MONTEREY PARK, Calif. — The Chinese Catholic community at St. Thomas Aquinas parish is one that might not exist today had it not been for a snakebite.

To help a young man bitten by a cobra in Taiwan many years ago, an American missionary priest found medicine to save the man's life. As a result of that gesture, the man became good friends with the Vincentian priest.

That relationship led to the man's conversion from Buddhism to Catholicism.

Today, his son is a Catholic priest. Father Gabriel Liu is the associate pastor and head of Chinese Catholic ministry at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, a parish located in a city whose population is more than 60% Chinese, mostly immigrants from Hong Kong, Taiwan, China and Singapore.

His parish is an example of the difficulties — and accomplishments — people of other countries face when they convert to Catholicism in the United States.

Cultural Changes

Although the Chinese community in Monterey Park is, for the most part, culturally (not religiously) Buddhist, Father Liu said converts often have to struggle with relatives who oppose Catholicism.

“When that person becomes Catholic, it's hard for other family members to accept it,” he said. Some relatives will question Catholic sacraments and Church rules.

“Many family members don't want to come to Catholic weddings. Many come reluctantly,” he added. “Grandfathers [will ask], ‘Why are you going to have your baby baptized at church?’ Why not let him wait and decide [whether or not to become Catholic] when he's 20, like you did?’”

Father Liu explained that some parents of converts do not understand why their children must wait six months before getting married, as the Church prescribes. According to Father Liu, many Chinese parents believe that once they give their approval, a couple should be able to marry within a month or two.

Besides dealing with disappointed relatives, some converts also struggle with breaking away from old Buddhist traditions.

“The old religion is still in them,” Father Liu said. “[For example], when something goes wrong, if the saints don't answer their prayers, they turn to Buddhist gods and palm readers.”

Being Catholic and Chinese is especially difficult for those who live in areas of Southern California where there are no Chinese-speaking priests.

“Their faith stops growing. Many don't go [to church] because they don't feel welcome or they don't speak English,” Father Liu said. He pointed out that there are only five to six active Chinese-speaking priests in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, who have to minister to more than 10,000 Chinese Catholics. In contrast, there are more than 200 Chinese Protestant ministers in the same area.

Father Liu emphasized the great need for Chinese-speaking priests. In fact, he and the Chinese Catholic community at St. Thomas Aquinas have a standing policy to pay all the expenses of any priest who wants to study Chinese overseas in order to reduce the financial burden on the archdiocese.

According to Father Liu, the three biggest vices within Chinese culture that Catholics must contend with are glaring advertisements for sexual immorality such as massages and strip clubs, obsessive gambling, and dishonesty in business dealings.

He said daily Chinese newspapers, unlike American papers, run two full-page ads — every day — for sexual acts and casinos.

“Most Chinese people see sex as something for marriage, but many do it anyway,” he said. “They believe reckless gambling is not a sin but a recreation. They go once a week or more.”

And for many, the virtue of honesty has its place only at home.

“When it comes to business, the Chinese don't think honesty is a virtue,” he said. “Parents emphasize honesty in the family, but in business all is fair.”

Jean Chituc, 53, a Catholic Chinese convert, grew up in a nominally Buddhist household in Taiwan before coming to the United States in 1974. She married her husband, a Romanian-American Catholic, in 1991.

“My husband is a cradle Catholic,” she said. “It took me 10 years to convert. It took me a lot of years to believe this is the true religion.”

Chituc said she learned much about the faith through her husband and one day decided to learn more about it in her native tongue. She befriended a Chinese nun who instructed her in the Catechism for more than a year. Finally, Chituc was baptized into the Church at the Easter Vigil in 2000.

Even then, Chituc admitted, she still had some lingering doubts.

“I wished God would show me a miracle to make me 200% sure,” she said.

But, she said, her husband pointed to the miracle right under her nose.

“He told me, ‘Your attitude has changed. Before, you used to complain about giving money to the poor. Now you give,’” she said.

Chituc said her mother was supportive of her decision to convert.

“She was very happy with my husband, so she was very supportive. My husband set a very good example,” she said. She also said her mother-in-law supported her with prayer and encouraged Chituc with the words, “Jean, God is good.”

The Chitucs have a 10-year-old daughter, Christina, who was baptized as an infant and now attends Sunday school. Chituc said she is proud of her daughter, who knew exactly what to tell a fellow classmate when he asked Christina why Catholics “worship Mary.”

“We don't worship Mary,” Christina said. “We honor her because she is Jesus’ mother. Don't you think you should honor your mother?”

Faith in Action

Father Liu emphasized that the Chinese Catholic community is one that puts its faith into action: “We do many things that regular parishes would never do.”

People carpool to Mass together on Sundays from all ends of Los Angeles and beyond. Agnes Yu, president of the Chinese Outreach Center at St. Thomas Aquinas, said Christian service is indeed a big part of parishioners’ lives. They also work with Catholic Charities and teach English and math to socioeconomically disadvantaged Mexican-American children in the area.

“Faith is strengthened through service,” Yu said. “We have Bible study groups, retreats and lectures. And we go out to help the community.” The community is currently raising money to build a senior citizens home for people of all races — Catholic and non-Catholic alike. In less than two years, he has received $2 million from the Chinese Catholic community for the project.

“One lady gave all her savings — $300,000,” he said.

Martin Mazloom writes from Monterey Park, California.