Ghosts in story on Catholic schools: real or imagined?

I’m intrigued.

That’s my reaction after reading a front-page New York Times story this week on Roman Catholic schools in the U.S. actively recruiting Chinese students — “and their cash,” as the Times’ online headline put it.

WAYNE, N.J. — When she arrived at DePaul Catholic High School to join the class of 2014, Di Wang hardly lacked for international experience. The daughter of a Chinese petroleum executive from Shaanxi, she had attended an elite summer camp in Japan. She knew firsthand the pleasures of French cuisine. Her favorite movie was “The Godfather.”

Her worldly exposure, though, did not extend to the particulars of a Roman Catholic education. Ms. Wang, 18, got her first lesson on that inside the school’s lobby. Gazing up at an emaciated Jesus hanging from a wooden cross, she was so startled she recalls gasping: “Oh, my God! So this is a Catholic school.”

She is hardly an anomaly. American parochial schools from Westchester County to Washington State are becoming magnets for the offspring of Chinese real estate tycoons, energy executives and government officials. The schools are aggressively recruiting them, flying admissions officers to China, hiring agencies to produce glossy brochures in Chinese, and putting up web pages with eye-catching photos of blond, tousled-haired students gamboling around with their beaming Chinese classmates.

Two basic assumptions seem to underlie the piece: First, the recruiting of Chinese students is mainly about bolstering “often-battered finances” at parochial schools. Second, while the international students are exposed to Catholicism, the schools’ religion really doesn’t make much of a difference in their lives or future outlook.

I’m intrigued because I can’t tell after reading all 1,300-plus words whether those assumptions are, in fact, the real story or simply the way the Times chose to frame it.

In my own reporting on schools such as Westbury Christian in Houston, which is associated with Churches of Christ, I have found administrators extremely open about their desire to lead foreign students to Jesus. But perhaps Catholic schools take a less direct approach. Or perhaps the Chinese element makes everyone — school officials, students and parents — more cautious in what they say.

From the Times story:

Today at DePaul, 39 of the 625 students come from China. Besides courses like chemistry, European history, studio art and chorus, they also take theology, lead Christian service club meetings and attend monthly Mass, where they can approach the altar to receive a blessing from the priest during communion but cannot partake in the sacramental wafer because they are not baptized.

But could they be baptized if they chose? Have any taken that step?

More:

The schools do not require the students to convert. But, several school officials said, they must be respectful during prayers, enroll in mandatory theology courses and fulfill required Christian service hours, which means, for example, tutoring low-income students in a church basement or serving the hungry at a Catholic soup kitchen.

However, from the perspective of the school officials, is conversion a desired outcome? Do administrators encourage the Chinese students to accept the Catholic faith as their own? How do the students react?

The Times confronts such questions in a roundabout way:

Jiacheng Wang, a senior at John F. Kennedy from Ningbo, a coastal city, said he left China to obtain a well-rounded education in the arts and sciences. “I wanted to have time to do the things I love,” he said, including drumming and singing. He said that the school’s religious affiliation played almost no role in his decision to enroll, but he now finds the school’s daily prayers calming. Sometimes before bed now, he prays alone.

“I believe in science,” Mr. Wang said. “But now, I’m kind of 50 percent Christian. I start to believe this God stuff.”

Asked during a phone interview from China whether she believed her son would convert, his mother, Li Qijun, 46, replied dismissively in Mandarin. “That won’t happen.”

As for her own religious beliefs: “I don’t have any,” she said. “I’m a party member, a Communist Party member.”

The piece ends this way:

Theology teachers tend to pass fleetingly through sticky terrain. The church’s position on abortion, which directly opposes that of the Chinese government, is one such area.

Ms. Wang, who plans to attend college in the United States, says she has enjoyed learning about church doctrine, which she sums up like this: “Do good, avoid evil.”

Sitting in the school library on a recent morning, donning one of DePaul’s black fleeces, she said her interest did not extend further. She intends to remain an atheist. Still, now, she does sometimes pray. “Thank God,” she whispers to herself, “for this beautiful day.”

Still, I’m intrigued.

Is the atheist student featured representative or simply one who best fit the assumptions? Are there real ghosts haunting this piece? Or am I imagining them?

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • PalaceGuard

    Are there, just possibly, any students from quietly Christian Chinese families who have been sent to the schools so that they may actually learn about and practice their faith in relative privacy and freedom? There really are Christians, and Catholic Christians in China!

  • Julia B

    Palace Guard: that’s what I was thinking, too. It’s dangerous for Chinese to be openly Christian – especially Catholic. And it is a sure job-killer for upper level Chinese. High school students would know this and probably were drilled by parents to be careful what they say that could get back to the powers that be in China. It would seem that Catholic schools in this country would be very careful not to expose Chinese students to danger by saying this was a religious mission to provide a religious education to secret Catholic kids. On the other hand, maybe most of them are not Catholic – the reporter is not going to be let in on contrary information.

