Finding Faith and Following His Heart

Categories: Around the Diocese,lent

When student Peter Yang arrived at Cathedral two years ago, he had little time for anything to do with religion. Now, thanks to his own curiosity and the support of the school community, he is preparing for full initiation into the Catholic Church.

By Kristi Anderson
The Visitor

Who was Jesus? Why do we need a pope? How were we made by God?

All of these are good questions that anyone considering becoming Catholic might ask.

But the questions are even more poignant when they come from a young man who grew up in a place where the government told him that God cannot mutually exist with science, where one who believes in God is considered weak, and where the only media coverage of the Catholic Church is around abuse scandals.

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Peter Yang Photo by Dianne Towalski/The Visitor

If this is your background, it’s challenging to talk about God at all.

But these are the questions of 18-year-old Peter Yang, a senior at Cathedral in St. Cloud, who is making the decision to become Catholic through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults this spring.

Yang first traveled to the U.S. from his home in Beijing, China, in 2011 to attend a small private school in California. He transferred to Cathedral in 2013 looking for more opportunities to engage in extracurricular activities.

At first, Yang said, it was easy to fit in by joining the soccer and tennis teams and participating in the student council and the math league. But being introduced to the Catholic faith — or any faith — was challenging.

“I was taught that God did not exist,” he said. “I didn’t believe in the church’s teaching. I considered church a place where they were gathering people’s money and taking advantage of it.”

God vs. science

When Yang arrived at Cathedral, he was one of 13 international students who attended an introductory theology class taught by Deb Schnettler, the school’s full-time campus minister.

“As soon as we had a greater influx of international students that had varying levels of understanding about theology — God, in any sense, really — we knew we needed a way to meet their needs,” Schnettler said. “They needed a solid knowledge base before moving into a setting with students who had theology classes for many years.”

Yang grappled with the theology curriculum, wrestling with feelings that one couldn’t believe in both science and in God. So it occurred to Schnettler to talk in class about scientists who were also theologians.

That ignited something in Yang, sparking questions for his science teacher, Karla Rick, and his religion teachers, Schnettler and Patrick Flynn, especially about evolution and the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe.

“I looked at articles on the Internet and in books, but I couldn’t find anything that could support that God does not exist in science,” he said.

“Scientists cannot explain why the Big Bang happened. So there must be something or someone that made this happen — and that is God.”

The intent of Schnettler’s course is not to change a student’s beliefs but to provide a theological framework to familiarize them with theological concepts and experiences they may encounter in other courses or school activities. Yang felt stirred to learn more, so Schnettler suggested he meet with the school chaplain, Father Ben Kociemba.

“Many Chinese students come with a strong rational background,” Father Kociemba said. “Peter is good at seeing how different beliefs in our Catholic faith cohere. I told him the story of Adam and Eve, about original sin. He asked a few questions and came to the distinction between mortal and venial sin without me even mentioning it. His rational thinking meshes well with the rationality of our faith.”

Schnettler added, “Peter was at an age when any young man might be trying to figure out more about God. There was discontentment in him because he didn’t know where to find the answers. Peter, Father Ben and I were able to fit together some of those pieces that were warring inside Peter. That is when the beauty and the grace started coming out. I saw a caterpillar turn into a butterfly.”

Yang felt it, too. His whole demeanor changed when his conversion happened. Schnettler said she saw the Christian faith come alive in him.

“He was no longer angry or upset,” she said. “Kids had always liked him — but when he became satisfied with what he thought were good philosophical, scientific and theological answers to his questions, he let down his guard and became more involved in the community.”
Preparing for the sacraments

Part of Schnettler’s course focuses on the seven sacraments, two of which particularly affected Yang: confirmation and reconciliation. When he studied about confirmation, Yang approached his teacher and asked if he could be confirmed. “And she said yes,” he remembered.

Yang began preparing for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults by meeting weekly with Father Kociemba, studying the Bible timeline, reading key passages in the Old and New Testaments and going over church history, doctrine and traditions.

“For the first meetings, I asked all my questions and got to know all I wanted to know,” Yang said. “Father Ben was really patient with me.”

Using a story about angels, Father Kociemba shared an image that “sometimes the evil angel will try to lead you the wrong way,” Yang recalled.

“People make mistakes and do wrong things and it makes you live away from God. This made me worried and I wanted to fix my relationship with God and he told me about the sacrament of reconciliation.

“That is when I decided to become Catholic,” he said, “to spread the Word of God and to be nicer to people, more willing to help them when they have problems. That is what it means to me to be Catholic.”

Back in China

Despite the efforts of Pope Francis and previous popes to strengthen Vatican-China relations, Catholics in China face numerous difficulties in worshiping freely. Some attend churches “underground.” Others who worship publicly risk the possibility of religious persecution, including the denial of certain jobs.

Schnettler, with tears in her eyes, recalled how Yang’s struggle and the sacrifices he will have to make to be a Chinese Catholic impacted her own faith.
“The RCIA process is certainly intended for the person going through it, but it is also for the community around that person,” she said. “Seeing Peter’s conversion reminds us that we all are invited to that experience with God. I am so happy that wherever Peter goes, he has found a new home in his faith.”

Yang will be baptized, confirmed and receive first Eucharist at the Easter Vigil at St. Mary’s Cathedral with Father Kociemba as his sponsor.

Yang does not know what will happen when he returns to China this summer, but he says he will strive to be a witness of his newfound faith. He believes his parents will be supportive of his decision.

For him, living his faith “on the inside” will help him through the difficulties he may face “on the outside.”

“Now when I am doing anything, every day I know I have to do it right even though nobody might know, because God will know all the things I do,” he said. “My faith puts me in a position to follow my heart.”