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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