For new convert, learning to forgive was key on journey to Catholic faith

Raj Venugopal, a catechumen who was baptized during the Easter Vigil at Our Lady of the Lakes Parish in Waterford, says his new faith helps him to forgive his parents for their decision to abort his sister decades ago. Though Venugopal, a native of India, still struggles with the experience, he believes God’s mercy conquers sin. (Michelle Samartino | Special to Detroit Catholic)

Struggling to forgive his parents for aborting his sister, Raj Venugopal says God ‘opened the doors’ to bring him peace and newfound faith

This is the first in a series of profiles on new converts who entered the Catholic Church at this year’s Easter Vigil in Metro Detroit. For others in the series, check back weekly. 

WATERFORD TOWNSHIP — The seeds of Raj Venugopal’s Catholic faith began as a little boy in India.

Although raised Hindu, he attended the local Catholic school, Avila Convent Matriculation Higher Secondary School in Coimbatore, India, where his parents knew he would receive a good education. 

It was when he was about 7 that he experienced “my first encounter with God,” Venugopal, 46, recalled. “I went to chapel for the first time, but I didn’t know how to pray. My story starts from there.”

It was with a heavy heart when he described the turning point in his life, one that affected him very deeply. “It was one of the most critical incidents in my life,” he said.

He, along with his father, mother and brother were on their way to the hospital, but as a young boy, he wasn’t sure why. Sitting in the backseat, he asked his mother the reason why; she said she was going to have her “tummy clean.” 

“I was so surprised when she said that,” he said. “I wondered, ‘Why?’ We always looked forward to having someone else in the family.” 

Once his parents discovered they were to have a girl, his mother said the family couldn’t risk having the baby, where, in upper-class India, boys are preferred. 

In India, there are an estimated 15 million abortions every year.

He remembers playing on the hospital grounds until the procedure was over. “For me, that was a big turning point,” Venugopal said. “Life was extinguished. There was no one who stood for my unborn sibling. That was a shocking experience.” 

As a catechumen at Our Lady of the Lakes Parish in Waterford Township — Venugopal was baptized at the Easter vigil this past weekend — he admitted he struggled with forgiveness, especially when it comes to his parents. He looks to Christ for guidance. 

Venugopal’s family grew up in the caste system as upper-class Hindus, where one’s class is determined by birth. He remembered going to his grandfather’s farm, where there were “untouchables.” “We used to serve them water by pouring it over their hands,” he said, and it unsettled him. “I couldn’t understand what they were going through.”

Growing up in upper-caste India, Raj Venugopal says he witnessed many injustices that caused him to question the values he was taught as a youth. It wasn’t until he discovered the Catholic faith after moving to the United States that he learned God’s mercy can help him forgive those in his own life. 

He said he looked forward to the day when this would make sense to him. An avid reader, Venugopal yearned to learn more about the Catholic faith, which led him to study more about Christianity. 

He came to the United States in 2000 and attended Arizona State University, earning a master’s degree in electrical engineering, and eventually married. Today, he works at Harman on car audio systems, and he wrote a major portion of the audio system software for GM vehicles.

Though Venugopal is divorced, he remains close with his mother-in-law and father-in-law, Lynn and Tony Matell, who were significant influences on his road to becoming Catholic. Though Tony Matell passed away in 2017, it was at his funeral at Our Lady of the Lakes where Venugopal felt a “strong call” to the faith. “He was such a father figure; that funeral service was very touching. I thought, ‘If I become Catholic, I’ll get a chance to hang out with him in heaven,’” he said and smiled. 

Lynn Matell, who is also one of his sponsors, said she is proud of Venugopal and his desire to join the Church. “Raj did a lot of reading and studying of various religions before making his decision to convert to Catholicism,” Matell said. “I am so proud that he made an educated, calculated, inspired decision to join our faith. 

“I am extremely happy and excited that as a Catholic he will be held in God’s graces forever,” she said.

For Venugopal, the biggest struggle has been to learn how to forgive his parents. Since his move to the United States, his father has passed away, and he is not close with his mother. 

Part of moving forward, Venugopal said, comes from praying the Lord’s Prayer, especially where it says: “Forgive us for our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

“When Jesus was crucified, he asked his father to forgive them. In that agony, he found it difficult to forgive, so he outsourced the forgiving to God,” Venugopal said. “This was solace for me. And I asked the Lord to forgive my parents. It was hard for me, but He gave me the courage and strength to move past this.” 

It hasn’t been an easy journey. Learning so much about the faith through Our Lady of the Lakes has been enlightening, though, and he is grateful to those at the parish who have helped him. “They opened their doors to me,” he said. “My first meeting was there, and I spoke about my unborn sibling. My story is different, and they were so welcoming.

“They are also praying for me. I can use all the prayers,” he said and smiled. 

Venugopal is currently learning how to pray the rosary, and he is thrilled at the opportunity to receive Christ’s Body and Blood for the first time.   

“I will go to Mass and I plan to be there every week and become more involved,” he said. “It’s been a long, long journey, but it feels like coming back home. I am still on this journey, but prayer helps, and right now, I can say the Lord’s Prayer without too much emotion. For me, Christ opened the doors.”