May 13, 2011

New Catholics follow varied paths to the Church

Andy, left, Hannah, Jenny, Sarah and Damaris Zehner pose on May 1 at St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle. The family was received into the full communion of the Church at that parish’s Easter Vigil on April 23. (Submitted photo)

Andy, left, Hannah, Jenny, Sarah and Damaris Zehner pose on May 1 at St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle. The family was received into the full communion of the Church at that parish’s Easter Vigil on April 23. (Submitted photo)

By Sean Gallagher

Many city streets and country roads lead to the 151 archdiocesan parishes spread across 39 counties in central and southern Indiana.

Sometimes the trips that lead to these sacred places are a straight drive across town. At other times, the roads twist and turn over wooded hills and through fertile farm lands.

These many and varied journeys across the geography of Indiana are more than matched in the spiritual pilgrimages of faith that some new Catholics made on their way into the full communion of the Church at Easter. (Related: Welcome, new Catholics | Light of Christ illuminates golden years for seniors at St. Augustine Home)

Here are a few of their stories.

‘Ask for the ancient paths’

“This is what the Lord says. ‘Stand at the crossroads and look. Ask for the ancient paths. Ask where the good way is and walk in it. And you will find rest for your soul’ ” (Jer 6:16).

Damaris Zehner found comfort in these words of the prophet Jeremiah in her journey with her husband and their four daughters into the Catholic Church as members of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle.

The paths she has followed through her 52 years have led her around the world. The daughter of a father who worked in the U.S. diplomatic service, she was born in Bangladesh and later lived in South Africa, Germany and Greece.

Zehner met her husband, Andy, when they were Peace Corps volunteers in the 1980s in Liberia. They fell in love, and were married in 1985 in that West African nation.

They lived in Indianapolis in the 1990s, and worshipped at an evangelical church there. During that time, they discerned that God was calling them to be overseas missionaries in Kyrgystan, one of the former republics of the Soviet Union in central Asia.

They ministered in that remote country from 1998 to 2005 with their four daughters.

“I felt that we were doing the right thing in obedience to this calling,” Andy said. “We were being blessed and we were blessing others. And we saw, albeit at a very slow pace, lots of progress.”

When the Zehners returned to the U.S. in 2005, they settled in rural Putnam County near Greencastle. They searched for years for a congregation in which they felt comfortable. They took their faith in Christ seriously, and wanted to be part of a faith community that was earnest in its worship and the way it lived out the faith

Finally, in 2010, they visited St. Paul the Apostle Parish.

“We walked in there and there was silence and there were people praying—not sports talk and not coffee,” Andy said. “It was a church.”

Damaris was attracted to the Catholic faith professed at St. Paul in part because of its universality.

“That was particularly meaningful for me,” she said. “I was born in Bangladesh at a Catholic hospital because that was the best hospital in town. When we lived in Liberia, one of our best friends was a German [missionary] priest.”

After her family started attending Mass regularly at St. Paul, Hannah Zehner, 17, felt right at home, especially in the parish’s youth group.

“From the first meeting that I went to, all the people there have been looking out for me,” Hannah said. “My youth group leader was my [Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults] sponsor. All the kids there are really supportive, and are excited for me.”

Hannah’s younger sisters, Jenny, 14, and Sarah, 12, were received into the Church with her and their parents at St. Paul’s Easter Vigil on April 23.

Andy and Damaris’ oldest daughter, Katherine, a member of the U.S. Navy, expects to be received into the Church soon at an American military base in Japan, where she recently assisted with earthquake and tsunami relief efforts.

In an e-mail to The Criterion, Katherine, 21, said that she was attracted to the Church because of its “continuity with the past—the richness of its history, the saints, the direct line back to the New Testament Church.

“I like the structure, the majesty—and the humility that goes along with it—the down-to-earth approach to life, the art and music, and many more things,” she said.

After the Easter Vigil, Damaris echoed Katie’s comments about how significant praying the Litany of the Saints during that liturgy was for her.

“It just confirmed that verse from Hebrews about such a great cloud of witnesses,” Damaris said. “This is the company that we’re joining.”

And she takes comfort in knowing that those saints walked those ancient paths that now she and her family are following together.

