Though 13-year-old Christopher Serrao studied long, complicated and obscure words for hours on end to win a prestigious spelling bee, the most important word in his arsenal had just five letters: F-A-I-T-H.
Christopher, a resident of Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, and member of the town's Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, joined seven other contestants in taking home a trophy and $50,000 grand prize May 30 in the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee in National Harbor, Maryland.
A seventh-grade student at Readington Middle School, he had been inspired by his older sister, Danielle, to compete in the annual test of knowledge and endurance.
Studying word roots and language patterns two to three hours daily, and longer on weekends, helped enlarge his vocabulary and sharpen his spelling acumen, but Christopher relied upon his faith to get him into the winner's circle.
"When I was nervous, I said a prayer to God and would hold the cross in my hand. I also wore a rosary around my neck," Christopher told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Diocese of Metuchen.
Christopher said his pastor, Father Leonard F. A. Rusay, "told the congregation that I was in the contest and had everyone pray for me."
Christopher is a member of the parish choir and a lector. Danielle is a cantor and sang the national anthem at the spelling bee the day Christopher competed.
Daily 8 a.m. Mass on competition days in nearby St. Columba Church in Oxon Hill, Maryland, also reinforced his faith. "They were really nice," he said. "The congregation prayed for me. The community was really supportive."
This is the third time Christopher qualified for the national competition. He finished in 34th place last year. He and the other seven "octo-champions" survived 20 rounds of competition, 12 of them in the evening. He spelled "cernuous," (which means pendulous or nodding), before being declared one of the eight winners.
With the money he won, Christopher plans to "maybe buy a dog, but save the rest for college." But the lessons he said he learned throughout the whirlwind experience were just as important: to be calm, how to study and how to deal with the media. Then, he returned to that all-important word: faith.
"My win is a reaffirmation of the power of prayers," he said. "When the odds were against me, I knew faith in Jesus and prayers would help me overcome any obstacle."
"We are proud of the effort Christopher put in and the gracious God-loving attitude he has displayed throughout," said his father, Dominic.
"We didn't expect him to win, even though we knew he would place well. We truly believe that his feat was a miracle that can only be attributed to God. We believe with God all things are possible and this has reaffirmed our faith."
"This journey began seven years ago with our daughter, Danielle," said his mother, Matilda. "There were a lot more downs than ups along the way.
"However, our faith carried us through. This win has strengthened our faith even more and that our God is the one that makes impossible things possible."
Christina Leslie is a reporter at The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Diocese of Metuchen.