    A few other comments about details:

    - Most Catholic high schools are not “parochial”, which means parish-associated; they are almost always run by a diocese or a religious order. I’ve noticed quite a few media pieces where the reporter thinks “parochial” means Catholic or religious. There are some HSs run by large or well-off parishes – then “parochial” would be an appropriate term. Better to just call them “Catholic”.

    - Re: cost. Diocesan or true parish high schools have set-ups where parishes are required to kick in X amount of dollars for each student from that parish or some other way of determining the parish contribution. A truly well-off parish might be asked to contribute more. This spreads out the tuition cost to benefit families with less resources. This doesn’t apply if the school is run by a religious order (unless some arrangement is made with the diocese) or the student’s parents are not parish members – so their tuitiion is higher.

    - It isn’t a “sacramental wafer” – that’s Protestant talk. After being consecrated it is then called a “Host” or “Holy Communion”.

    - Having non-Catholics students is definitely not a new thing. My Catholic HS in East St Louis, IL had some back in the 1950s and that increased over time until the school closed. It wasn’t to get the students’ money; it was a service to parents who wanted a stricter or safer school for their daughters. I’m not aware of any of them converting., but I know that’s how Archbisop Gregory of Atlanta became a Catholic in Chicago.

    • AuthenticBioethics

      Good points. Also, some schools are independent, and would receive no special funding from the diocese, parish, or any religious order.

  • Jen G.

    Julia: Regarding cost, looking at the International program the HS we are thinking of sending our kid to – the cost for international students is roughly twice the amount for Catholic families (19K as opposed to 10K) plus processing and housing fees. They say they have 100 kids from around the world, but pictures look like it is mostly Chinese or Korean. I get the sense from the program description that the target group are families who hope to get their kids enrolled in American universities so want courses that will map over and a chance to develop strong English-language skills.
    I’m sure the school sees it internally as a mission, but international students are a bread-and-butter industry for both secondary and post-secondary institutions as you can charge much more (and expect to receive it).

    • Julia B

      There’s another aspect to wanting Chinese students. China is now a international powerhouse and our students don’t have many Chinese speakers to practice with. The 19 yr old next door, who studied Mandarin at his Jesuit HS, searched long and hard for a college where he could really learn Chinese for business purposes. Think of the great experience the American kids at these Catholic schools are getting through their inter-action with the Chinese students. It’s invaluable and might get them into prestigious universities, too.
      When I was 19 I did a summer program at the Sorbonne for US students. I did fine with only one semester of French. But that’s because I lived with French people and had a French boyfriend – we talked to each other using dictionaries. Lots of fun and we all learned lots. I learned enough that I could translate important French scientific papers for the Neurology department back at a med school in the states.
      Then in 1969 as a military wife in Seoul on a tourist visa with 2 little kids, I lived on the economy with no Americans in my neighborhood. I had a housegirl for $1/day to help with the kids, the housework, and just surviving in a very foreign environment (husband was 150 mi away on a little missile base and couldn’t get away much). She worked for so little b/c we spent a lot of time trying to converse using dictionaries. What she learned from me in that year would help her get a good job in a company that traded with the US. I also chatted with the Korean lady next door whose husband was at the UN in NYC. She wanted to be well-prepared to join him & she took me to very cool Korean places I would not have gone to otherwise as a thank-you. Like learning flower arrangement at a women’s university and having dinner with her Korean lady friends.
      I’m really surprised nobody has thought of this. Cultural exchanges are more often accomplished in settings other than official programs labelled “cultural exchange” experiences. Everybody benefits from accepting foreign students.
      Geez, I have a nephew who worked at a bank in Romania for a year! It eased his way into a job with Deutche Bank opening banks all over the world – his ability to function in a truly foreign culture led to a great job.

  • FW Ken

    Hey! My godsons went to Westbury Christian and graduated there. It was a good experience for the whole family.

    I can’t think of any journalism to tag on, except I bet it was a heck of a story, Bobby. ;-)

  • Julia B

    Jen G.: Nearly half of the population in Korea is Christian. There were persecutions of Catholics in the 1800s with many beheaded.
    I noticed the mention several times about student getting more liberal arts in the US. That’s really true. Schooling in the East is very heavy on rote learning.
    Even in the sciences, there are advantages to schooling in the US. A friend of mine is helping Korea set up an accelerator. He has noticed that Koreans don’t speak up and ask questions or disagree with superiors which he says is holding them back in spite of being very smart. It’s the many centuries of Confusian pecking orders. Schooling in the US might help with that, too.


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