Outside, it was a pleasant Saturday afternoon in May—the first warm weekend day in Cleveland in many months. Sunshine poked through the scattered clouds in the sky, and the smell of freshly laid mulch perfumed the air around West 30th and Lorain. It was a quiet, beautiful scene.
Inside St. Mary of the Assumption Chapel, students bustled eagerly. In their blue blazers they rehearsed hymns, practiced readings, and lit candles in preparation for the liturgy. The students also set out a stack of plush towels and adjusted the small flowerpots that surrounded the blue children’s pool, wrapped in a khaki bedsheet, which lay in front of the altar. They conferred with Fr. Paul Shelton, S.J., Fr. Ray Guiao, S.J., and Mr. Dan Dixon, S.J. about where they needed to be and when.
“OK, Father, so after the homily, we’ll come over here and give them the towels,” said one student, stepping over to the left of the altar. Fr. Shelton nodded approvingly.
Amid all this activity, a family wandered into the chapel. The crowd of students rushed to greet them. It was almost time.
This scene was the beginning of a liturgical celebration quite unlike any other in the 19-year history of St. Mary’s Chapel. It was the middle of a beautiful story of faith, family and friendship. And it was, as Fr. Shelton remarked in his homily that picturesque afternoon, “the end of a long journey of grace.”
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The journey begins, of all places, at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management. In the fall of 2017, Fr. Shelton began coursework there in pursuit of a graduate degree in positive organization development and change. There he met Bosco and Preeti D’mello, a husband and wife from Mumbai, India, who were part of his master’s program cohort.
Throughout the first semester of school, the trio became friends. Bosco was studying to further his work as founder of Conscious Development, a leadership development consulting firm; Preeti was pursuing the same for her role in leadership development for Tata Consultancy Services. Together the couple made the semi-regular plane trips to Cleveland for school. The D’mellos were also following in the footsteps of their adult children, Oona and Shiv, who live in Chicago and had enrolled in the program a year prior.
Conversations among the friends led to discussions of faith. Bosco was a practicing Catholic and parishioner at St. Anne’s Church in Mumbai. However, the rest of his family did not feel as though they had a religious home. Preeti said that she had grown up Hindu, but her family had always explored different faiths. Yet she had long been intrigued by the person of Jesus.
“Christ shows up in a lot of Hindu texts,” she said. “His spirit of love and generosity—there’s an irresistible energy.”
Preeti and Bosco yearned to have their family of five, which also includes their young son, Kabir, united in faith. So they asked their friend Fr. Paul: Is it possible for our family to become members of the Catholic Church? Can our family, split geographically between the United States and India, together make the Sacraments of Initiation? Can you, Fr. Paul, help us out?
The young Jesuit happily agreed to seek out answers to their questions.
At first, these questions begot more questions: Is it possible to initiate a family into the Church outside a traditional parish setting? How could a family divided halfway across the world complete the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA)? Who might perform the Confirmation, a role traditionally reserved for bishops? When and where might all of this take place? Whose blessings would be required to move forward with any of this?
To make the dream a reality, Shelton spoke with several priests throughout the local Church hierarchy. Rev. Gary Yanus, Judicial Vicar in the Diocese of Cleveland, gave permission for this unique administering of sacraments. Rev. Joseph Previte, Pastor of Holy Rosary Church, consulted with Shelton on whom to talk with. Lastly, Rev. Michael Gurnick, Pastor of St. Patrick’s in Ohio City, helped with the paperwork for registering the D’mellos.
Throughout the process, the family put their trust in God and his servant, Fr. Paul.
“He’s made this possible,” Bosco said of Fr. Paul. “He’s just been embodying Christ. He’s walked the talk.”
Over many months, Fr. Paul and the D’mellos completed RCIA, using video chats to complete their sessions since the family rarely was all in once place. Shelton walked with his friends, answering their questions and affirming that theirs was a deep and abiding faith.
God would take care of the rest.
