WASHINGTON—Taking a momentous journey is not a new experience for Jillian Shen.
Born and raised in China, she moved to California to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology at the University of California in Los Angeles and her master’s degree in that subject at California State University.
Then she moved to Maryland, where she is working on her doctorate in applied developmental psychology at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County.
And this past year, Shen has been on a spiritual journey preparing to become Catholic, and she received the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and first Communion during the Easter Vigil April 3 at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington.
Shen said after she began dating Sean Montgomery — a Catholic who works as a project manager — she sometimes went to Mass with him and his family. The couple became engaged in 2018, and they decided they wanted to be married in the Catholic Church and raise their children Catholic.
After discussing their future life together and with Sean’s encouragement, she joined the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program at the cathedral, and her journey of faith officially started, she said.
During the pandemic, the weekly RCIA classes were held virtually, and Shen remembers being struck by one of the first lines in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The desire for God is written in the human heart.”
“That really resonated with me,” Shen told the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.
Although she didn’t grow up in a religious family in China, Shen’s paternal grandparents were Christian and would say grace before every meal. She remembers as a little girl her father telling her to put down her chopsticks, that her grandmother was going to say grace.
Consequently, Shen said she has always been “very curious and respectful about religion in general.”
“When they (my grandparents) were in their 80s, they would take a bus to the only church in my hometown city,” Shen remembered, adding that as an adult when she would speak with her grandmother on the phone, “she would always encourage me to seek out Christianity.”
Shen added, “I’d like to say my grandparents planted a seed in me,” and then meeting, dating and becoming engaged to her fiancé “gave me the nudge to take the first step to convert to Catholicism.”
The couple decided to postpone their wedding due the pandemic, and they hope to get married at a Catholic church in Rome, San Pietro in Montorio, in May 2022, after their marriage preparation at St. Matthew’s Cathedral. She’s writing her dissertation and hopes to complete work on her doctorate this summer.
During the pandemic, Shen said, there were so many uncertainties in life and she found herself losing direction.
“Studying Christianity in general and Catholicism brought peace to my mind,” she said, noting that she felt she didn’t know how to pray properly, so she asked her fiancé and also googled “how to pray” and watched related YouTube videos.
“When I felt depressed, lost, I’d feel this urge for praying,” Shen said. “When I felt that urge, it was like God was calling me to build this relationship with him.”
This year, Shen observed Lent for the first time, and she and Montgomery decided on something simple to observe the season. It harkened back to the example of her grandparents in China: They prayed together before dinner.
“It’s a start for us, to be more mindful as a family to strengthen our relationship with God,” she said.
Interviewed a few days before the Easter Vigil, Shen said, “I’m very excited, a little nervous, too. I feel like it’s a big moment.”
Asked how her life would change after Easter, she said, “It’s almost like I’ve adopted a different mindset” when facing challenges. … The long-term goal is to strengthen my relationship with God, and with other Catholics, too.”
And she’ll continue learning about her faith. “That’s a lifetime journey,” she said.
The woman who said she had to learn how to pray added, “I pray every day now.”
And as for all that led her to this moment of becoming a Catholic, she added, “I really enjoyed this journey.”
By Mark Zimmermann, editor of the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.