This is the story of Jaideep Singh, who recently became a Maryknoll missionary, a societies of apostolic life founded in the United States in the early 1900s. Today he is Fr. Stephen James Taluja.
Born in 1981, the youngest child of an important Indian Sikh family, the only male eagerly awaited by his parents after three daughters. Fr. Stephen talks to AsiaNews about his unique and personal story that revolves around his discovery that Christ is the Mighty God “in weakness” and the certainty that “God is faithful.”
“My mother was a very devout woman who introduced me to the teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib educated us at home in the prayer and recitation of the hymns of the sacred scriptures. My father accompanied me to the Gurdwara, the Sikh temple, and he raised me in the faith of the almighty. My parents instilled in us children love for God and a sense of service to the community”.
The young Jaideep studied at St Stephen’s School in Chandigarh, the capital of Punjab. Harold Carver, dean and founder of the institute remembers the young Sikh who “excelled in sports and played in the under 19 national soccer team of the state, loved music and sang in the school choir”.
Because of the quality of his singing the little Jaideep was invited to sing at midnight Mass on Easter Eve in the local church of St. Sebastian. He was 13 years old and attending the 7th class. It was the first time he had set foot in a Catholic church making the unusual occasion even more special for the young Sikh. Today, he says: “In that night I have vivid memories of the crucifix hanging on the wall and all the people on their knees praying. I did not understand how people could pray to a weak and dying God. For me, God had to emanate strength and power. And that God was just the opposite. ” Fr. Stephen remembers “the charm of the Liturgy of the Eucharist, common prayer and the unveiling of a totally new way for me.” He left the Mass with the image of “the cross and crucified Lord” in his head as well as “emerging questions about the meaning of life.”
After that night Jadeep began a long journey. “My mother had noticed that there was something new in me and caught my initial interest in Christianity, but did not say anything.” Jaideep turned to the rector Carver, putting his questions to him. Which become more insistent, even after the events in the family life of the boy.
The sudden death of his mother made even more urgent the need to understand the meaning of life and death. Fr. Stephen speaks today of the “darkness of soul” recalling that time. “I wondered where God was in all that was happening to me, what was the meaning of life.” The patient company of Harold Carver marks the “days of torment” of the young Sikh who recalls: “At some point I began to see the connection between life and death, realizing that Jesus died and rose was the model for us.”
The memory of that period, in which anguish was followed by the emergence of faith, is for Fr Stephen motive for “pride and gratitude”. “My family had planted in my soul the seed of religion, dean Carver the seed of Catholicism and of a life spent in witness of the Gospel.”
Jaideep decides to speak with his father about becoming a Christian. “All hell broke loose. He was annoyed, angry and offended. He called my sisters to ask them for information about my new faith”. The young priest now says: “They were really heavy and unsettling days for the whole family … thus began my personal participation in the passion and crucifixion of Christ.”
On March 1, 1999 Jaideep was baptized and chose the name of his school Stephen James. “I became a Catholic in secret and for 3-4 years my family knew nothing. I did not want to hurt them even more, because my father loved me so much and yet did not understand my choices”.
The year after Stephen leaves for the United States to study computer science. He lives in New York. To earn some money he works at night at a gas station. Every morning he goes to Mass in the parish named after St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Shrub Oak. Even there, he sings in the choir and one day the director Patti Copeland introduced Stephen to the Maryknoll missionaries. The young man remembers: “Their stories of aid to the poor around the world were impressed on my young 20 year old mind”.
“For some time I felt emerge in me the innate desire to communicate with God, to devote all of myself to contemplation.” Stephen believes the roots of this impulse lie in the education he received in his home: “Being Indian, and having received from my mother and our culture a deep sense of divinity I was fascinated by the mystical life in the early days of New York and I had thought of becoming a Trappist monk?.
In 2001, the young Indian was invited to an Easter spiritual retreat and he realises he is being called to consecrated life. Stephen enters the seminary, but does not say nothing yet to his father and sisters, “worried about the pain and stress that the decision might cause to my family.”
“It was a period of anxiety in my life,” says the boy. “I knew that my father and members of my family were mocked, scorned and humiliated for my decision to become Catholic.” Sikh culture attaches great importance to the one male in the family circle. “You have the responsibility to carry on the name of your race, to take care of parents when they grow old – said Stephen – all this and I could no longer do so because of the decision I had taken.”
The days of priestly formation pass accompanied by the torture of hurting his loved ones and especially his father. “But God is faithful,” says the young man. “I suffered, but I knew that God would give my father a reward far greater than I could hope for.”
Stephen studied at St. Xavier University in Chicago, attended the Maryknoll’s Language Institute in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and for two years lived and worked in the mission of Aymara, on the Peruvian High Planes.
On 30 May 2009 he was ordained to the priesthood. Stephen’s three sisters arrive in New York: Anu, Manpreet and Jaipreet, who live in Europe and America. U.S. authorities will not grant a visa to the father. “But it was one of the happiest days of my life,” says the young priest. “My dad wanted to be with me and through my sisters gave me his blessing and the sign of his support for my choice. He wanted me to know that he was proud of me and he had reconciled with my vocation. ”
On becoming a priest of the Maryknoll missionaries (in the photo on the day of his first mass), the young priest began a new life and on the day of his ordination, officiated by Msgr. Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, he received messages of congratulations from hitherto unknown people who had learned of his story through friends or other missionaries. “They wrote that they prayed for me, as I became a priest during his Year for Priests – says Fr Stephen – and I felt honoured and privileged to be a Catholic priest, blessed by the prayers of so many people around the world. All this has made me all the stronger in my desire to be a holy priest and a missionary who serves God by serving his people”.