Born to parents who practice two different faiths, Irina Zheng has learned about both Buddhism and Catholicism, and given the freedom to choose which religion she identifies with most.
Last Saturday, the 12-year-old publicly made her choice as she was baptized into the Catholic faith at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, Dyker Heights. Her parents, Chiu Fan Chan and Jimmy Wong, along with her godparents and classmates from the parish school were present to witness Father Anthony Raso, parochial vicar, administer the sacrament.
“I wanted to be officially welcomed into God’s Church, to be an official part of Christ’s Body,” Zheng said.
Growing up with “a mixture” of practices and beliefs, Zheng observed both her Chinese-born mother’s Buddhist traditions as well as her Brooklyn-born father’s Catholic faith.
“Most of my family is Buddhist and my dad is the only Catholic,” she explained. “During the Buddhist holidays, my mom takes me to temple, and my dad takes me to church for the Catholic holidays.”
Close to God
After a while, Zheng said, “I realized the Catholic religion was different. When I go to Catholic Church, it makes me really feel close to God. I feel comfortable there.”
She grew up attending a Christian summer day camp and served as a counselor there last summer.
When it came time to select a middle school, she said, “My dad wanted me to know more about the Catholic faith, so we chose a Catholic school.”
Now in seventh grade, Zheng is completing her second year at Our Lady of Guadalupe School, where religion is more than just a daily class; it permeates every aspect of the day.
“I was not in my comfort zone at first” in Catholic school, admitted Zheng, who previously attended public school.
She soon found her niche, and her goodwill became known in the school community as she started helping foreign classmates from China learn English and adjust to their new environment and culture.
Zheng took to her own studies well, and found religion class interesting. She started acquiring knowledge of the faith on a deeper level, from studying Scripture and dogma, to participating in daily prayers and school Masses.
“I was able to see how our class, and our school all together, is God’s family,” Zheng said.
“I realized how Jesus Christ was God’s only Son and He came and died for us. It showed God’s love toward us, and that made me feel really important. It made me feel really important to God.”
Early last year, she began inquiring about whether she could join the Catholic faith. She spoke to her principal, Sister Dolores Crepeau, C.S.J., and began meeting with her to discuss what she was feeling and understanding about the faith.
“She identified with God and Jesus,” Sister Dolores said, recalling how Zheng came to her one day to discuss how impressed she was with Jesus’ bravery. “She was already at the point she needed to be without any help.”
Sister Dolores then counseled her to take the next step: speak with her parents.
When she told her dad, Zheng said his response was: “Finally! It took so many years.”
With a little more explanation, Zheng also gained her mother’s consent, respect and support. And she will continue to respect her Buddhist family’s customs although she does not share their beliefs.
“Even though we may belong to different religions, God loves us,” Zheng said. “I hope that one day, when God comes to receive us, that my whole family will go to heaven.”
For other children who may be in similar family situation where two faiths are practiced, Zheng encourages her peers to really get to know both religions before making a decision.
On the eve of the feast of the Holy Trinity, Zheng affirmed her growing belief in the Triune God and received the gift of new life.
Standing by her side were her godparents, Elizabeth Gatti, financial coordinator at Our Lady of Guadalupe School, and her husband Jere, a longtime neighbor and friend of Zheng’s father.
“She’s choosing this,” Elizabeth Gatti said. “She made the conscious decision and now it’s up to us to reinforce it.”
Her hope for Zheng is that she continues to live the Catholic faith out of her heart,“because she wants to do it, not because she has to do it.”
And for herself, Zheng hopes to “draw closer to Christ” as she journeys toward receiving the sacraments of Penance, First Eucharist and Confirmation later this year.