A spiritual journey

Amber Chalfant hasn’t traveled the world like the Zehner family.

But in some ways, her spiritual journey has been as wide and varied.

Raised as a Baptist, Chalfant, 24, embraced the Quaker faith as a teenager. Later, she went through a period when she wondered whether she should profess a faith in God at all.

Finally, through the openness of Catholic friends and relatives, Chalfant heard God calling her into the full communion of the Church.

She was received into the Church during the Easter Vigil celebrated on April 23 at St. Michael Church in Brookville.

Chalfant first started to be attracted to Catholicism when she was 16 and visited the Basilica of St. Louis, King of France in St. Louis with a cousin and uncle who lived there.

“It was just like nothing that I had ever seen before,” she said. “It was absolutely beautiful. I had never walked into a church that looked that way. It sparked my attention because you could feel the history.”

The beauty of that church led Chalfant to ask her cousin and uncle questions about the Catholic faith.

“They had really, really open minds,” she said. “Nothing was a stupid question. They were really good at answering questions.”

Nevertheless, it took several more years before Chalfant explored the Catholic faith more deeply and sought to join the Church.

That happened last year when she met a young man named Travis, “who is a very devout Catholic.

“His whole life revolved around his faith,” Chalfant said. “It gave him such a purpose. And I wanted that in my life.”

Chalfant and Travis dated for a while. But even after their romance ended, she was still convinced that God was calling her into the full communion of the Church.

“The more I learned about the Catholic faith, the more I wanted to be a part of it,” she said. “Very soon, I felt a part of it. I already started to believe.”

At that point, however, Chalfant’s family expressed grave doubts about the new spiritual path that she was taking, and asked her questions about Catholicism.

“Answering their questions—although it was a challenge sometimes—gave me more of a drive to know more about the faith and its practices,” Chalfant said. “The more questions that I answered, the more they understood and the more respect that they had for my decision.”

The Easter Vigil in which she was received into the Church “was absolutely beautiful. I just had this great sense of peace. I wasn’t really nervous or scared. I was just happy and excited.”

That excitement reached its climax when Chalfant received the Body of Christ for the first time in holy Communion.

“I cried,” she said. “Just being able to understand what that means, it was just overwhelming for me. I just couldn’t hold it in. I had to cry.”

Looking back on how God led her to Catholicism through the openness of Catholics in her life, Chalfant had some advice for fellow members of the Church she just joined.

“If you really want to spread your faith, simply answer questions,” Chalfant said. “I think that is the best way to spark people’s interest.”

Learning to love liturgy

In the past, David Emerson worshipped with many people that were in many ways like Amber Chalfant’s family.

They were well-intentioned Baptists that knew relatively little about the Catholic faith.

Emerson was an ordained Baptist minister, and previously was the pastor of a small congregation in Shelby County.

About five years ago, his wife, Karen, came into the full communion of the Catholic Church at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Shelby County.

“I had just always felt an attraction [to Catholicism],” she said. “I was raised Baptist. I had some cousins that were Catholic. And I had attended services with them. I just guess that there was an affinity there.”

Last year, David left another Baptist church near Shelbyville after having a falling out with some members there.

Without a congregation to call his spiritual home, he started attending Mass more frequently with Karen and came away astonished. For years, he had heard his fellow Baptists say that Catholics don’t proclaim the Scriptures in their worship as much they did.

“I was very impressed that the entire Christian message is given in every service,” Emerson said. “Practically everything that goes on in the Mass is directly out of Scripture.”

Earlier, he had thought that liturgical prayer was “boring and odd.”

“The more I went [to Mass] with her, the more I saw that everything has a reason, and that it’s all pointing to Jesus,” Emerson said.

He was pointed to Jesus in a special way at St. Vincent’s Easter Vigil on April 23 when he was received into the full communion of the Church—an event that had special meaning for Karen.

“It was wonderful,” she said. “I was very happy for him and for us. We’re going to be together on the journey.”

David Emerson hopes to bring others with him on that journey to Christ—a hope that he expressed by taking John the Baptist as his confirmation name.

“He pointed people to Jesus Christ,” Emerson said. “That was his mission in life. And that’s what I want my mission to be.” †

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