Angels] was in June 2012. I fell in love with the Church and decided to come in to the Church in that community.”

Sujai professed the Catholic faith during an Easter Vigil Mass at Bishop Chartrand Memorial Chapel at Marian University in Indianapolis on March 30, where members of Holy Angels Parish worship after their 109-year-old church had to be razed in August of 2012. Her husband and family attended in full support of her discernment to join the Church.

While Sujai said there are numerous facets she values about her Catholic faith, three aspects particularly stand out: history, the Eucharist and prayer.

“There’s never been a history in the whole history of human nature like the Catholic faith,” said the professor of world religion and church history. “It shows us who we are as human beings. … You get an understanding of the struggle in walking the path toward God, stumbling, getting up, and saying, ‘Let’s do this over and see if we can get this right.’

“I also appreciate the Eucharist and the whole worship that leads to the Eucharist, how beautiful it is, how it is so much a part of who I am now and who I’ll become.”

Sujai also treasures the prayer life found in the Catholic faith.

“I may study Liturgy of the Hours—I use that as much as I can. I pray the rosary. Prayer is part of what my own soul needs in order to grow in this path.”

While that path stemmed from what Sujai called a “rational study of religion,” she said she is “happy to have found the path that is just right for me.”

After all, she noted, “Not many people recognize that my name begins with ‘Amen.’ ” †

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