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Back on the campus of Saint Ignatius, Jesuit regent Mr. Dan Dixon was co-teaching a spring semester course on Sacraments with Fr. Guiao. When Fr. Shelton shared the story of the D’mellos with his Jesuit brethren, an idea blossomed. What better way for students to learn about the sacraments than to help institute them?
The class of 18 students split up into four teams: music, hospitality, ritual and lectors. Under the guidance of their teachers, they would make decisions about each component of the liturgy.
“I feel like we prepared for a month and a half,” said junior Alec Stimac. “I was surprised that we could see how the sacraments work.”
A musician, Alec worked with a handful of other students to select and perform the songs and hymns, which of course reflected the nature of the celebration. “All are Welcome” served as the opening hymn. The Litany of Saints and “Springs of Water Bless the Lord” accompanied the Baptism. “Holy Spirit Come” complemented Confirmation, and “One Bread, One Body” was a fitting First Communion song.
Alec also appreciated having the chance to observe the sacraments now that he is older and has a deeper understanding of them—much more so than when he was baptized as an infant or received his first Holy Communion in second grade.
“I had never experienced the ritual quite how they are,” he said. “It just shows how the Catholic Church is so widespread, and that God was calling them. I learned that we can all come together over one thing and give ourselves to that spirit.”
Among the many logistical decisions that the students on the ritual team made was the choice of baptismal font. That’s where the blue children’s pool entered the picture. In a method known as aspersion, each of the D’mellos would kneel in the pool and Shelton would pour water over their heads as he said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
The entire afternoon’s events had a touch of Indian décor and tradition as well. In addition to the small sampling of Indian finger foods for the reception in the narthex was the presence of the lotus flower, rich in Hindu symbolism. The lotus blooms even in murky waters, and Fr. Shelton compared this flower to the responsibility of Christians to exhibit traits of peace and love, even in a world so often lacking in both.
And so it was with anticipation and pride that this group of students and teachers greeted Bosco, Preeti, Oona, Shiv and Kabir D’mello when they set foot in St. Mary’s Chapel that Saturday afternoon. Both groups had prepared for many weeks and months, but as Shelton would say in his homily, this celebration was a long time coming.
“God’s love is so present, so overwhelming that our hearts leap, our eyes well up and words fail us,” he said. “Dear sisters and brothers today is one of those miraculous days of love as we welcome Preeti, Shiv, Oona and Kabir into the Catholic Church.
“It’s a culmination of years of yearnings, quiet whispers, new beginnings and prayer. Today, we ritualize what has been building inside the D’mello family for decades.”
The final minutes of preparation before the liturgy were pregnant with expectation. Bosco spoke softly with Kabir before Mr. Dixon walked over to ask Kabir about his favorite sport: soccer. A student went around and re-lit the votive candles that had accidentally been extinguished. Fr. Guiao and Fr. Shelton took turns in the First Week chaplet, hearing the family’s first confessions.
Then, Fr. Guiao made one last sweep of the chapel and, sensing that everything was in place, dismissed the students to their positions.
Standing in the front pew, wearing black gowns, the four initiates and Bosco beamed as junior Jude Horning offered opening remarks. “We are blessed to have this opportunity to welcome you,” Horning said.
The small assembly raised their voices with the cantors and musicians to sing the opening hymn, “All are Welcome.”
Built of hopes and dreams and visions, / rock of faith and vault of grace; / here the love of Christ shall end divisions. / All are welcome, all are welcome, / all are welcome in this place.
Fr. Shelton opened the Mass with a question and an answer.
“How big is our God?” he asked. “His love has no limits.”
Indeed, this fact was illustrated in every facet of the liturgy. From the first reading, which told of the baptism of Cornelius, to John’s Gospel, which reiterated the Great Commandment—God’s love was awash in each thoughtfully planned piece of the Mass.
“Ray and Dan deserve copious credit for preparing the students,” Shelton would say later. “I just had to show up for the Mass as Ray was the real architect behind the liturgy.”
In his homily, Fr. Shelton addressed each of the family members individually. He spoke about how each of them came to know Jesus, and their journey to initiation this day.
“Like many relationships these days, y’all met on the internet,” he said, referencing the Skype conversations the family had with the Sacraments class.
