Catechesis. Self-reflection. Discernment. Prayer.
After months of preparation, at Easter Vigil celebrations in parishes across Hawaii, the church will welcome its newest members.
According to the diocesan Office of Worship, 203 catechumens will be baptized into the Catholic faith during the March 30 evening services. Many more, who had been previously baptized, will enter into full communion with the church through the sacraments of Eucharist and Confirmation.
The elect all share a common desire for conversion, but their experiences coming to Catholicism vary widely. Here are the stories of three candidates who will be receiving the sacraments this Holy Week.
Living on the edges of the faith
From attending a Marianist grade school, to serving on parish finance councils, to befriending Island clergy and religious, Werner Umbhau, 76, has long been involved with the Catholic Church. But not as a Catholic.
Umbhau was born in Yokohama, Japan. As a child, he attended St. Joseph College, a Catholic institution for grades 1-12 touted for its English-learning programs. There, the Marianist faculty integrated religion into academics.
St. Joseph’s diverse student body included kids from dozens of ethnic groups and faiths. Umbhau came from a home where no specific religion was practiced.
When he was about 13 years old, his Marianist instructors suggested that he be baptized a Catholic. He was willing, but his father refused to sign the permission slip.
“He told them that he didn’t think I was really ready to make an informed decision,” Umbhau said, “and that I should wait until I was more mature.”
At age 15, Umbhau came to Hawaii. He lived with his uncle in Honolulu who attended Central Union Church. Through his influence, Umbhau developed a budding relationship with God and a solid rooting in Christian values.
“Religion was always with me,” he said. “I believed in God and I just conducted my life accordingly.”
In 1960, he married his wife Josephine, a devout “cradle Catholic,” at St. Anthony Church in Kailua. The couple raised their five children in the Catholic faith.
Umbhau developed a great respect for the faith thanks to wonderful people he met at St. Anthony. He admired in particular Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet Rose Miriam Schillinger and Father Gary Secor, the school principal and the associate pastor at the time. Their examples of character and devotion would become pivotal influences.
Umbhau, a former banker, retired in 1994. He then left the Islands for Colorado, where his son lived. Although away from their Hawaii Catholic community, Josephine continued to go to church regularly with her grown children. Umbhau would join the family for Mass very rarely.
“I was one of the ‘C-and-E’ guys,” Umbhau said, joking about his church attendance on Christmas and Easter.
When the couple came back to Hawaii in 2000, Umbhau was introduced to another person who would play a key role in his faith journey — Sacred Hearts Father Lane Akiona, then pastor of St. Patrick Church in Kaimuki.
Bonding over good humor and a mutual friendship with Sister Rose Miriam, who had moved to St. Patrick School, the two men established a rapport. Umbhau, still not a Catholic, joined the Father Akiona’s parish finance council.
When Father Akiona was transferred to St. Augustine Church in Waikiki, the Umbhaus also changed parishes. They made the long drives from their home in Hawaii Kai to Waikiki, feeling welcome in the faith community Father Akiona led.
“I think it really helps if your pastor can communicate with his parishioners in a way that they feel that they’re connected to the church,” Umbahu said. “That they’re not just coming in and fulfilling an obligation.”
Umbhau felt a special connection to the St. Augustine congregation. The parish ohana is “very tight-knit,” he said, and “they are all such devout people.”
Last year, after decades of life on the fringes of the faith, he finally felt the call to full conversion.
“I was telling God, ‘You know, maybe I feel closer to the church now than I ever did,’” Umbhau said. “I like to be with people who are really participants and close to the church. And I know a lot of those people … who are there week in and week out.”
He has been learning more about the Catholic faith through RCIA, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. From the teachings of Vatican II to the significance of the sacraments, Umbhau said he appreciates the rich history of the church and its applications to the modern world.
“There is an evolving in the church that best meets what I think is good for me too,” he said. “It all kind of came together at the right time.”
Perennial to any teaching, he said, is the principle that “if you have that kind of strong belief you can overcome almost any obstacle in life.” He sees this in the example of his wife, who for their marriage of 52 years, has led their family in fervent prayer. She has filled their home with spiritual literature and set up a special altar in their bedroom.
Umbhau said Josephine never forced on him a decision to convert. But Josephine said she is ecstatic that her husband will soon be a member of the faithful.
“She has just an unwavering belief in God and a trust that’s unequivocal,” Umbhau said. “I really am lucky and blessed that I have her.”
A Mormon in a Catholic choir
She is a Mormon who has been singing in a Catholic church choir for more than 15 years.
Paula Kaneaiakala, 59, is a catechumen from St. Philomena Church in Salt Lake. She was raised by a Mormon father and a Catholic mother.
Both faiths were respected in their household, said Kaneaiakala. She and her siblings were fully invested into the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints as children, and her mother eventually converted to Mormonism as well. Yet they also regularly attended the Catholic celebrations on her mother’s side of the family. One of her maternal cousins was a Catholic priest — Father Eli Carter, who died in 2002.
