By Victoria Seed…
I have taught RCIA preparation (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) for fifteen years, in five different parishes in three different countries, and I can tell you, hand on heart, that there is no such thing as a “typical convert”. God calls all to know Him, after all, and so people from every background and walk of life seek Him in the sacraments of the Church. Everyone has a story about why he is there. Some are persuaded by years of research or a philosophical argument; some have a health of a spouse, friend or relative; some are blithely tepid for years until they have a Damascene moment, an experience of being directly and forcefully spoken to by God. But I will always remember Ling Wei because I have never heard a story similar to hers. Ling Wei wanted to be a Catholic because as a child she had seen a picture of Mary.
Growing up in a Buddhist Chinese family in Malaysia, Ling Wei had no contact with Christians, and knew nothing about Jesus. When I began to teach her she had never even heard the Christmas story. How, I wanted to know, did she even form the desire to become a Catholic? She explained that her aunt had come to stay with the family for several months when Ling Wei was a child. Her aunt had converted to Catholicism while living in London. She went by her confirmation name, Michelle, and the family thought her quite peculiar. Auntie Michelle was given a bed in Ling Wei’s room, and, as her visit was an extended one, she added a few homey touches to the decor: a crucifix above her bed, and a picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary by the bedroom door, right where Ling Wei could see it while she lay in bed. ‘I always had terrible nightmares, really scary evil dreams,’ Ling Wei told me, ‘But as soon as Auntie put that picture on the wall the dreams stopped. Mother Mary was so beautiful! I felt so happy when I would look at her as I fell asleep. And she would look at me, and I was not scared anymore. I knew even then that I wanted to move to London with Auntie so I could be a Catholic like her.’ So, at the age of eighteen, living in London with her aunt, Ling Wei asked the parish priest to baptize her. I was the RCIA catechist in the parish at the time, and so her preparation was entrusted to me. The pastor suggested that one-on-one instruction would be best, as the RCIA group I was already leading was made up exclusively of ladies from an Anglican background with a very different knowledge base.
We met twice a week, and, despite her eagerness, it was a challenge to teach Ling Wei. Her English was far from fluent, and she found Scripture completely baffling. Father and I had many conversations about what level of understanding was necessary for her reception. (The conclusion was to be able to meaningfully recite the Creed, and to have an understanding of the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and the need for regular Confession.) We persevered. I tried to teach a simple story from the Bible at each lesson. Some days it seemed to be working; some days it seemed hopeless. I had never before instructed anyone with a completely Eastern world-view, and I had little idea how to proceed.
Advent arrived. We had been working for four months. I always teach my RCIA students to pray the rosary midway through the course. It’s a good spiritual discipline, and I just find it makes them feel Catholic, often at a time when they are a bit frustrated they can’t yet receive communion. I brought to the lesson a card giving pictorial instructions on how to pray the rosary, a beautifully illustrated booklet with scripture passages and reflections on each mystery, and a set of beads for each of us. We went through all of this carefully. We learned the Hail Mary and Glory Be and the Jesus prayer. We reviewed the Our Father. We talked about how the series of ten Hail Mary’s gives us a period of time to meditate on the mystery of the decade, and how while we pray we should be picturing the story we are praying about.
We decided to pray the Joyful Mysteries together. I announced the first mystery: The Annunciation. I read the scripture account from Luke and we prayed. Ling Wei announced the second mystery: The Visitation, and read the scripture passage. We prayed. I announced the third mystery: the Nativity of Our Lord. I read from the Bible. We prayed. Ling Wei began to laugh. ‘When I am reading the Bible I do not understand any of it. Not a thing! But when I am praying this Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary I understand ALL of it! I can see EVERYTHING!’ she exclaimed. Ling Wei was baptized and received into the Catholic Church the following Easter, despite my failings as a catechist. I don’t think we ever moved beyond the simple instruction one would normally give to children making their first communion, but clearly Our Lady was able to overcome all my deficiencies and lead Ling Wei to Christ. She was joyful to receive the waters of Baptism, the anointing of the Holy Spirit in Confirmation, and the body and blood of our Lord Jesus in her first Holy Communion. Since she was a small child she had wanted to follow Our Lady, and that path could only ever lead her to Christ. No one knows Jesus better than the Blessed Virgin who both bore him in her womb and remained at his side as he died on the Cross.
Were you wondering about that first image of the Blessed Mother that Ling Wei saw? I certainly was after she told me the story. Her aunt still has the picture hanging up as home, and Ling Wei borrowed it to show me. It was a picture of one of the mosaics from the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary in Lourdes. Mary has her arms outstretched and the inscription around her reads Par Marie A Jesus, French for “Through Mary to Jesus.” These words are a promise. If we entrust ourselves to Mary she will see us safely to her son. You may think I am being fanciful, but ever since I saw that picture that hung in Ling Wei’s bedroom as a child I have believed Our Lady always intended to catechise Ling Wei herself, through the rosary.