“And we don’t come to the sacraments because we’re beautiful, perfect or good. No, we are murky. But as St. John Bosco reminds us, we come to the Eucharist to become good.
“God’s love is so much bigger than we could ever hope to imagine,” Shelton added. “His grace constantly shapes our hearts. So, it is because of this love, this grace of a God who refuses to be limited by space or time that I echo the words of St. Peter in the first reading: ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit, even as we have?’”
And with that, he baptized them.
Fr. Shelton removed his shoes and socks and stepped into the pool. Preeti, the matriarch, followed first. Bosco held her hand as she dipped her foot in, and let it go as she kneeled down, folded her hands folded and bowed her head.
With each invocation, Shelton tipped his pitcher of water over her head.
“Preeti, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
She cleared her soaked hair from in front of her face, smiled, and arose from the pool. A student handed her one of the snow-white towels.
Then it was Oona’s turn, followed by Shiv, and finally Kabir, who winced as Shelton gave him a good soaking on the final pour. The four retreated briefly to private rooms to dry off, remove their black robes and don the white ones reflective of their baptism. Meanwhile, Shelton sprinkled the crowd of 50 or so attendees as the musicians sang the Litany of Saints and “Springs of Water.”
When the newly baptized returned, it was time for Confirmation. Shiv and Kabir had selected St. Francis of Assisi for their Confirmation name, while Oona and Preeti were adopting St. Teresa of Avila.
Bosco stood attentively at the Easter Candle, lighting a flame on each of the white candlesticks that he presented to his family. Preeti put her arm around Kabir as they held their candles and waited their turn for the blessing. One at a time, with Bosco as their sponsor, each of the four stepped forward to Shelton, who anointed them with holy chrism and said, “Be sealed with the Holy Spirit.”
After the D’mellos had returned to their pews, each smiling in their pristine white robes, candles in hand, the assembly gave the four newly confirmed Catholics an enthusiastic round of applause.
The rest of the Mass proceeded in the traditional manner. At the Sign of Peace, the D’mellos received a smile and handshake from nearly every person in attendance.
When it came time for Holy Communion, Preeti, Oona, Shiv and Kabir were the first to receive, one at a time. They each bowed their said and offered a quiet “Amen” as they were presented the Body and Blood. Kabir’s first taste of Communion wine elicited a grimace, which yielded a soft chuckle from his family.
Everyone was all smiles after the closing rite and final hymn. The work of many months was finished.
Prior to a reception in the narthex of the chapel, Preeti, Oona and Shiv changed into traditional Indian dress. Then the D’mellos, the students, Mr. Dixon, Fr. Guiao and the man who brought it all together—Fr. Shelton—gathered for a group picture in front of the stained glass window that depicts Jesus and Mary after the Resurrection.
In the immediate moment, Bosco was overwhelmed with gratitude.
“This is a huge thing, and it was completely unexpected,” he said. “I couldn’t have imagined it. I am very, very grateful. There’s so much love and the sense of welcome is amazing.”
Oona, who is the art director for a non-profit school in Chicago, noted the attention to detail in every component of the liturgy.
“The ceremony was absolutely beautiful,” she said. “It was everything and more—very sweet.”
For Preeti, making the sacraments was affirming of truth and love that she has long known.
“I’ve always felt a part of the circle of Christ,” she said. “This formality was very emotional, but I always felt like I was already there.”
As most of the group snacked and socialized, a few students remained inside the sanctuary to blow out candles and empty out the makeshift baptismal font. There was a noticeable sense of relief on their faces; in a way, they, too, had just completed their own journey.
Shortly thereafter, everyone went their separate ways. For some, that meant to their homes around the greater Cleveland area. For Shiv and Oona, that meant Chicago. For Bosco, Preeti and Kabir, that was across the globe, back to Mumbai.
It was, for each person involved, a long journey of grace, and it imprinted on the hearts and minds of all the assembled the question posed by Fr. Shelton: “How big is our God?”
The answer, at least this day, was obvious: big enough to bring all these people together.