“Catholicism has always been around me, but not in me,” Kaneaiakala said. “My faith in God has always been there.”
Kaneaiakala kept the Catholic connection in her family going by having her son, now 24, baptized in the faith and enrolled at St. Theresa School.
She moved to Salt Lake about a decade-and-a-half ago, and there she once again found herself surrounded by a community of Catholic friends. Kaneaiakala joined the choir at St. Philomena Church after hearing that they needed singers.
She told her fellow choir members that she was still a Mormon, but they nonetheless welcomed her with open arms. She has since been a diligent attendee at Sunday morning Masses.
Kaneaiakala took the decisive step toward conversion last year. She thought it was a natural progression for her already deep appreciation for the faith. She said the RCIA program has given her an ever-growing enthusiasm to learn more, an eagerness that has become contagious in her small class of catechumens.
“We ask a lot of questions,” she said. “We have the best time when we’re together.”
Knowing all about the sacraments and the significance of the rituals of the Mass is exciting, said Kaneaiakala. She has been sharing this knowledge with her Catholic family members, some of whom were unaware of just how beautiful in symbolism the church is.
“I guess I have to educate them now,” she joked.
Her Catholic cousins are “jazzed” by her conversion, Kaneaiakala said. She was a little concerned about telling her immediate family since her siblings are still strong practicing Mormons, but they accept and support her decision.
To them, “it doesn’t matter how you worship, as long as you worship,” she said.
An encounter with the Blessed Mother
Although 24-year-old Stephanie Kamau of Resurrection of the Lord Church hasn’t been able to partake of the Eucharist, she knows all about its saving grace.
Kamau grew up in a Protestant home. As a child, she attended services at Grace Bible Church with her parents and was baptized into the congregation.
At age 10, she went to live in Hawaii Kai with an aunt, a Catholic who taught at Star of the Sea School. She spent her fifth grade year there as a student, and would often tag along with her aunt and cousin to Mass.
This was Kamau’s first experience in the Catholic Church. It came during a tumultuous time in her childhood when she was seeking comfort from difficult situations in her parents’ home. While at Star of the Sea, Kamau said she experienced a life-changing encounter with the Blessed Mother.
“There was so much turmoil going on in me, so I went to Mass,” Kamau said. “A statue of Mary stopped me. I saw Mary, and I saw just her face of love, and her arms were open. That’s what I was craving — that love.”
“I went up to the statue and I kind of just stood there,” she said. “And I felt just this ultimate peace come over me. I couldn’t take my eyes off her.”
Kamau later moved back to live with her parents. When she was in high school, she returned to Grace Bible Church. Her parents had stopped going to services, but Kamau said she maintained her own routine of worship because she “wanted to feel that peace” that she had experienced at Star of the Sea.
She said she enjoyed the Grace Bible meetings, but nothing seemed to compare to her encounter with the Blessed Mother.
“I wanted to find that, and I just didn’t,” she said.
Kamau found her way back to a Catholic community after becoming friends with Makana Aiona, now the diocesan coordinator of young adult ministry. A parishioner of Resurrection of the Lord Church in Waipio, Aiona took Kamau on a tour of the parish one day and explained to her some of its features. Kamau was particularly struck by her visit to the Blessed Sacrament chapel.
“As soon as I walked in, I immediately felt that same peace that I felt looking at Mary,” she said. “I cried, and I cried, and I cried.”
“I closed my eyes, and as I was kneeling there in front of the Blessed Sacrament, I saw myself at the foot of a hill,” she added. “I saw Jesus on the cross, bleeding. He looked at me, and those brown, soft eyes I’ve never seen in my life. It felt so real — I was taken aback. That was, I guess, my first real experience of Jesus.”
“That day would change my life forever,” she said.
She joined the RCIA program at Resurrection of the Lord and began preparing for her first Eucharist and Confirmation. A baptism wasn’t required for her to become a Catholic, because the “Trinitarian Baptism” she received at Grace Bible was an entrance into Christianity accepted by the Catholic Church.
Kamau said her family at first was against her conversion, but they now can acknowledge the positive change to her life the Catholic faith inspired. “It has been a difficult road” often filled with doubt, Kamau said, but a lot of healing has since taken place between her and her family.
“I don’t have that anxiety anymore,” she said.
Kamau has been counting down the days until Easter Vigil. As she eagerly anticipates receiving her sacraments, she has been immersing herself in various faith activities. She has selected her patron saint, Blessed John Paul II, whom she calls her “role model” for forgiveness. She wears his name on a ribbon necklace made for her RCIA class.
She has also attended a Basic Christian Community retreat and plays music for Resurrection of the Lord’s praise and worship group. In between her graduate studies at Hawaii Pacific University, she used to attend daily Mass. Although she is not able to join the Communion line, she said that Mass is always fulfilling.
“Just being in the presence of Jesus, that is sustenance,” she said. “That is the ultimate thing in this world, the closest thing to heaven.”