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 CNS Story:

TALUJA Jun-1-2009 (890 words) xxxn

Choir led Sikh to Catholic Church; mission work cinched his vocation

By Beth Griffin
Catholic News Service

MARYKNOLL, N.Y. (CNS) -- Imagine that the youngest child in a religiously observant family comes home from high school and announces to his prominent father that he is converting to a minority religion he heard about from his principal. Predictably, the reaction is shock, disbelief and resistance.

But Stephen Taluja, who was raised a Sikh in Punjab state, India, converted to Catholicism anyway. Now 27, he had his father's blessing when he was ordained as a Maryknoll priest May 30.

His ordination Mass was celebrated by Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York at the Queen of Apostles Chapel at Maryknoll Mission Center.

Punjab, in northwest India, is overwhelmingly Sikh and Hindu. Seventy-five 75 percent of the world's 26 million Sikhs live there. Catholics make up less than 1 percent of the population.

Father Taluja was introduced to Catholicism at a private high school whose Anglo-Indian principal is Catholic.

"The place has a Catholic aura and the principal is a devout Catholic whose faith and practice are very connected," he said in an interview with Catholic News Service.

As a student, he volunteered with the school to work at a leprosarium run by the Missionaries of Charity. He called it "pretty significant" to confront societal taboos associated with people who have Hansen's disease.

Father Taluja credited music with being the specific doorway to his interest in Catholicism. As a member of the school choir, he was invited to sing at midnight Mass at a local church. He had never been into a Catholic church and it was unusual for him to be out at that hour of the night.

"When I first walked in, I vividly remember being struck by the crucifix on the wall. People were kneeling and praying to the crucifix. I couldn't understand why they were praying to a so-called God who was a frail and dying man," he said.

Father Taluja said he was curious, but had no intention of converting to Catholicism. He also was dealing with larger questions about the meaning of life after the untimely death of his mother when he was 15.

When he decided to convert, the news was not well-received by his father. He described "divisive opposition" in his family, contrasted with the support of people at the parish.

"I felt like Peter, denying Jesus three times. I come from an influential, rich family in a small town. Sometimes people would tell me they heard I was attending Catholic Mass and I would deny it," he said.

But he persisted, drawn by a desire to know God, and was received into the church while he was still in high school.

When he came to suburban New York to study computer science, Father Taluja worked the night shift at a gas station convenience store and attended the early morning Mass at St. Elizabeth Seton Church in Shrub Oak. He also sang in the choir.

Father Taluja felt called to the missionary priesthood and was introduced to Maryknoll by both his pastor and the Maryknoll music director whom he met at his second job.

Father Taluja, who is fluent in Hindi, English and Punjabi, learned Spanish during a five-month stint in Cochabamba, Bolivia and then spent two years in the Peruvian Andes, with Maryknoll's overseas training program. He served the indigenous Aymara people, ministering and working with youths and preparing parishioners for fiestas and eucharistic celebrations.

"My experience in Peru cinched things for me. I knew I was called to be a missionary and a priest and I want to do it for the rest of my life," he said.

Father Taluja described working in a parish of 90,000 people served by one priest and a group of Argentine Dominican sisters. "Every day is like a sacramental carnival," he said. "Somebody dies, people get married, there are baptisms."

He said preaching in Spanish was an "animating of my faith." Father Taluja honed his Spanish on the soccer field, where, he said, "formalities fade and you get to know people on a more personal level." It probably helped that his soccer skills were good enough to land him a spot on India's junior national team.

Father Taluja earned his bachelor's degree in religious studies from St. Xavier University in Chicago and a master's in divinity from Catholic Theological Union there. He will continue to pursue a master's in sacred Scripture at the union after his ordination.

His three older sisters came from New York, England and India to attend his ordination; and a niece and nephew were the gift bearers at the offertory. His father was expected to attend if his visa were granted, but in the end it was not.

"He's very proud. He has mixed feelings, but he wants to come and give me his blessing and support me," Father Taluja told CNS in an interview before his ordination.

Father Taluja said his Sikh background will serve his priesthood.

"My Catholic seeds were sown in a non-Catholic home. Sikhism has explicit respect for different paths to God, which I think I bring with me. Who knows how Christ might be working through people of other cultures and religions? We don't," he said.


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